News story by Hannah Bae, Seoul
Near Seoul, a new city rises from the mud flats, aiming to become a world model of sensor-activated, computer-driven management of an entire city.
SONGDO, South Korea – Designed as a “city within a city” – in this case, the port city of Incheon, just west of South Korea’s capital in Seoul – the Songdo urban development is expected to become a bustling hub of efficient global commerce, education and research and development.
What happens when you build a city from scratch – or, rather, from mud flats?
The result isn’t instantaneous. Right now – the spring of 2011 – the reality, following more than $10 billion of the estimated eventual $35 billion invested over seven and a half years of construction, is clusters of skyscrapers amid a giant construction site, only just starting to show signs of life.
However, 2011 will be a big year for Songdo, as the city takes major steps toward becoming one of the most technologically advanced urban spaces in the world.
Wired from the ground up
Songdo, as its developers envision it, will run entirely on a network of computers embedded in homes, offices and public spaces throughout the entire city, hence “ubiquitous technology.”
“Foreign investors come and ask me about the ‘ubiquitous city’ and how it will be different from an ordinary city,” said Lee Jong-cheol, the commissioner of the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority (IFEZ), the branch of the Incheon metropolitan government tasked with attracting investment to Songdo.
Speaking from his office in Songdo’s ambitiously named Techno Park, a complex of shining, but sparsely populated office towers built to one day house research and development institutes, Lee explained, “You cannot imagine how much more convenient your everyday life can be.”
For example, in an office building equipped with such technologies, when an executive drives into the building’s parking garage, the computerized parking system uses license plate recognition to identify the driver as a VIP, directs the car to a free parking spot and cues the elevator. Based on the executive’s radio-frequency ID tag, the elevator already knows which floor to go to and the office door is open and waiting. Finally, data prompts the office’s lighting, climate-control and workspace systems to configure themselves automatically.
City-wide, wired by Cisco Systems
Such an intricate network needs an architect, so IFEZ has enlisted the services of U.S.-based Cisco Systems to exclusivelycreate a network backbone and provide citizen services to the homes and offices of Songdo’s International Business District (IBD) for broad popular access.
Working with the American real estate and investment firm Gale International and South Korea’s Posco Engineering & Construction, Cisco will begin to operate its first building in Songdo’s IBD deployed with its “Smart+Connected” brand of technologies in August.
Speaking from the sleek Sheraton Incheon Hotel in the center of Songdo, Jean-Louis Massaut, Cisco’s customer solution director for Smart+Connected Communities, said what sets Songdo apart is its sheer scale.
“Smart+Connected Communities are not something new for Cisco,” he said. In fact, Massaut personally worked on an ultra-advanced office building in Dubai just like the one described above.
“But Songdo is the first project that we’ve done at the city level, that is so far advanced.”
The idea, Massaut said, is that with the Songdo IBD, Cisco has been able to provide its input in the very design of each building so that it can seamlessly integrate its technologies.
“If you use the same cable to connect all the components, instead of having each of the subsystems have their own cable infrastructure management system, you can create interactions between components in the buildings that you would never have dreamed of,” he said. Not to mention, such efficient coordination of technologies means lower emissions.
According to IFEZ Commissioner Lee, Cisco sees Songdo as a gateway to the global market in ubiquitous technologies, even though the city’s current population of some 34,000 can only use a “tiny part” of the promised services at this time.
Massaut admitted that all this coordination, such as reviewing design documents with architects and giving builders specifications for subsystems, is time-consuming.
“This is the reason why it’s a bit slow to materialize, but we are getting there,” he said.
If you build it, will they come?
While Stan Gale, the chairman and managing partner of Gale International, was willing to sign onto Songdo when it was little more than a remote stretch of sea in 2001, attracting other investors has proved a challenge for IFEZ.
“Obviously, we’ve been haggled by people, from journalists to the central government, that we haven’t attracted enough FDI [foreign direct investment],” said Cha Myung-hae, director of IFEZ’s Global Service Center.
IFEZ has rolled out a three-stage development plan for Songdo, the first of which, an infrastructure development period, was completed in 2010.
