When I visited South Korea and Seoul for a month last year, I noticed how advanced and technology-driven everything was – from the public transportation services to the security systems. I think that cities around the world could learn a lot from looking at Seoul’s journey to becoming a truly “SmartCity.”

During the past 60 years, South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) has transitioned from a country torn apart and devasted by civil war that became a global conflict – a country whose pre-war economy predominately agricultural to one today driven by high-value technology industries. South Korea has leap-frogged its regional peers in terms of ICT infrastructure, and this fact, coupled with a demanding, technology-savvy population, has resulted in Korea is becoming an economy driven by digital innovation and creativity.

Second in Regional Digital Transformation

ROK now ranks only second behind Singapore in Digital Transformation (DX), as measured by the Intelligence Unit of the Economist Magazine in its “Asian Digital Transformation Index”, and ahead of the nine other countries included in the regional index.

While not experiencing the same velocity as witnessed by China, the ROK has maintained strong annual growth for a developed economy of close to three percent in recent years, outpacing Japan.

With a population of 51M, ROK ranks as the 11th largest economy in the world with a 2018 GDP of $1.5T. In this context, and in an increasingly urban society (migration to cities grew from 35.8% in 1960 to 85% in 1995) with a big slice of that heading for Seoul, SmartCities plays a strategic role in national economic policy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4).

The ROK government is seeking to grow the country’s economic competitiveness through the development and commercialization of emerging 4IR technologies such as Big Data, Data Analytics, AI/ML, IoT and Blockchain. The Korean government forecasts a total of $82B spent in economic effects from SmartCity projects by 2030.

In August, 2019, the government announced that investment in 4IR innovation technologies would grow in 2020 to $3.9B, up from 3.2 in 2019.

Environmental Impact of Urbanization

The pace of transformation from a rural, agrarian society to an urban industrial country has had a huge environment impact. Seoul’s sprawl and rapidly increasing carbon (and other gaseous) emissions since the 1990s have created significant air and water pollution, with emissions rivaling levels experienced in many larger Western industrial countries.

Nevertheless, the government realized very early on that it needed to take a much more aggressive environmental sustainability development path, as it moves into the future. South Korea aims to make its country, and particularly its capital, digital technology-reliant to shape the societal mindset to be more environmentally conscious and help them form eco-friendly lifestyles.

Sustainable Seoul

The Seoul Capital Area, located just 35 miles from the border with North Korea, is made up by cities of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi-do. The Area encompasses a population 25M (just shy of 50 percent of the ROK population) covering about 12 percent of the country’s landmass, making it the fifth largest urban area in the world – and still growing.

Seoul has been ranking in the top 15 Sustainable Cities Index by Arcadis for the last few years, especially when it comes to the ‘People’ (aka quality-of-life) category. It is also well known as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the world, maintaining its position in the top five countries in the UN e-Government Survey since 2003.

Seoul is pioneer in embracing technology to become a future sustainable city, convinced that 4IR digitalization must be used to solve the many and complex issues in a sustainable way that arise as a consequence of its rapid growth. Business, technology, transportation infrastructure and sustainable development are the pillars underpinning Seoul’s future success.

From u-Seoul to Smart Seoul

The ROK government has taken its global ICT leadership role very seriously, inclusive of thenecessary measures to boost both sustainability and competitiveness through the application of smart technologies. In 2004, Korea initiated the “u-City” project whereby ubiquitous computing technologies were applied to strengthen cities’ competitiveness.

Over the years, leaders noticed certain limitations in the u-Seoul project, so they decided to implement the Smart Seoul project in 2015. Smart Seoul 2015 emphasizes the continued maintenance, protection, reinforcement and regeneration of its attractiveness in the future while balancing short-term competitive edge. This project was born to overcome the fact that u-Seoul only applied ICTs to existing “traditional” city infrastructures. While it improved the delivery of services such as transportation and safety, it failed to produce material improvements in quality-of-life for its people.

The Smart Seoul plan has three essential characteristics:

  • ICT infrastructure: Efforts to develop ICT infrastructure must anticipate future service demands, rather than respond only to those most apparent at the moment.
  • Integrated City-Management Framework: The many integrated subsystems, meta-systems and building-block systems of a Smart City will work in harmony only through the strictest adherence to common standards.
  • Smart Users: Increasing access to smart devices and education on their use across all income levels and age groups is one of the highest priorities.

The pillars of Smart Seoul

While it can be hard to compare one city’s “digital smarts” to another’s, and it is impossible to list every Smart City strategy the Seoul government has implemented over the years, here are just a few examples of the technologies that may make Seoul one of the world’s smartest cities:

  • Citizen Participation

The Seoul Innovation Bureau has increased citizen participation in city governance by making several different channels available for citizen input. Citizens are invited to debate current and major policy issues and to participate in problem-solving for issues faced by their community, both online and offline in ‘field offices’ visited by the mayor.

