“BRAVE NEW WORLD?” Discussing the ubiquitous city of Songdo at the Munich Creative Business Week.

On Wednesday the 8th of March 2017 the Munich Creative Business Week (March 4th-12th) hosted a special panel discussion on smart cities, “Brave New World?”, organized by Schnitzer& and moderated by the designer Sarah Dorkenwald.  The panel gathered many experts from different fields to discuss on the Smart City’s ability to offer an answer to the main urban issues that cities have to face nowadays, such as traffic, air pollution, urban heating, economic crises, immigration, sociodemographic problems, social injustice and much more. The topic was debated taking the case of the ubiquitous city of Songdo in South Korea as an example. Among the experts were also some designers and architects directly involved in the masterplan of Songdo, like Brian Girard, principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) with over 20 years of professional experience in designing residential, commercial, institutional, and cultural facilities in London, the United States and Asia, and the south Korean Minsuk Cho, an award-winning architect, founder of the Seoul-based firm Mass Studies. The futurist Cornelia Dhaeim, founder of the Future Impacts Consulting (Berlin) and Leiff Huff, executive designer director at IDEO’s Munich studio were also present. Furthermore, from the academia, Gerard Schmitt, professor of Information Architecture at ETH Zurich and Founding Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre in Singapore, and I, from the University of Milano-Bicocca, Department of Sociology and Social Research were called to connect the topic of sharing cities to those of smart cities.

Picture by: @Klaus Peter Segatz, Schnitzer&

The panel discussion questioned the nature and the implications of a city like Songdo, which is being designed since 2001 and is still in progress, built from scratch and hyper technological. Even if other cities were built in the same way, like Brasilia, Abuja or Canberra, Songdo is considered unique for its hi-tech environment integration. It has been designed with sensor to monitor temperature, energy and traffic and all the tech innovations are respectful of the environment (charging stations for electric vehicles, water recycling system, waste disposal system…). It is considered a U-City (ubiquitous), conceived as a future city
where everything is interconnected with everything else at anytime. There is U-Health, U-Governance, U-Education, U-Offices, U-Traffic, U-homes and so on. The core of the U-City is the Urban Management Control Center which controls any activity, maximizing the usage of resources and minimizing their exploitation. In addition, the district was part of the former President Lee Myung-bak’s strategy to promote low-carbon and sustainable growth, as the principal path for development in South Korea. Here 40% of the area is dedicated to outdoor green spaces for leisure; there are 16 miles of bicycle lanes, and a central park and waterways based respectively on New York City’s Central Park and Venice’s canals. Moreover, the Masterplan is organized in a way that makes workplaces, schools and leisure facilities reachable with a 15 minutes’ walk. The “green side” is not the only interesting aspect, since developers describe Songdo also as a “global business hub” “home to a variety of residential and retail developments”: it is situated in a free trade zone, officially part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, an area of 201km2 along the Incheon coast, which makes it attractive for foreign and domestic investors.

In a similar context many questions emerged spontaneously, and during the panel the participants widely debated about the possibility of this ubiquitous city to become a model for the future.