“But we were building bridges, reclaiming land – who was going to come in?” she explained. “We didn’t have the setting to encourage foreign or domestic investors to come in and work with us.”
Since then, the completion of a bridge, expressway and subway stations have remedied most access problems, but South Korea’s notorious regulatory barriers also stymied Songdo’s development temporarily in the past.
Halted construction on the IBD’s centerpiece, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower (NEATT), made headlines in 2009 when the South Korean government changed a real estate law, prompting major overseas and domestic investors to pull out. Commissioner Lee was able to resolve those financing problems late last year, and the NEATT is now slated to open in March.
Higher education invests
One major source of investment has come from educational institutions, both local and international.
For Seoul-based Yonsei University, in exchange for being the first to agree to open a campus in Songdo, it received a steep discount in land price of its 152-acre campus, plus 65 additional acres for free for revenue-creating commercial and residential use.
The campus opened partially in September for a handful of staff, but gets its first influx of 500 students in March, said Kwon Nu-ri, a member of Yonsei’s international campus administration.
“It will be good to finally have people around here,” she said as she gave a tour of the pristine, mostly empty lecture halls and dormitories in January. In start contrast to the touchscreen- and sensor-rigged buildings that were completed, much of the campus still consisted of walled-off construction sites and the path to the nearest subway station remained unpaved.
In a departure from Korean university protocol, where most students commute from home, all of Yonsei’s students will live on-site. It remains to be seen how students will entertain themselves on an empty, if high-tech campus – a recent tour revealed only a café and convenience store as completed commercial space.
Eventually, the Yonsei campus will house branches of foreign universities including the University of California-Berkeley, Emory, Keio University and the University of Warwick.
In addition to the Yonsei campus, Songdo has made headway in attracting more overseas universities to its separate Global University Campus, where they will provide their regular degree programs.
“We provide the facilities for the global campus and cash support,” Cha from IFEZ said, estimating cash incentives per school at around $1 million. “It’s not as if they’re putting a lot of money into building and doing everything – they just have to come in with their teachers.”
Among the arrivals will be the U.S.’s Stony Brook University, which begins operations this year, and George Mason University; Belgium’s Ghent University; and Russia’s Moscow State University.
Cha expected that rather than Songdo’s campuses drawing from institutions’ home countries, they would instead attract students from nearby Asian countries in search of a foreign degree.
“We’re trying to adapt more schools and more programs,” she said.
As it stands now, Songdo is still a long way off from becoming the “city of the future” of its designs.
Kwon, the Yonsei University administrator, who lives in Songdo, said at this point it doesn’t feel any different from living in a standard South Korean suburb.
Also, despite a new transportation infrastructure, Songdo is still relatively remote. A subway ride to Songdo from Seoul takes at least an hour and a half. Despite developers’ claim that the city is now a 15-minute drive from Incheon International Airport, true travel time, even without traffic, is in the 20-30 minute range.
This means a much lower population. The lunch rush in Songdo is a sprinkling of office workers in comparison to the sidewalk-clogging crowds in Seoul.
But it’s getting there,” Cha from IFEZ said. “When I first came here two years ago, I thought I was in the middle of a construction site. But it doesn’t look like that anymore.”
Songdo does stand out for its remarkable attention to design and quality of life. Its parks – including the 100-acre, Manhattan-modeled Central Park – are spacious and pleasant. Even in subzero temperatures, residents are out on strolls and bike rides.
Unlike standard Korean apartment complexes, which are reminiscent of housing projects, Songdo’s resemble glossy mosaics bordering the sweeping silver eaves of the city’s space-age convention center.
While optimistic forecasts talk about a 10-year plan for Songdo, Cha is more pragmatic.
“We believe that it will take longer, approximately 20 to 25 years,” she said, for the project to reach true fruition.
“But we’re over the first phase, and now we want to attract as much FDI as we can. I think from this year on, we’re going to expand tremendously in numbers."
Hannah Bae is a freelance journalist based on Seoul. A former intern at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, she first came to Seoul through a Princeton-in-Asia Roxe Journalism Fellowship.