Smart city or ghost city

Updated: Nov 2 2014, 07:22am hrs
ITS THE worlds first purpose-built smart city and the largest private real estate development in the world. Its called Songdo and it is located 40 miles outside South Koreas capital Seoul. Those who participated in the recent Asian Games in Incheon may have some connection to Songdo. The official name of the smart city is Songdo Business District and it is built on land reclaimed from the sea on the Incheon waterfront. There has been much global interest in Songdo since Seoul itself is already one of the most hi-tech cities in the world, but Songdo is unique, being built as an integrated hi-tech and green city.

Songdo is described as a global business hub with a variety of residential and retail developments. But at a cost of over $40 billion, questions are being asked about its viability and whether it can ever fulfill its conceptual ambitions. It sits on 1,500 acres of land and was designed and conceived as part of former president Lee Myung-baks drive to promote low-carbon and sustainable growth as the principal avenue for development in South Korea.

That aspect may be achievable since 40% of the area is dedicated to parks and outdoor spaces, including a central park based on the one in New York. Seoul may boast advanced technology in its infrastructureit is the world's most well-connected city for the Internetbut it is densely populated with few open-air areas for residents. Songdo offers urban dwellers something they do not have access to: green space for leisure. The district has been heavily promoting its 16 miles of bicycle lanes, its central park and its waterways, again based on Venices iconic canals. The district also boasts state-of-the-art urban infrastructure and is the first in Korea to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation. This means the entire development adheres to the strictest environmental standards for energy consumption and waste.

There is also the hi-tech Northeast Asia Trade Tower, Koreas tallest building. Indeed, because the district was built from scratch, it has given developers the opportunity to invest in technologies that have yet to debut in conventional cities, like Songdos smart rubbish disposal system, futuristic hardware that spans the whole complex. No rubbish trucks will be seen on the tree-lined streets of Songdo. Instead all household and office waste is sucked through a network of underground tubes to vast sorting facilities, where it is processed and treated. Eventually, it will be converted into energy.

It is still a work in progress, but signs of a smart city are clearly visible. The citys infrastructure contains sensors that monitor and regulate everything from temperature to energy consumption and traffic.

Essentially, the city can interact with residents on a one-to-one basis. These sensors canin theoryalert you, personally, when your bus is due. Or let the local authority know about any problems via a Skype-like video system. A lot of these innovations are designed with the environment in mindcharging stations for electric cars and a water-recycling system that prevents drinking water being misused. Because it was designed from scratch, Songdo is completely geared towards sustainability. So water pipes are designed to stop clean watersuitable for human consumptionbeing used in showers and toilets, and all of the districts water goes through a sophisticated recycling system.

For South Korea, Songdo is more than a hi-tech business district, but a template for future developments. It is the prototype for the green investment the government wants to build the economy on in the future. It is designed to appeal to foreign investors, but its manicured gardens and glassy towers also give it an unmistakable air of luxury.

This is the aspirational South Korea where your mobile phone controls the temperature in your apartment and allows you to monitor any security cameras. The city has been planned around a central park and designed so that every resident can walk or cycle to work in the business district. All that sounds great, but there is one key element still missing: people. Since its official debut in 2009, the district remains under-populated: less than 20% of the commercial space in the district has been occupied.

All the incentives are there. It is very well-connected, close to Incheon International Airport as well as Seoul and has commercial spaces equipped with advanced technology. Companies will have access to tax reductions, estate support and subsidies. No property tax will be levied for 10 years, followed by three years where businesses need only pay 50% of taxes due. Small- and medium-sized companies will qualify for rent reduction and employees of companies with over 30% international investment will be able to claim a variety of perks.

So far, Songdo has mainly been attracting families and young couples from Seoul looking for greener surroundings and a less stressful life, but without surrendering all the hi-tech facilities they are used to. Smart cities are the way of the future and Songdo has all the elements in place, but right now, it resembles a ghost town with most of its smart technology being under utilised.