In The News

Very Smart Cities - Asia's Smart Metropolis

Sep
03
2009
Forbes
Elizabeth Woyke

South Korea's Songdo and China's Meixi Lake are spending billions on intelligent networks with an eco-vibe.

 SONGDO, South Korea -

 

John B. Hynes III got the jitters when he first spied the mudflats of Songdo, South Korea, in June 2001. How would he transform the expanse of muck into a smart urban center with an integrated network of utility, transportation, real estate and recreation systems?

Eight years and 82 globe-crossing flights later, Hynes is far more assured about Songdo's prospects. The man-made island, 40 miles southwest of Seoul, is now dotted with more than 100 buildings, including a 7,800-person apartment complex, a massive convention center and a Sheraton hotel.

Hynes' employer, New York-based real estate developer Gale International, estimates the 1,500-acre city is 40% underway. Completion is slated for 2014. The cost: $35 billion, making it perhaps the world's largest private real estate venture in history.

In Pictures: Songdo's Futuristic Vision

Songdo's backers, which include Gale, Morgan Stanley and Korean steelmaker Posco, are betting the city can become a northeast Asia trade hub, linking nearby Shanghai and Tokyo. It will also be a model for a new Gale project, Meixi Lake, to be built in China's Hunan Province starting later this year. Both cities will be "smart, sustainable and technologically ambitious," says company Chairman Stanley C. Gale.

To conform to the U.S. Green Building Council's energy-efficient LEED standards, Songdo buildings are incorporating special window glazing and ventilated double facades. Greywater and rain will be collected for irrigation and use in cooling towers. A network of underground pneumatic pipes will move solid waste, reducing the need for garbage trucks.

Songdo is also a petri dish for green transportation schemes. Water taxis already zip along the city's seawater canals. Soon, a citywide bike rental service modeled on Paris' Velibre system and a car-share system will be added. Buses powered by fuel-cells are expected within the next two to three years.

With its more than 40% green space, including a $220 million park, the city is designed to feel as airy as Vancouver. (Gale estimates Songdo will eventually house 65,000 residents and 300,000 workers.) Hynes is particularly proud of the park, which is dubbed Central Park after the New York City landmark. "Convincing the government and our partners that 100 acres of prime land should be reserved for a park was a tough sell," he notes.

Meixi Lake will be helmed by the same architects--Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Arup--and follow a similar philosophy, but with a 400-acre lake instead of a park.

Data networks developed by Cisco are key to both projects. The company plans to deploy video networking technology and energy management software tools city-wide and meld municipal systems, such as education, health care, transportation and hospitality into a common network. Wim Elfrink, Cisco's chief globalization officer, says Cisco has identified 20 services that could be linked, but will start with six or seven. The company declined to specify its investment in Songdo, but says it has committed $2 billion to South Korean projects over the next three to five years.

Residents will be able to chat with their children's teachers, consult doctors and apply for city permits and licenses via flat screen monitors in their apartments. Buildings will be intelligent enough to guide cars to available parking spots and queue up elevators as people approach. Hotels will recognize regular guests and automatically adjust room system settings.

The projects leverage Cisco's earlier work with schools, stadiums and utility grids. "All our expertise is coming together in Songdo," says Elfrink. Like Gale, Cisco views Songdo as a model it can replicate around the world. It plans to build a global center for "intelligent urbanization" in Songdo and work on 10 similar projects in places like India and Saudi Arabia over the next two years. "It's an adjacent business we expect a lot from," says Elfrink.

United Technologies and 3M are also providing technology to Songdo and Meixi Lake. 3M is making digital signs and "stick-on film" to be used throughout both cities. UTC is providing energy-saving elevators and water-cooled air conditioning units designed to cut energy use by 20%.

Despite all the talent involved, building Songdo has hardly been a smooth path. As a city designed and constructed with private financing by a foreign company, Songdo has few precedents. Tying together people's home, work and civic lives online has required new regulations. "This is an entirely new industry," says Cisco's Elfrink. "We have new questions to answer."

Permit delays pushed the opening of Songdo's flagship commercial building, the $500 million Northeast Asia Trade Tower, from December to late summer 2010. Gale says the building's mixed-use nature--a combination of retail, commercial and residential space that is unusual in Korea--was the main reason for the hold-up and that all necessary permits have now been obtained.

Gale also tussled with the Korean government over a rule that the majority of students in Songdo's International School be non-Korean--a challenge when most current Songdo residents are Korean nationals. Gale says the issue has been resolved and the school will open this September for grades kindergarten through six.

Gale is currently focusing on luring corporations to Songdo under the theory that people follow jobs. The project will be a success, says Hynes, when Songdo is full and the areas around it are "buzzing."

Hynes isn't expecting to see a return on Gale's billions for two to three years. First he has to finish covering the mudflats.