View over Songdo IBD. Source: Matthias Walach.
Right before a friend boarded his plane to visit me in Seoul in early fall 2016, he sent me one last text: ‘When I come to visit you, we must go to Songdo Business District!’ Slightly puzzled about his excitement about this ‘Songdo’ place neither my South Korean acquaintances nor I had ever heard about, I turned to the Internet for quick help: “Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD) is a smart or ‘ubiquitous’ city that was built on reclaimed land masses along Incheon’s coast, approximately 35km away from Seoul…”
Luckily, I stopped reading more beforehand. This way, when I found myself stepping off the train one week later, I was able to explore Songdo with almost zero expectations. A few glimpses of the shiny and modern urban architecture and its wide pedestrian-friendly streets were sufficient to make me believe I was starring in some kind of utopia-come-true movie. In fact, no matter what you envision when hearing the blurry term ‘smart city’,
Songdo can hardly disappoint you.
With a generous budget of $40 billion, the construction of Songdo IBD kicked off in the early 2000’s, based on a tight master plan
negotiated by few carefully selected South Korean and international stakeholders. As a key anchor district of the Incheon Free Economic Zone
it was designed as an eco-friendly business, settlement and research hub
on an area covering roughly 600 hectares.
Without doubt, its strategic location, allowing you to reach one third of the global population within less than 4 hours, and attractive fiscal benefits
make it an ideal show stage for global business activities. At the same time, with a plethora of recreational and educational offerings, strict sustainability regulations and green urban design
its creators aimed to compensate for the social and environmental ills caused by modern urban life
. All of this is powered by the latest sensor and data technology.
But there is this thing about utopias. You might get this cringy, sceptical feeling of ‘This is too good to be true.’ Once diving into the details behind Songdo’s construction, you might discover that Songdo is in fact a living contradiction. Some of these contradictions are simply nice-to-know facts, while others will most likely reinforce your scepticism even more.
Songdo IBD is praised for several ‘firsts’
, reaching from first sustainable city in the world, first LEED-certified city
in South Korea or first master-planned ‘sustainable eco-city’ that serves as a business hub. To pick up the previously mentioned term ‘ubiquitous city’
, Songdo was further declared the first larger urban project to realize the U-city concept, in which data gathered from omnipresent computers in residential, recreational, culture and business areas are shared in real-time. Certain smart technology or architectural components, however, have been 'recycled' by drawing on already proven structures as a source of inspiration such as New York’s Central Park, the Canals of Venice or Sydney’s Opera House.
Wide avenues and pedestrian walks, an efficient public transport system and massive green areas which make up 40% of the total area
allow for a convenient getting-around and an escape from the capital’s busy ‘pali-pali’ culture
. Recreational and cultural offers such as the Arts Center, Lotte Mall or Jack Nicklaus Golf Club serve to foster the sense of community among residents. At the same time, the far stretched, clean architecture and an unexpectedly small population
let public areas seem almost lifeless. While such calmness might be attractive to families
or the elderly, younger generations
have shown to prefer living in more vibrant cities such as Incheon or Seoul and commute to Songdo IBD for work. One might wonder if Songdo faces the risk of becoming a ghost town
instead of turning into a vibrant community.
While environmental, social or philanthropic related praise often dominates the discourse
on smart cities such as Songdo IBD, its enormous business potential
is easily forgotten: The idea for Songdo originated while a desperate South Korean government was fighting the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis
and was searching for new economic growth engines
– and while being pressured by the rise of an economically powerful China
. Considering the fact that Songdo is realized with high capital involvement from the US-American real estate sector, chaebol-type South Korean corporates and a post-developmentalist government, the impression that Songdo is in fact nothing but a capitalist project is further reinforced. Additionally, hopes are high that Songdo becomes an exportable success model: With ‘Smart City as a Service’ (SCaaS)
South Korean urban planners aspire to become high-on-demand actors in a new lucrative industry.
The exploration of Big Data and Internet-of-Things technologies offers high improvements for individual comfort and security in urban spheres. Residents can easily pre-heat their homes
while being in town, watch their children play
from afar via surveillance cameras or receive traffic or accident warnings
on their phones. This on the other hand raises issues of digital responsibility
such as data privacy, data storage
and public availability
. Further, Songdo is surely not the place-to-be for everyone since less digitally literate individuals might become excluded from reaping the benefits of technology. Lastly, one might wonder how the need to continuosly use digital devices to be able to live in Songdo will affect common health concerns in modern South Korea such as high levels of smart phone dependency
and the physical effects
connected to it.
These contradictions, which are by no means all you will find, reveal that there is no need to uncritically romanticize urban projects such as Songdo IBD, no matter how tempting it may be. Being initially intrigued by a friend’s excitement and blinded by the first impressions during a short visit, it took me several rounds of deeper engagement to grasp at least the cornerstones of what this urban mega project is about. But then again, don't the contradictions Songdo IBD raises paint it even more fascinating, by providing endless learning opportunities for involved stakeholders and better future enthusiasts? Should we maybe look at it as a living laboratory and base for discussing how we want to live in the cities of tomorrow?