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Songdo: South Korea’s Smartest City?

songdo south korea

Smart city. City of the future. High-tech utopia.

These are the words that were sprawled across almost every article we read about the newly built city of Songdo in South Korea. So, while we were prepared to see something different, and perhaps a little advanced, we were not expecting to step out of the train station into a place that felt, well, very much not like Korea – at least not the Korea we’d been experiencing over the previous month.

Home Sweet… Songdo?

city of songdo south korea

We probably would never have made our way to Songdo. We certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time there, but we had accepted a house sit through TrustedHousesitters.com and it allowed as a look into a new, unique and totally unexpected area of South Korea. For 6 weeks we stayed in this interesting, new city and got to see a totally unique side of South Korea, and city-life in general.

Our first glimpse of Songdo was pretty much exactly like the pictures of the small models used to design it – bright green trees lining the areas around modern looking buildings not yet marred by time and the elements. After a more thorough exploration we’ve come to see it as a sort of Sim City-esque community, with its strategic, pre-designed and perfectly placed residential and commercial buildings, centralized recreation centres, international schools, numerous parks and some fancy touches.

In fact, there are quite a few fancy touches. Fountains, ponds, and statues pepper the city and drawing on some of the world’s “best” cities, Songdo has installed similar features. It’s as if that crazy-haired mayor, hands-a-waving, popped up on a screen every so often and gifted someone with things like a Central Park, a Sydney Opera House and the canals of Venice (and for those of you who don’t know, we aren’t referring to the actual mayor, it’s actually a reference to the early days of Super Nintendo and Sim City… we may be dating ourselves with that one).

tribowl songdo south korea

We really felt as though we stepped out of the Korea we knew and into some pseudo-version of a North American suburban city. Before we left to travel, we lived in a city near Toronto, Canada, called Mississauga. For us, this feels like a very similar, albeit fancier, version of it.  There’s even a shopping centre called “Square One”, just like the major shopping mall in Mississauga, a short distance outside of the city.

We’re Not in Korea Anymore Toto!

songdo international business district south korea

Perhaps the reason we don’t really think of Songdo as typical Korea is because it wasn’t built to be such. Designed to attract international business and relations, it is a very “foreigner-friendly” area. English signs and translations are easily found and the entire feel for us was outside of what we had experienced during the rest of our travels in Korea.

It’s clear that Songdo was made in effort to accommodate and develop international interest. In fact, there is even a flag street – so dubbed because of the many international flags that line the centre of the road. We tested out our flag-knowledge on this street, walking from the start of the flags to the end, happy with our ability to recognize many of the countries represented until we realized that there was no Canadian flag! How could this be? We’re the only country allowed a whopping 6 months landing visa, there’s a whole host of us teaching English here and yet… no flag?

We decided to go on a mission, to verify we hadn’t just been tired or hungry or mistaken. Check out our great Canadian flag hunt down the streets of Songdo and how we took matters into our own hands!

Around The World

songdo south korea flag street international

We touched on it briefly, but some features of Songdo have been inspired from great cities around the world. They’ve taken the wide boulevards of Paris when designing their streets and a modern canal system based on Venice. They also built an expansive Central Park, inspired by the one in New York, a system of parks throughout the city like those in Savannah and a convention centre in the style of the Sydney Opera House.

Songdo also boasts the tallest building in South Korea, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, next to the Songdo Convensia (the Sydney Opera House looking convention centre) and a pretty solid transit system via train and bus, into and out of the city.

The construction of the city is still not complete so it will be interesting to see what else pops up as they go! It’s definitely looking to pull in some unique characteristics and a fusion of familiar architecture and features.

Gizmos and Gadgets A Plenty!

songdo central park canal south korea

Not only is Songdo intended to be a global business hub, a designated Free Economic Zone, it is also the first new sustainable city in the world designed to be an international business district. It was once muddy tidal flats until large-scale land reclamation allowed for the development of the city.

Songdo has some pretty futuristic looking buildings! We love how different it looks and love some of the interesting implementation of technology in order to make this city “smart” and sustainable.

But what does it mean to be a smart and sustainable city?

Wikipedia defines a smart city as one that “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”

Basically, a smart city uses modern technology and data collection in order to create a sustainable city where costs and consumption (including waste, emissions, energy, etc) are reduced but quality of life is improved.

