Using technology to both replace the culture of non-information industries and exercise control over the traditional spontaneity and unexpectedness of the public space, Songdo has the feel of a city that remains in a state of perpetual design. It’s uncomfortable clean, way too safe, and completely predictable. It’s hyper-hygienically unnatural. It’s a technocrat’s 1950s wet dream. It’s not home. It’s not my smart.
The rationale of the Smart as a means for improving, designing and building our cities has reached a tipping point of acceptability. Indeed, such is the take-up rate among urban planners that we are today returned to the age of the emperors, one in which it is possible to design, make and populate a city from scratch, the most obvious example being South Korea’s Songdo, the world’s so-called smartest city.
From the perspective of the urban planner’s spreadsheet, it’s easy to see why somewhere like Songdo in South Korea might appeal. Apparently without history, built on reclaimed land outside of Seoul, it is a year zero purpose-built city, a clean, super-connected mega-sized business district, one that has borrowed, as it advertises, from the best of the world’s greatest cities. It has its own Venetian canal system. It has a central park. It’s underpinned by a package of ‘smart services’, managing everything from the home to traffic to health. It’s made for an environmentally sustainable community. It offers, in the words of one of its key IT providers, ‘the ultimate lifestyle and work experience’. It is representative, as MIT’s Mike Joroff says, of ‘a new industry of city building’, one that has the engineer ride ideological point.
Much like technologists tend to champion the democracy of the internet, so advocates of the Smart city talk of its equality of access and opportunity, strategically prioritising technical platforms, infrastructure, project development and information systems in the name of the tens of thousands of projected users. Going even further, Songdo IBD (the city’s local authority) speaks of creating ‘an unparalleled quality of life as technology, resources and innovation come together to create a world class international community.’ Welcome, say its American developers Stanley Gale, to the world’s first ‘city in a box’, eminently transferrable, and for about $40 billion.
As monument to the technological prowess of the digital age, Songdo is extraordinary. However and unfortunately, like the branded cities of old, built by kings as singular testaments to their omniscient powers, its philosophy for city building begins with an absence of exactly that which makes a city a city: the human. Enamoured by the technologically engineered strategic visions of the likes of Stanley Gale, it confuses the needs of a city with those of a company. It mistakes people for category of user. Repurposing the unfathomable complexity of a population of city dwellers as financiers, technologists, bio-pharmacists, commuters, residents, patients, relaxers, we are reduced to a vast and predetermined system of input-output solutions, one so technologically advanced as to have done away with the need for ‘3-D’ or ‘dirty’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘difficult’ industries.
As such, bereft of the messiness of manufacturing and municipal service industries, of crowds, of dirt, and of the organic and often anarchic growth of the street, Songdo doesn’t feel like a city. Unabashed as to the moral implications of creating a city peopled by a specified class of desirable citizens, it has not been quite as upfront about its zero-history origins as we are led to believe, its reclaimed land having once been occupied by generations of fishing communities, none of which features in the Songdo of today, either in reality or as part and parcel of the story it’s building.
‘A truly Smart city’, says author and architect Rachel Keaton, ‘addresses not only every level of society, but also the parts of the city that defy definition. It leaves room for spontaneity, flexibility and grassroots initiatives. It welcomes diversity and embraces transparency rather than control. In the end, a city is only a reflection of its citizens and their collective will. What that says about New Songdo should be concerning, rather than inspiring.’ Inhabited by categories of ideal archetypes, it’s rigid archaic delineation between work, rest and play pits the hardware of the city over the messiness of the human, of groups, of crowds, of the street, of a vibrancy born not of a city’s design but rather of the way people explore, repurpose and celebrate its many spaces.
Using technology to both replace the culture of non-information industries and exercise control over the traditional spontaneity and unexpectedness of the public space, and offering in their place a city dedicated to an ‘international community’ of ‘forward-thinking individuals’ and a living standard facilitated by an integrated package of Smart solutions, Songdo has the feel of a city that remains in a state of perpetual design. It’s uncomfortable clean, way too safe, and completely predictable. It’s hyper-hygienically unnatural. It’s a technocrat’s 1950s wet dream. It’s not home. It’s not my smart.
This is an adapted version of Adam’s De-smarting the City, first published by ‘Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture, and Technology Anthology No.2’.
Image Credit: still from the music video ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY. The video was partly filmed in Songdo.