[iDC] New Songdo City

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Wed Sep 6 11:17:56 EDT 2006

[An article from The New York Times on New Songdo City in South Korea  
- Regards, Mark]

October 5, 2005
Korea's High-Tech Utopia, Where Everything Is Observed

IMAGINE public recycling bins that use radio-frequency identification  
technology to credit recyclers every time they toss in a bottle;  
pressure-sensitive floors in the homes of older people that can  
detect the impact of a fall and immediately contact help; cellphones  
that store health records and can be used to pay for prescriptions.

These are among the services dreamed up by industrial-design students  
at California State University, Long Beach, for possible use in New  
Songdo City, a large "ubiquitous city" being built in South Korea.

A ubiquitous city is where all major information systems  
(residential, medical, business, governmental and the like) share  
data, and computers are built into the houses, streets and office  
buildings. New Songdo, located on a man-made island of nearly 1,500  
acres off the Incheon coast about 40 miles from Seoul, is rising from  
the ground up as a U-city.

Although there are other U-city efforts in South Korea, officials see  
New Songdo as one apart. "New Songdo will be the first to fully adapt  
the U-city concept, not only in Korea but in the world," said Mike An  
via an e-mail message. Mr. An is the chief project manager of the  
Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority, the government agency  
overseeing the project.

In the West, ubiquitous computing is a controversial idea that raises  
privacy concerns and the specter of a surveillance society. (They'll  
know whether I recycled my Coke bottle?!) But in Asia the concept is  
viewed as an opportunity to show off technological prowess and  
attract foreign investment.

"Korea has gathered the world's attention with its CDMA and mobile  
technologies," Mr. An wrote, referring to digital cellular standards.  
"Now we need to prepare ourselves for the next market," which he said  
was radio-frequency identification, or RFID, and for U-cities. South  
Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication has earmarked $297  
million to build an RFID research center in New Songdo.

Fulfilling this ambition, to a large degree, resides with John Kim, a  
35-year-old Korean-American who leads New Songdo's U-city planning.  
Mr. Kim is vice president for strategy at New Songdo City  
Development, a joint venture of the Gale Company, an American  
developer, and POSCO E&C, a subsidiary of South Korea's giant steel  

Mr. Kim, formerly a design leader at Yahoo, said the city's high-tech  
infrastructure will be a giant test bed for new technologies, and the  
city itself will exemplify a digital way of life, what he calls "U- 

"U-life will become its own brand, its own lifestyle," Mr. Kim said.  
It all starts with a resident's smart-card house key. "The same key  
can be used to get on the subway, pay a parking meter, see a movie,  
borrow a free public bicycle and so on. It'll be anonymous, won't be  
linked to your identity, and if lost you can quickly cancel the card  
and reset your door lock."

Residents will enjoy "full videoconferencing calls between neighbors,  
video on demand and wireless access to their digital content and  
property from anywhere in Songdo," he said.

Whether it lives up to its billing as an exportable city of the  
future - its critics fear another planned-city disappointment like  
Brazil's capital, Brasília - New Songdo will most likely be a chance  
to study the large-scale use of RFID, smart cards and sensor-based  
devices even as Western societies lag in this next wave of computing.

"There are really no comparable comprehensive frameworks for  
ubiquitous computing," said Anthony Townsend, a research director at  
the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., and a former  
Fulbright scholar in Seoul. "U-city is a uniquely Korean idea."

New Songdo, a free-enterprise zone where English will be the lingua  
franca, is often called the largest private real-estate development  
in the world. When completed in 2014, it is estimated that this $25  
billion project will be home to 65,000 people and that 300,000 will  
work there. Amenities will include an aquarium, golf course, American- 
managed hospital and preparatory schools, a central park (like New  
York's), a system of canals (like Venice's) and pocket parks (like  
Savannah's), a self-described patchwork of elements gleaned from  
other cities.

People from Seoul and other crowded South Korean cities are already  
applying for apartments, and planners are counting on luring  
attractive businesses.

The technology infrastructure will be built and managed by Songdo U- 
Life, a partnership of New Songdo City Development and the South  
Korean network integrator LG CNS, which is recruiting foreign  
information-technology companies as partners.

"This is a profit-generating model, unlike other U-city projects,"  
Mr. Kim said. "Songdo U-Life will charge building owners for  
facilities management and act as a gateway to services. Our partners  
will test market services that require, say, wireless data access  
everywhere or a common ID system, without having to build anything  

More philosophically, "New Songdo sounds like it will be one big  
Petri dish for understanding how people want to use technology," said  
B. J. Fogg, the director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford  

If so, it is an experiment much easier to do in Asia than in the West.

"Much of this technology was developed in U.S. research labs, but  
there are fewer social and regulatory obstacles to implementing them  
in Korea," said Mr. Townsend, who consulted on Seoul's own U-city  
plan, known as Digital Media City. "There is an historical  
expectation of less privacy. Korea is willing to put off the hard  
questions to take the early lead and set standards."

Two things Mr. Kim insists on are that U-life will not be used to  
test "junk" and that the digital services will be designed around  
people's needs rather than around the technology. "We'll be doing  
marketing and ethnographic research, digging deeper," he said. As  
part of that research, Mr. Kim asked the Cal State students to submit  
ideas for U-life.

While New Songdo's publicity material states that it seeks to avoid  
the "stressful flaws that compromise" existing cities, Mr. Townsend  
says he doubts that it will be able to emulate the creative energy  
of, say, Seoul. "Will it really be a place where people want to  
experiment?" he asked.

South Korea perceives an economic imperative in the answer. "Korea  
has a very strong I.T. industry, but our other economic sectors are  
not so good," said Geunho Lee, a senior research fellow at the Korea  
U-City Forum, a public-private group involved in supporting U-city  
projects across the country. "We need to test the business validity  
of these services in order to generate new value and economic growth."

The ability to do such vast market testing is enviable, said Dr.  
Fogg, of Stanford. "This is a competitive advantage for the Koreans,"  
he said. "They will know before anyone else what flies."

"But I foresee that many services will fail," he added. "That's the  
nature of experimentation. They should be prepared for the frailties  
of human nature to emerge."

mark shepard

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