Songdo has been developed on these principles and has some interesting features including an extensive 25 km of bike lanes, an advanced technology infrastructure, natural gas fueled central and city-wide co-generation facility for clean power and hot water, energy-efficient LED traffic lights and energy efficient pumps and motors.

We’ve even heard of a TelePresence system that allows home-bound (and probably not so home-bound) residents the ability to video-conference a wide range of services including medical and health care, beauty consulting and remote learning, although we didn’t get to see this in action.

Interesting to us was the centralized underground waste system for wet and dry waste. This underground disposal system eliminates the need for garbage trucks and also allowed us to walk around the hot and humid summer months in Songdo sans the typical odours one equates with city living, garbage and the summer heat.

We were also impressed, even when we were slightly overwhelmed and frustrated, by the extensive recycling and sorting system. EVERYTHING seems to have it’s own area for recycling and disposal.

The city was also pleasantly and literally green. With 40% designated open space, many trees and parks, the city felt less like a concrete playground than would be expected with all its tall buildings and futuristic structures.

Is A Smart City Really So Smart?

songdo south korea smart city

But, this ideal of a smart city doesn’t necessarily equate to that of a utopian society. In fact, many criticize the attempt to create such a city and have concerns as to exactly how much individuality and control citizens would have over their own lives should these smart cities become commonplace. Imagine, a city laid out perfectly to direct traffic flow, shopping and spending habits, and all the everyday choices and decisions we make. Imagine a soulless city of cookie-cutter concrete buildings and a central computer system driving behaviour based on algorithms and formulas that dictate the best flow for efficiency.

As Richard Sennett discusses in his article on TheGuardian.com, No One Likes A City That’s Too Smart, the dangers in these smart cities is that these “information-rich cit[ies] may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.”

We find this concept of a smart and sustainable city incredibly fascinating and look forward to finding more cities attempting to do the same. We’d like to see the pros and cons, see whether there is truth in the benefits of the advancements made or in what Sennett describes as the soullessness of the cities that are created. Rio de Janeiro, he says, is a good compromise with its “co-ordination” of systems in place in order to aid in emergencies and natural disasters rather than the “prescription” of behaviour in the many other cities moving towards a “smarter” existence.

We’ll be looking to visit Rio in Brazil, Masdar in the UAE and other developing smart cities in an effort to see what they are all about, and see if Sennett is right in his final statement of the article:  “We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.”

songdo south korea smart city

We noticed that soullessness in Songdo. At times, it seemed bleak and desolate. Perhaps it was just the fact that the city was eerily devoid of human presence on the streets during weekdays and in the evenings and well, the sky was rarely without smog and clouds. But perhaps it was more than that. There was a strong sense of structure and rigidity to the area, a square of a community that had us walking around the perimeter and rarely breaking out from beyond the “prescribed” neighbourhood and facilities within. In fact, people seemed to rarely break out of the prescribed behaviours and expectations of the culture and community.

Perhaps, however, this soulless, cookie-cutter existence isn’t just present in smart cities. We’ve noticed throughout our travels in Asia, and back home in North America, a tendency to “fall into place” to accept the expectations of where to shop, where to live and how to live.  Cookie-cutter housing isn’t unique to Songdo or other like-cities.

Perhaps a “prescription” of behaviour already exists within each community and culture. We adopt and accept the cultural mores and expectations of our surroundings. We work to blend and to “fit” and rarely do we care whether it is coming from internal needs for acceptance, external pressures from peers or that controversial digital command centre of smart cities. So perhaps, we’re already primed. Already receptive to dictates of behaviour. These smart cities may just be a more eco-friendly, efficient way of doing the same thing we always do.

Back To The Future of Songdo

Songdo Northeast Asian Trade Tower South Korea

The development of Songdo, a $35 billion dollar venture, is still underway with still a portion of its construction remaining. By the time it is finished, Songdo will boast even more incredible features including more fine hotels, a luxury retail mall, museums, and the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.

Getting to Songdo

If you’re looking to get to Songdo you can get there by bus or train.  By train, the best stop is Central Park Station on Incheon Line 1. This will allow you to explore the park and the surrounding area before venturing into the rest of the city.  Check out Life In Korea for a list of buses and routes from, and around Songdo, and from Incehon International Airport.

