Business Management

Hannah Bae (South Korea): We Built This City on... Technology

The following post was adapted from an in-depth article for, an independent, charitable organization dedicated to spreading objective, journalist-based information of cities’  innovations worldwide. You can find the original piece here.

Ask the average South Korean about Songdo, and they’ll probably roll their eyes.

For years, the Korean government and foreign press have gone positively gooey over Songdo, a giant construction site just outside Seoul that aims to one day become a “city within a city” that will serve as a world model of eco-friendly, sensor-activated, computer-driven urban management.

But the reality, following more than eight and a half years of construction, is clusters of skyscrapers – many of them still works in progress – only just starting to show signs of life.

“I don’t see how Songdo is high-tech or eco-friendly yet. You still can’t use any of those technologies,” said Sasha Kim, 21, a university student who has been living on Songdo, located within the port city of Incheon, for the past year.

The technologies she referred to are part of Songdo developers’ vision of a city running on “ubiquitous technology”: a network of computers embedded in homes, offices and public spaces.

It may be slow-going, but 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, remained starry-eyed.

“Foreign investors come and ask me about the ‘ubiquitous city’ and how it will be different from an ordinary city. You cannot imagine how much more convenient your everyday life can be,” he said.

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.

Such an intricate network needs an architect, so IFEZ has enlisted the services of U.S.-based Cisco Systems to exclusively create a network backbone and provide citizen services to the homes and offices of Songdo’s International Business District (IBD) for broad popular access.

What sets Songdo apart is its sheer scale, according to Jean-Louis Massaut, director of Cisco Services Korea.

“Songdo is the first project that we’ve done at the city level, that is so far advanced,” he said.

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.

According to IFEZ Commissioner Lee, Cisco sees Songdo as a gateway to the global market in ubiquitous technologies. The idea is that other countries could use this model of building new, high-tech cities from the ground up as global populations grow. As it is, though, Songdo’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.

As it stands now, Songdo is still a long way off from becoming the “city of the future” of its designs. Only time will tell.

By Hannah Bae, an American journalist based in Seoul. A former intern at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, she is a tech enthusiast. You can follow her on Twitter at @hanbae.


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