Korea, home to the smartphone brand that your friends argue is better than an iPhone and this whole K-Pop and Korean drama thing your daughter is suddenly into. Roughly 50.22 million people call this country home, consisting of landmass of 223,170 square kilometers. Korea is fast becoming a Seoul-ful (I made a funny!) nation with large exports of culture and electronics that half your home is probably filled with, its economy ranks 11th in the world.
Why are we talking about Korea? Well, because Korea is ranked number 3 in the world’s smartest city and ranks number 1 in Asia according to IESE.
Many of its cities from neighbouring countries (including us) drool with envy of its lightning fast internet speed. On top of that, in 2012 Seoul started distributing second-hand smart devices to its citizens. Riding on its strong technology infrastructure as its backbone it is unsurprising that their approach in smart cities is more technologically oriented.
The key to becoming a smart society is ’communication’ on a totally different level. A smart city, for instance, involves communication between person and person, people and agencies, and citizens and municipal spaces, with human beings always taking the central position in everything. A smart city is also characterized by its unprecedented level of sharing”.
-Park Woon-Soon, Mayor of Seoul
Seoul’s interconnected train network and robust bus network not unlike Japan’s is a prime example of why it is considered one of the smartest cities in the world. Though at initial glance it may seem impossibly complicated, there are actually mobile apps available in which you can key in which you can choose your destination and it’ll advise you on which bus and train to take, when it’ll arrive and when you’ll reach your destination.
Yeah that’s great and all, but what if your mobile phone has no data plan?
Good point skeptical reader, good point. However it is a non-issue as Seoul is largely blanketed by free WiFi. Though not everything is rainbows and unicorns in Seoul, despite its sophisticated public transportation system Seoul still suffers from traffic congestion during rush hour. Many believe that this is caused by Koreans identifying cars as a status symbol. Although it is far quicker to get to the city centre via public transportation, many still opt to drive their cars to work compared to our European counterparts who both cycle and utilise their public transportation system.
This serves as a great cautionary tale for city leaders, technology is great but more often than not it only serves as an enabler for a city to truly be smart, civic engagement and a cultural shift is completely necessary.
It is considered blasphemous if one were to speak about smart cities in Korea without talking about Songdo. Completed in 2015 I had the pleasure of visiting the city myself to study this city that The Guardian labels as the first Smart City in the world.
To the uninitiated, Songdo seems like any other city, but upon closer inspection you’ll notice several impressive feats about Songdo. The walkability of the city is highly impressive, when I was in Songdo I could literally walk from one end of the city to the other end of the city (though it is more advisable to do so during fall, unless you want to freeze to death during winter). With a city that’s so walkable, it is no wonder that many Korean’s are skinny, on that point it is also interesting to note that there are many studies done by several universities around the globe that suggests that there are close links between urban design and obesity. Bicycle lanes are also connected throughout the entire city
Much like Seoul WiFi is ubiquitous, and unlike Seoul there are many vibrant public parks throughout the city. Payment systems in Songdo are also very sophisticated from your large retail chains to your moms and pops stores ,electronic payments are widely available. Traffic in Songdo is also close to non-existent, though to be fair that could be either its public transportation system or the fact that the city is still fairly new.
There are much more than meets the eye when it comes to Songdo, on top of its sound urban design there’s also a layer of technology, sensors and networks that remains invisible to the residents from an interconnected waste management systems that are sucked out directly from people’s apartments to telepresence enabled learning and work.
All these seems really utopian but there’s a catch, Songdo is considered a greenfield smart city, which means it is built from the ground up compared to some of the existing cities like Tokyo which is considered a brownfield which undergone a series of improvement projects and retrofits. The argument to really consider here is, is it really a sustainable way to go about our resources to abandon existing infrastructure and completely build one from scratch?Wouldn’t it consume more resources compared to just retrofitting?
It’s far easier with legacy and aging infrastructure yes, but is this really the way to move forward? The question remains unanswered as there’s simply not enough data on this new city.
About the Author
Vincent Fong is the General Manager of Knowledge Group and a self-proclaimed pundit of Smart Cities
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