“Songdo, we have a problem!”: Promises and Perils of a Utopian Smart City


By 2050, the UN estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. For this reason, the European Green Deal calls for the transition of cities to smart cities – cities which, by leveraging technological strategies, manage to make public services more efficient and thereby improve the quality of life.

Throughout the world, many urban projects have claimed to be exemplarism of green smart cities, but are they really under every point of view? One of the grandest and daring innovations is known to be the Songdo International Business District. This is a $40 billion smart city project developed by Gale International and POSCO E&C in collaboration with Cisco and other international tech companies. It has frequently been touted as a smart, green, low-carbon city, which istechnologically efficient and saves large amounts of energy at one time. Songdo IBD was built following a high-tech utopian dream, but unfortunately the results have not exactly been up to expectations. In fact, Songdo not only is still partly incomplete, but also is very sparsely populated. This is not only due to the low number of citizens, but also for the relatively little relevance given to the so-called “human factor”.

A picture containing outdoor, city

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Credits: Pixabay

If smart cities are conceptually devised with the only focus of implementing cutting-edge technology for more efficient services, there is the risk of creating an environment prone to the alienation of citizens. Hence, a pivotal aspect to take into consideration is the necessity of preventative and thorough ethical assessment to be carried out when developing smart city projects. A plausible path forward may then be that of giving precedence to human-centred design in any smart city project. In fact, by emphasising the human factor, there would be greater chances of containing the excessive intrusiveness of technological surveillance, a-moral automation and techno-control.

What is a “smart city”? For some, it is defined as a city which, by combining architectural and technological strategies, manages to create innovative and optimal solutions for public services. For others, it is an ambition towards more democratic and sustainable communities. By 2050, the UN estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. For this reason, some supranational policies such as the European Green Deal call for the transition of cities to smart cities. In these terms, a smart city is often seen as a hub of sustainable innovation and social inclusion. For instance, a study undertaken by McKinsey Global Institute found that smart city technology can enhance quality of life by 10% to 30%.  

Throughout the world, many urban development projects have claimed to be exemplarism of green smart cities, but are they really under every point of view?

In this respect, one of the grandest and most daring innovations is known to be the Songdo International Business District. This is a $40 billion smart city project aiming at the creation of a completely smart, green and low-carbon city. Interesting to notice is the fact that, only 10 years ago, it was just a pile of sand, and that the location choice was mainly based on the distance from crucial business areas in the greater city, not giving much attention to the local communities’ needs. The project was developed by the Manhattan-based Gale International and POSCO E&C of Korea, who have engaged world-class experts in international architecture, engineering, design and technology such as Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arup and smart city leader Cisco.

To this day, the city is more than halfway through construction and hosts around 70’000 people, even though the project is still partly incomplete due to some difficulties in getting off the ground. 

The promise is to dedicate at least 40% of land to green areas equipped with self-sustaining irrigation systems, such as a 101-acre Central Park (yes, like the one in the Big Apple!), and to be the city with the greatest number of green buildingsin the world. The city has already achieved the milestone of constructing 22 million square feet of LEED-certified spacein 118 buildings. It is impressive to notice that, by end of this year, the city should also manage to achieve a 76% rate of waste recycling. This would amount to yet another significant “sustainable” accomplishment, also taking into account that the overall energy use per person in Songdo IBD (40%) is up to 40% less than in other cities.

However, the city of Songdo was built following a high-tech utopian dream. The urban environment, packed with highly sophisticated sensors which capture pollution levels and even citizens’ movements, resembles a sci-fi movie set. In fact, the city hosts fewer citizens as compared to those originally expected. Some overly critical people have even compared it to Chernobyl for its sense of emptiness (Pettit and White, 2018).

Here is how Songdo represents a radically new concept of city: designed with extreme efficiency, totally artificial, apparently without poverty or degradation.

Credits: Pixabay
Credits: Pixabay

The Songdo project is a revolutionary one in the smart cities’ scenario, in its peculiar attempt at realising “the city of the future”. However, Songdo is still seen as a “cold” city by many of its inhabitants. This is not only due to the low number of citizens, but also for the little relevance given to the “human factor”. In fact, along with significant improvements in the urban technological infrastructure (e.g. sensors, IOT’s, AI devices), we should consider at the same time the quintessential role played by the citizens’ community in the urban environment. If smart cities are conceptually devised with the only focus of implementing cutting-edge technology for more efficient services, there is the risk of creating an environment prone to the social alienation of citizens, who may gradually get used to pervasive technological control and lack of human interactions. Hence, a pivotal aspect to take into consideration is the necessity of preventative and thorough ethical assessment to be carried out when developing smart city projects. A plausible path forward may then be that of giving precedence to human-centred design in any smart city project: by emphasising the human factor, there would be greater chances of containing the excessive intrusiveness of technological surveillance, moral automation and techno-control.

This article has been written by the students of the Luiss new Msc in Law, Digital Innovation and Sustainability in the context of the class of Law and Policy of Innovation and Sustainability taught by Professor Christian Iaione. The cluster “Urban regional development” is composed of the following students: Piero Inghirami, Benedetta Pontecorvo and Francesca Vetturini.


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