 

What do you think of the concept of a smart city? Are cities like Songdo leading to future Utopias? or is the concept of Utopia just as imagined and unreal as it was when  it was first discussed by Sir Thomas More?

 

 

53 replies
  1. Omo and Eulanda
    Omo and Eulanda says:

    Loved reading this post guys! This is definitely one city that I recently took an interest in based on my overall research interest into smart cities. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote: “The dangers in these smart cities is that these “information-rich cit[ies] may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.” An over reliance on technology loses sight of the goal of influencing human behaviour to solve real problems. At a conference I attended recently, one of the speakers said, “Smart cities which do not help their people become smarter are not a very appealing idea.” I guess time will tell whether our cities function like droids without a soul. By the way, well done on raising the Canadian flag…the backing track to the video has some tight beats! 🙂
    Omo and Eulanda recently posted…We’ve been Liebster-ed: Our first Blog Award!My Profile

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Smart cities have really interested us since our stay in Songdo – it will definitely be interesting to see what happens as more and more are built. We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a Canadian flag anywhere so we had to raise one! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Nancie
    Nancie says:

    Having gotten used to the general messiness of Korean cities (I’ve lived in 4) I’d have a hard time getting used to living in Songdo. I can’t really see the average Korean embracing it either. Then again, it doesn’t really sound like it’s a city for the average Korean. It sounds like it will develop as an international hub, which (I think) will attract the movers and shakers in Korean business. The big question is can any city in Korea be a smart city as long as the government insists on using Internet Explorer! 🙂
    Nancie recently posted…Cute Shots of Kids From My Travels: A Photo EssayMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Haha, good point! And we don’t think it’ll be a huge draw for the average Korean though there is a large population of local Koreans in the area. But you can definitely tell the contrasts when you pit the international design, structure and appeal with the cultural behaviours and norms of the Korean people. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out as more and more foreigners move and travel to Songdo.

      Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      We were REALLY hoping we’d find a flag SOMEWHERE in Songdo but nothing in 6 weeks! Ah well… And it’s definitely a place we would recommend visiting. When it’s finished it’ll have even more to see and do!

      Reply
  3. Jolanta | Casual Travelers
    Jolanta | Casual Travelers says:

    I admit I had never heard of Songdo until I read your post. But then again, my knowledge of Asia is shamefully poor. I do like your photo, and like the idea of so much green, though, on another hand, where does the smog come from if the city is so green (and smart)? City planning is a fascinating subject, and I am sure in time Songdo too will develop its own culture, and won’t be so cookie cutter anymore. We shall see. But the problem still remains how to make already existing cities smart. THAT is a bigger challenge than designing from scratch brand new cities.
    Jolanta | Casual Travelers recently posted…Taking the Cross Sound Ferry = #betterthandriving (much better)My Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      That is absolutely the most difficult – how to integrate these systems in an already developed infrastructure. It’ll be interesting to see how major cities, new and developing, grow and utilize these kinds of technological advances. We are curious about the smog as well… seems to be a constant across the country although we’ve only ever heard of it referred to as “fog”.

      Reply
  4. Jen
    Jen says:

    What a funky place! You have made me quite curious. And I’ve been considering getting more involved in house sitting – exploring places that I haven’t yet considered is part of the reason. More inspiration to get out there. Looks like it worked out well for you.
    Jen recently posted…Hungarian Potato and Sausage SoupMy Profile

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  5. Natalie Deduck
    Natalie Deduck says:

    Very interesting!! To be honest I have never heard about Songdo, but I liked the idea of a super smart international city in Korea. Every week I read something new about the country and we start to considerer visit Korea next year, before we leave Asia… Thanks for sharing the info and your feelings.

    Everybody believe that smart cities are the future, but can we really guess our needs for the future?? Perfection doesn’t exist in real life so make a “perfect” city sounds like boring hell… hahaha… Although using the technology to make our daily life easier and practical are a urgent need in all countries!
    Cheers,

    Nat

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Great way to say it – we don’t really know our future needs! If you do visit Korea, it’d be a great stop if you can fit it in and we’d love to see photos of all the changes – we noticed new things popping up even during our 6 weeks there!