  1. Using the words of developer Stanley Gale we are facing the first “city in a box”: the entire urban development can be purchased and replicated for mere $40 billion and the city is completely reproducible; some experts (like Lindsay and Kasarda) referred to Songdo as “the experimental prototype community of tomorrow”. But, as it emerged also during the panel, the solutions “one size fits all” have already proven not to work; the forms of experimentation enacted in this space transform territory, population, truth and risks with implications for representative government, subjectivity and urban form.
  2. In addition, as discussed, a top-down, technology-infrastructure led smart city cannot be a real urban model for the future. When cities are planned and built by only relying on algorithms an organic approach is lacking, and gaps between the logic of engineers and the logic of the end-users are registered. For this reason, it is better to have an incomplete urban planning, able to change over time and to model itself on the requirements that move along. For this same reason the plan of Songdo is marked by intentional changes of scale, interruptions of geometry, and varieties of open space character. As underlined during the debate, heterogeneity, which normally occurs due to the vagaries of a historical process, here has been deliberately planned.
  3. Another controversial element is related to the private nature of the investments: the Masterplan and all the interventions are planned and built by the private sector, so they are profit-driven. An important part of KPF, in charge of the Masterplan, is to collaborate with clients and to listen to their needs. But who are the clients here? The clients are Gale International (an American real estate developer) and Posco (a South Korean steel company) and the city of Incheo, but there are also the citizens who will live in the city and that in a way should be considered as clients too…How to consider their needs and requirements if at the time of planning no one is living in the city yet?
  4. In addition, it seems clear that this kind of city is addressed to a specific target of people. People that decide to move here can of course afford the personal gadgets that smart cities take for granted (laptops, smart phones, reliable internet access). This entails an exclusionary city-making, that can exacerbate spatial segregation and lead to fragmented demographics, resulting in a city accessible only by the affluent class, that can afford international schools and medical centers.
  5. Leaving aside the issue of which target of people will the city attract, it is still important to focus on ongoing planning, a topic that was touched during the debate on Citizen Design Science, when the speakers underlined the prominence of a planning process able to facilitate a more holistic participatory planning and design approach, starting from big data (big data-informed urban design applied to a combination of citizen science with participatory design that lead to the Citizen Design Science).
  6. From Smart to Responsive: in this process of people involvement, necessary to have a really smart city, where technologies are the enablers that empower people to be smarter and co-creator of their community, the discussion moved on the topic of the responsive city. This is a city that engages residents and citizens’ prospective from the very beginning in the planning and in the management of their habit, based on smart city technologies, a strategy to put people and their needs at the center of the urban planning. In particular, the responsive city model is seen as some sort of circular system where various stocks and flows of resources (such as energy, water, people and human capital, space and information) circulate and need to be managed in a high-performing, cost-effective, resource-efficient and environmentally friendly way in order to be sustainable. A process that the city of Singapore for example is already experimenting with very good results.
  7. Talking about people, some questions arose in terms of the construction of the social fabric. In building a city with a computer-driven approach, some relevant aspects such as the social and cultural issues are often neglected, since the attention is on the physical aspects and on industry portfolios, and limited relevance is given to the idea of knowledge culture, social infrastructures and communities’ needs. Public participation become for this reason more and more crucial, since it can allow for the city to be shaped by a mix of technological, social, cultural, economic, political and organizational processes. Moreover, planners and designers should focus on developing an environment that best matches their image of prospective users and shape a sociotechnical environment in which social and technological aspects are intimately related to, and define and redefine, each other.
  8. In addition, in a planned city it is more difficult to develop an authentic urban identity, since it takes decades to build up. Just think to cities like Chandigarh, Almere, Bhubaneswar, built in the 60s or 70s, they are just starting now to develop a kind of unique urban character. The same will probably happen in Songdo, as people need to feel a sense of belonging to create a community, and it will take time. To favor this process, fueling social participation is of course an important step. At the same time, and always in a responsive dimension, the democratic approach should be playing a central role, also in terms of education (inclusive, free access, share knowledge, learn from feedback….) and should function as a base for a responsive city.
  9. In terms of participation and sharing of resources, a short reasoning has been made about sharing economy’s practices and services. In a hyper-technological context like Songdo the use of platforms for approaching services will be almost spontaneous, but sharing, in this way, risks to remain just a commercial and for profit advantage, losing its solidarity and community component. Only the ability to build a community among people will led to a real shared use of resources, and in this sense the government action will be a crucial element. In fact, the governance model that the city will decide to implement will make a difference both in terms of democracy and of community creation.
  10. The last point to be made is on the issue of safety vs privacy: the usefulness of big data in the management of fluxes in the city was one of the critical pints debated. In Songdo, every citizens will have a smart-card house key, to use for everything: pay a parking meter, see a movie, get on the subway, borrow a free public bicycle…it will be anonymous and in case of loss it will be easy to cancel the card and reset the door lock. This omnipresent technology can raise privacy concerns and also the specter of a surveillance society, but in Asia this concept is actually viewed as an opportunity to show off technological progress and attract foreign investments. People that choose to live in this city are aware that this high technological support guarantees safety at 360° and makes every activity easier, which is why people will be willing to pay the social cost of a more controlled existence.

The last open question addressed the future city as each of the panelists imagines it, and in the various answers there was a great agreement on few crucial words: connected, co-created, shared and democratic. The debate ended with the auspices of a future city which will be people-centered and marked by active participation.

The panel opened with the greetings of the South Korean Consul of Munich and closed with a networking Korean dinner and music.


L’8 marzo, durante la Munich Creative Business Week si è tenuto un panel sul tema delle Ubiquitous Cities, un interessante momento di confronto multidisciplinare tra esperti di diversi campi per ragionare sulla città del futuro guardando a Songdo in Corea del Sud come esempio. Tra high tech urbano, attenzione all’ambiente e infrastrutture sociali, il panel ha evidenziato l’importanza di creare le condizioni per una città comunque a misura d’uomo in cui la partecipazione attiva dei cittadini possa essere favorita e alimentata, anche a livello di pianificazione e co-creazione.