Are Smart Cities Promise Of Sustainable Development, Or An Eery Utopia?

Building new “smart cities” could help solve two major current problems: rapid urban population growth and unsustainable living practices, including inefficient water and electricity use. These problems are pressing, as the biggest threat to human kind is global climate change, and smart cities bring new technologies that offer a bold, robust solution. As for urban population growth, there remains scope for increasing the density of existing cities, but urban agglomeration has been making city living unaffordable for many, particularly the young. Building new cities from scratch could create new, affordable living space. For these and other reasons, hundreds of new smart cities are being constructed today. 

An example of such a city is Songdo, South Korea, whose construction began in 2000 and is due to be completed in 2022. As of 2018, it already had a population of over 100,000 and was beginning to form a social scene. The project was initially a reaction to the 1997 Asian financial crisis as a way to attract foreign business into South Korea through close connections with the airport, and a strongly western influenced city design. In fact, the project was developed by a New York City based private real estate company, and designed by the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). 

The promise of a city rising from a blank slate of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea was extremely attractive. Not only could it make economic sense for Korea and East Asia in general, but it also held promise of becoming an example for future sustainable smart cities, and as a tool for fighting climate change. According to the KPF, Songdo has used specialized technology to produce 70% fewer emissions than other cities of it’s size, which is quite remarkable. It was also designed to tackle some of the other problems of major cities, such as crime (by implementing CCTV cameras all over the city to detect suspicious behaviour), isolation (by improving intercommunication between buildings through video conferencing technologies), and garbage disposal (by eliminating waste through underground tunnels leading to a sorting facility). The city also encourages bikes and pedestrians through 25km of bike lanes, pleasant green spaces and even a canal where boat services are available. Everything is thought through – from security, to social well-being, to sustainability to education to business attractiveness and practical aspects like proximity to the airport (10km) and Seoul (60km). It’s so perfectly planned and futuristic, it almost feels utopian. However, unsurprisingly, like any city, this one also has its flaws. 

Some of Songdo’s main criticisms are based on the fact that in order for Songdo to be a smart city it has to rely heavily on technology. Although this may reduce its carbon footprint and make life more efficient, there are two dangerous side effects: the hackability of technology, and the sacrifice of personal privacy. In Songdo, everyone is monitored in order to prevent crime and incentivize good civil behaviour. However, this means that people are always being watched. Anything that could be regarded as suspicious behaviour will be documented, and there will be data on everyday life, everyday routines. CCTV cameras can even be used to watch your children play in the park from a screen that is installed into each apartment. Devices installed into the apartments are also used to monitor heating, water consumption, video conferencing, even door locks and waste removal. Data is being collected everyday and everywhere, and if hackers get their hands on the data of these residents, they will have information on every possible aspect of their lives, and would be able to tamper with the technology that they rely on every day.

The other common criticism of Songdo is in regard to culture, where there seem to be two main issues: the “ghost city” phenomenon that may come with building an entire city without any established history, and the homogenization of cities due to the use of western technology and design. Older cities like Prague, Paris or even Vancouver have had time to evolve into unique cultural blends based on their history and functions. Songdo, however, lacks the rich night-life and the art and music scene that are treasured in the world’s most interesting cities. Instead, everything is new, and the city consists of modern skyscrapers that have no history or intrigue. The city is beginning to look similar to the central business districts of cities that look shockingly uniform in many ways, like Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong and New York. Songdo’s designers picked the favourable parts of many cities around the world to bring it into one; Central Park of NYC, the canals of Venice and a performing arts centre inspired by the Sydney Opera House. Although taking what has been known to work and combining them all into one perfect city may seem foolproof, the formula lacks the important ingredient of originality that comes when these elements are built to suit a specific city at a specific time.

Songdo views itself, and is viewed by many, as representing the essence of the smart city of the future. As such, it is tempting to assume that its potential flaws will carry over to other smart cities. However, this does not follow, because some of the flaws of Songdo may reflect design choices rather than intrinsic properties of smart cities. To find out whether Songdo’s problems justify an indictment of the smart city concept per se, rather than just avoidable mistakes, it is necessary to differentiate between the two. 

Firstly, consider the way in which Songdo uses technology. The choice of ubiquitous CCTV cameras to keep crime rates down is a design choice. To the extent that the people living in Songdo prioritize safety over privacy, it may be a good choice, but future inhabitants may not agree. Just because CCTV seems like the obvious option to lower crime rates through technology, it is not the only option, and other smart cities do not necessarily need to follow in Songdo’s footsteps. Hence, lack of privacy does not seem intrinsic to the smart city concept. 

The hackability of information technology, however, is indeed intrinsic to smart cities. Technology is what makes them smart, and networked technology is inevitably hackable. This seems an unavoidable flaw in the idea of smart cities. If there is anything that could lead to the failure of a smart city in the future, it would be a massive cyberattack. This said, this is a problem that is increasingly shared by other cities. A cyberattack on the Baltimore city government computer systems in May 2019 shut down local public services for several weeks. The fact that Baltimore is a historic city did not help. Furthermore, private homes in advanced countries are increasingly making use of security technology such as Ring, and smart home technologies like Alexa,. Google Assistant or Nest. In December 2019, a number of hacks into Ring security systems were reported in the United States. Hence, while technological vulnerability may be a problem that is intrinsic to smart cities, it is not unique to them. 

In contrast, one characteristic is clearly both unique and intrinsic to (new) smart cities is their lack of history. The question, however, is whether this is necessarily a problem. Lack of history means that any culture and “vibe” will need to be created from scratch, but it does not imply that it cannot be created. Furthermore, lack of history is, by definition, a temporary phenomenon. Cities like Washington D.C or Brasilia are in some ways the Songdos of the past. At some point D.C, too, was only a skeleton of infrastructure to suit the functions of the nation’s capital; it took time and history for it to evolve. While Washington may not match New York or London in terms of dynamism and diversity, it certainly matches or surpasses many other historically grown cities of similar size in both North America and Europe. Songdo may grow to develop a thriving cultural scene based on the room that the designers gave it, including its many open green and social spaces. The city planners have attempted to create a base that would allow culture to thrive once established. The Park can be used as a platform for social gatherings and interactions. The lack of an established culture could even be a refreshing and exciting opportunity, like a blank canvas ready to be painted on by a new global community.

There is also no reason why smart cities should necessarily be homogenous. The choice to design Songdo in a western style with inspiration from so many other cities does not mean that all smart cities will or should be designed in that way. On the contrary, smart cities offer an opportunity to create something new and excitingly different from other cities. While there is a risk that smart cities will copy each other, as well as successful Western or Western-style cities, this is a matter of choice and not intrinsic to the idea of smart cities. 

There is a clear rationale for smart cities but also are clear pitfalls. These include technological vulnerability and the lack of an established culture and social scene. However, most of these pitfalls can, in principle, be overcome by making the right design choices. Songdo’s current cultural gaps and privacy issues can not be used as an argument against the construction of new smart cities, because they could be remedied by the way in which these cities are designed. And some of the problems of smart cities are not unique to them: they reflect technological changes that are affecting traditional cities as well. In the end, smart cities offer promise: to create affordable living spaces with good quality of life while also providing a much more sustainable alternative to many other large cities.