      Reply
  6. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    What an interesting place! I find it interesting that they’ve taken elements from other places to create an efficient city. We’ll see as it expands if it continues to work. I do wonder though if it lacks a little character though.

    Reply
  7. Jennifer Ryder Joslin
    Jennifer Ryder Joslin says:

    It is so interesting to hear about your experience living in a Smart City! I had never even heard of these. The eco-friendliness and efficient waste management system sound great, but I see the other point about cities like this being potentially soulless. How was your housesitting experience?
    Jennifer Ryder Joslin recently posted…Scam Story BurmaMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      The city was such a different experience and something we’re still torn about. We had an AMAZING experience housesitting. We fell in love with the cat, had a great place to enjoy 6 weeks of stability and work (online) and had a great home base to see the sights and explore. We’re hoping to pick up another house sit sometime soon – may just be our favourite way to live like locals and work while we travel!

      Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Very true. The green space is as planned and maintained as the rest of the city – it’s not a terribly “natural” environment and there’s been some controversy over using the area as it is around (and built on) tidal flats used by many waterbird species.

      Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It’s still under construction. It was built on reclaimed land off the coast – tidal and mud flats – just over a decade ago but was only “open” in 2009. It is sterile but really interesting as well.

      Reply
  8. JoAnne Simson
    JoAnne Simson says:

    Great photos! Sounds like you folks are having a great time, traveling all over the world!
    I lived in South Korea for two years (1999 – 2001) and traveled all over the country, but I never visited (or heard of) Songdo. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t there? An Atlantic article suggests it’s been built since then! http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/songdo-south-korea-the-city-of-the-future/380849/
    FYI, here’s a link to book on my two years in Korea. http://www.amazon.com/Korea-Are-You-Peace-Travelers/dp/1458210383/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

    Reply
  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    It sounds similar to Dubai’s eco city Masdar. There are a few of these cities around the world attempting to use all the latest technology. Interesting enough I just read an article about Barcalona being a smart city. Obviously it is not purpose built, but they have retrofitted and built a lot of technology to make it smart- it uses sensors and software to automate and “optimise” everything. A lot of it is funded by the tech companies that want to use these cities as reference sites to sell their technology to other cities. It sounds interesting to visit.
    Elizabeth recently posted…Ephesus, Pamukkale and BergamaMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Very similar to Masdar and yes, it looks like many cities are starting to move towards tech-savvy, “smart” technology. Will be interesting to see where the future takes these larger cities!

      Reply
  10. Kimberly Erin
    Kimberly Erin says:

    Ahh see that looks really lovely. As I come from a small town, I have never been one for big cities, and Korea has that reputation of dirty, big, polluted city….but this looks like something I could handle. Nice.

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Each sites will charge a membership – monthly or yearly – but, for instance, we paid around $80 after our promo code discount for a year and we’ve already had 6 weeks of house sitting which makes it more than worth it for us!

      Reply
  11. Gabby | The Globe Wanderers
    Gabby | The Globe Wanderers says:

    What a different and intriguing place! It looks and sounds completely different to the Korea I envisage. Love that you found it and got to explore through house sitting – such a fantastic concept. Did you find it easy to get accepted for your first house sit? Before building up references and whatnot? Thanks for a really interesting post 🙂
    Gabby | The Globe Wanderers recently posted…Self Drive Adventures on Fraser Island (and 4 of the best bits)My Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Since they have an option to request references from outside sources, we passed along contact information for previous employers and other people we had done housesits for through friends and family (the site sends the request and questionnaire and does the verification). So we had a few character references and a full profile. That may have helped! It wasn’t too long before we got our first house sit! Being the first to respond goes a long way as well and we check new listings pretty frequently.

      Reply
  12. Stacey Valle
    Stacey Valle says:

    I went to South Korea two times, one just not so long ago. I saw this on the map, but I didn’t think of visiting there because of other priorities, like Seoul and Busan. I didn’t know it’s a Smart City! This would be an interesting place to stop by, because when I saw the photos, it looks like entirely different vibe comparing to Seoul and Busan!

    I also never thought of housesitting! This would be another great experience 🙂
    Stacey Valle recently posted…Visiting the world’s most heavily fortified border: The DMZMy Profile

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