In addition to citizen input on government policies, Seoul has recruited groups of citizens to work within various levels of the city’s administration, and separate groups have been invited to function as part of the city’s monitoring and auditing systems. This sort of co-operation establishes a trust between the city government and the people. The city also encourages the engagement of its citizens by holding innovation competitions to find new smart solutions to Seoul’s problems.

  • Sharing City Seoul

Seoul embraces technological innovation in its public transport system, with nine lines operated by four different operators. Together they create an integrated system that includes light rail and a fleet of buses that by next year will be exclusively EV. The city also has strong economic incentives aimed at encouraging public transportation use, including giving out free metro passes when air quality levels warrant it.

Another important strategy embraced by the local government is the “Sharing City Seoul” initiative, launched in 2012, that promotes the shared use of public and private resources. To further establish systems design-level approach to sharing, Seoul continues to cooperate with 25 district offices, education offices and schools, and has created several resource-sharing promotion ordinances and committees. The government has sought to make these programs more relevant to citizen’s lives by promoting car or park space sharing, as well as other people-oriented focuses such as renting suits, school clothes, books, even the use of abandoned buildings, among citizens.

  • Community Mapping

In an attempt to give citizens the opportunity to participate in the administration of the city, the “Community Mapping” project was born as a tool residents can use to raise the issues of greatest concerns to their neighborhoods or communities. The m.Seoul platform and its social networks rely on P2P communication, and it supports location-based services, pinpointing nearby public offices, restrooms, bus stations, etc. They also include real-estate listings, job searches, cultural events, emergency updates, and pools where citizens can suggest or vote on ways to improve their communities.

  • Device Donation

In 2012, Seoul began distributing second-hand smart devices to low-income families and others in need. Citizens are encouraged to donate old devices, which are then inspected and repaired by manufacturers, in exchange for tax deductions in the range of $50 to $100 per donated device. These devices help give voice to more vulnerable social groups, whether they’re impaired by health, aging or financially.

Seoul has also provided education courses on Smart ICT use since 2009, aimed primarily at immigrants, as well as low-income and elderly people, many if not most of whom are using digital devices for the first time. The aim isn’t to just focus on basic mobile phone use, but to give more citizens the digital device tool to improve Smart Seoul’s services to all of its people.

  • Smart Metering – A Digital Transformation

Aimed to reduce the city’s total energy use by 10%, Smart Metering provides office, commercial building, factory and home owners with real-time analytic reports of the electricity, water and gas consumption. This information is presented graphically and in monetary units, providing detailed information on business and personal use patterns so that users may adjust behaviors to reduce utilities consumption costs.

  • Seoul’s Greenbelt

To reduce the urban sprawl of the capital, the South Korean Government implemented the “greenbelt” that currently surrounds Seoul. By placing a large area of greenery around the city, city planners had to halt (or at least slow down) development and look for other solutions to manage the fast-growing population. This greenbelt covers 13.3 percent of the city and it often met with contradicting criticism, as it seems to carry advantages and disadvantages depending on the issue – on one hand, it protects natural habitats, improves air quality (eats carbon), protects rural areas, encourages urban farming and gardening, and offers a green space for people, plants and animals to flourish; on the other hand, it’s believed to have worsen Seoul’s the densification problem. Nevertheless, experts seem to agree on the fact that the belt has done more good than harm.

  • Solar City Seoul

Recently, the South Korean government has announced that, by 2022, every public building and one million homes in the city will be set to be powered by solar energy. More than 160,000 homes in the city already use panels to generate their own electricity. Now the plan is to go even further by designating whole streets to join the solar revolution. This project has already added enough new capacity to cut down than 100 tons of CO2, and the goal is to generate 35 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2040.

  • The Case of Songdo

Songdo is a new “sister city” that Seoul built in 2015 to be a Smart City that will use technology to be sustainable from the get-go. 40 percent of the area of Songdo has been designated as green public space, and it includes green buildings, a sustainable transportation system and a state-of-the-art waste management system. Waste is taken directly from the kitchens of residents to a treatment plant through a series of underground pipes where it automatically sorts and treats to reduce environmental impact.

Nowadays, neither people nor businesses have come as fast as developers had hoped, since Songdo has around 100,000 residents and the city seems to be strangely empty for such a large space. Tax incentives and other perks were supposed to attract a thriving community of foreign businesses and workers, but in the last 15 years, only a handful of companies, nonprofits, and universities have opened offices in Songdo.

  • Seoul Open Data Square

Another major pillar in the SmartCity plan is openness. Open data allow the people to be better informed about the things most relevant to them and to generate smarter solutions to their problems. With the exception of citizens’ personal information, this program shares almost all information in its original form, giving citizens and businesses the raw data needed to develop platforms aimed to enhance the quality of life and efficiency of public services.

This information is disclosed to the public under 10 categories: General Administrative, Welfare, Tourism and Culture, City Management, Environment, Safety, Health, Education, Industry, Economy, and Transportation.

Seoul’s experience in urban planning shows that environmentally sustainable and economic development projects do not exclude each other, and it confirms how sustainable development can produce benefits not only in the long term but also in the short term. In many ways, the city is both a “how-to” guide and a “testing ground” for Smart Cities innovation.

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