By invitation only: Songdo’s smart city promise for the selected few

Walking along the streets around Seoul’s City Hall, I am taken back to my childhood in Seoul. Every school day, without fail, vendors would flock to the school gate in time for persuadable kids to burst out of their classes – and have yet another look at brown sugar lollies in star shapes, cotton candies and tiny toys. How those men and women made each day interesting – they had all kinds of stuff, constantly changing but also consistently there. I never really had money to buy anything, but they certainly added excitement to an otherwise ordinary day and livened up the banal public realm.


All kinds of entrepreneurs

On the streets of Seoul, its informal economy is still well visible. A group of men and women have taken over a parking space as a temporary outdoor dining spot. Too busy engaged in a lively conversation over large pots of soup, they have no idea they are participating what some may call ’Parking Day’. Further down, an old man is handing over layers of flattened cardboard boxes for little cash. I don’t realise how difficult it would have been to earn that money until I see a different old man wearily pulling a cart packed with cardboard boxes along a 10-lane road. I pass neatly arranged pairs of men’s shoes at a shoe shine stall, which just fits one man and his toolbox in an area smaller than 1m x 1m. Then I bump into a chestnut roaster with a sign that says 5,000 won for 30 or 3,000 won for 15. I am good at grabbing a bargain and I ask the old woman for 30. She lifts her dark wrinkly face, but not quite high enough to make an eye contact, and starts counting. As I am getting out 5,000 won plus a bit more, thinking she could use it more than me, she finishes putting chestnuts into the white paper bag and mumbles “I put in 3 extra ones ok? Come again”. I feel embarrassed by my presumptuousness and walk away with a bag full of 33 freshly roasted chestnuts. To call her less of a business woman than I am, because I am supposedly more educated and wealthier, would be unfounded.


I am reminded of my brief but memorable conversation with the Nobel prize laureate Muhammad Yunus. He believes that everybody is a natural entrepreneur – it is not our tradition to send job applications. In the 70s his radical microfinancing strategy fostered entrepreneurship in poverty-stricken places where no woman was known to do much else than domestic work. Today his program continues to give the poor – mostly women – microcredit to encourage their natural entrepreneurship to flourish.

Entrepreneurship is such a buzz word now, and unfortunately many associate the term with start-ups and educated professionals, when it should be an accessible and open term for everybody.


Songdo’s smart city promise

Songdo is a city made from scratch, about an hour’s drive from Seoul – a city built on land reclaimed from the sea; a city with motion sensors, emergency communication buttons on the streets and monitors for stolen cars. Songdo promises a great lifestyle for professionals in the high-tech, logistics and medical/bio industries; and great education in five foreign universities; all in the convenient location within International Free Economic Zone and supported by the latest smart city infrastructure. At the New Cities Summit held there, I got to stand behind a large pane of glass and get a glimpse of the city’s ‘brain’ where all the data comes together to fill one massive screen for the city to respond in real time. It isn’t all clear how that data ultimately contributes to people’s wellbeing – but the screens looked pretty impressive.


And from my hotel room on the 9th floor, I got a glimpse of the life of the city, the bit that I am more interested in. Sterile, soulless, uniform, faceless. Those were some of the descriptions I read prior to getting there. They are all true. Uniform and anonymous high rises are difficult to tell apart. An array of national flags stands proudly towering over the 8-10 lane main road. Apart from Central Park, the city looks and feels private, like a massive gated community where an uninvited guest would be swiftly recognised, questioned and removed. After all the city has been described as  “the largest private real estate development in history”. The private sector ‘founders’ of Songdo (Gale International, KPF, Arup) explained at the Summit, that Songdo’s Central Park is a replica of New York City’s Central Park, and was named after it. It boggles my mind why the Korean government, any government, would ever agree to that. Whatever happened to meaningful places? What happened to authentic experiences? (See London School of Economics’ associate professor Hyun Bang Shin’s new chapter on ‘the fallacy of Songdo (Smart) City‘)

I am not sure if it is because the ‘founders’ didn’t understand the local context or simply didn’t care – but in Songdo, ‘culture’ is a replica of a thousand-year-old palace or Tri-bowl, a culture and art centre. (By definition, culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.) In contrast, in the old town of Incheon next door, domestic and international artists-in-residence have created something remarkable. Incheon Art Platform supports artistic talent – both professional and amateur – to engage and develop their skills. Their impact goes beyond the boundaries of the Platform, as former artists-in-residence set up their own studios in the neighbourhood and build on the unique character of the city. New cafes have popped up thanks to the new creative industry.

When you look at Songdo’s public domain carefully you start to see what’s missing – rather, who’s missing: it’s the creatives, older folks dining out in a parking space, women selling roasted chestnuts and men pulling carts with cardboard boxes. Brand new concert halls, high-end hotels and apartments make up Songdo, a city that is livable for the selected few; inaccessible for the rest.


A thriving city?

Over the past week, I have been thinking about what it means to be a thriving city: The theme of the New Cities Summit.

Songdo is not the city of tomorrow. It is a missed opportunity. It could have brought a cultural shift and created the most walkable and cyclable city in South Korea, not just LEED certification. It could have shared with the rest of the country what a participatory planning process looks like using smart technology. It could have been a city for all kinds of entrepreneurs to work with dignity instead of legitimising the exclusion of certain demographic groups.

A thriving city doesn’t just attract skilled entrepreneurs, it attracts unskilled ones too and give THEM an opportunity to upskill and contribute to the economy and their well-being.

Its citizens shouldn’t have to remain as passive consumers of the supplied ‘culture’. They should become active participants who contribute to the evolution of the place.


Humanising our cities

So is there hope for a place like Songdo? Absolutely.

On my last day in Songdo, I ventured out to where people live. Korean apartment complexes tend to be gated forming ‘danji’, so the feeling of being uninvited intensified as I walked through them.

Zigzagging through several danjis, I found myself in the middle of an open space. What looked like an abandoned land from afar, turned out to be vast cultivated fields of vegetables. Who’s tending these vegetables and whose land is it, I asked one of the cultivators on the field. “We are just local residents. This land was supposed to be developed into high rise apartments, but nothing has happened in the last two years. So we work the land, socialise while we look after our vegetables”, said a middle-aged woman I approached, “sure, I had some lettuce taken, but generally no one trashes our work”.

Walking around further, I saw several women working. In front of each plot: Signage that reads ‘Do not cultivate. Private land. Restore the land by 31.12.2016 or face legal consequences’. I am not sure what the red diagonal lines across the panel mean but I hope they were the result of a win-win negotiation.


What I learned from Songdo and what I continue to see time and time again in so many places all over the world is this: People will always find ways to appropriate their public realm if they see the opportunity.

To the naysayers who argue Koreans don’t like to have a say, because it is not part of their culture – they are looking at citizens that impeached a president through 7 months of candlelight protests. At a time where 1-2 year rental contract is common and building a sense of community is critical — We need to ensure genuine opportunities for people to be engaged and empowered exist.

Surely humanising our cities and empowering citizens to improve their lives comes before getting 5G ready.




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