The face of modern day business is fast changing. It’s fast, agile and ubiquitously smart. Songdo, South Korea’s Smart City, is setting new benchmarks in how the future of business looks like…
WORDS: AMOGH PUROHIT
ONGDO, meaning Pine City or Pine Islands, is nothing like what its name suggests. Songdo International Business District is a sustainable smart city set to change the way business is done. It is built from scratch on 600 hectares of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea, along Incheon’s waterfront. It is 65 kilometers southwest of Seoul, South Korea and is connected to Incheon International Airport by a 12.3-kilometre reinforced concrete highway bridge, called Incheon Bridge. Along with Yeongjong and Cheongna, Songdo is part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone.
Not many know but music videos for the songs “Gangnam Style” and “Right Now”, by Korean pop star Psy were shot in Songdo International Business District.
Its primary goal is to push boundaries in the way cities dealt with technology, environment, business and education. Built within 40 kilometers of Seoul, it is billed as the antithesis of the suffocating, over-populated capital.
The Songdo International Business District is going to be the home to the much-awaited Northeast Asia Trade Tower and the Incheon Tower. The city is designed in a way that one is never far from a school, hospital and cultural amenities. Among residential and office buildings, replicas of architectural hallmarks, including New York City’s Central Park and Venice’s waterways, will also be built. This project was estimated to take about 10 years and a whopping $40 billion to finish. This makes it one of the most expensive development projects ever undertaken in the history of mankind. The New York City architecture firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox designed the city’s plan, with developer Gale International serving as the majority partner in the project. When completed by 2020, the district will span 100 million square feet.
But on the plus side, when residents of the International Business District (IBD) in Songdo, South Korea go to work, pick up their kids from school, or shop for groceries, they don’t have to take their cars out.
In fact, Songdo aims to eliminate the need of a private car. The business district has been designed to prioritize mass transit, like buses, subways, and bikes, instead of road traffic. On paper, Songdo boasts an impressive public transportation system, built in anticipation of that car-free free future. The subway here connects to both Incheon’s existing system and Seoul’s intricate rail network.
Buses link hubs like Triple Street to neighborhoods and university campuses. Other bus routes ferry commuters directly from
Songdo to trendy Seoul neighborhoods like Hongdae and Gangnam.
To promote walkability, developers placed venues like shopping malls and convention centers within a 15-minute walk from Central Park and are building out an extensive biking infrastructure; they also promise a bus or subway stop within 12 minutes of every neighborhood.
Though the city is not yet complete, Songdo IBD is home to 106 LEED certified buildings that fall under 12 projects, or 22 million sq. ft. of LEED-certified space.
This number includes several ‘firsts’ for LEED in Korea and Asia, including the first LEED-certified hotel in Korea – Yhe Sheraton Incheon, the first certified residential tower in Korea, Central Park 1, and the first certified convention hall in Asia, Convensia. The 50,000 sq. ft. clubhouse for the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea which hosted the Presidents Cup in 2015 is also certified. Songdo IBD alone represents 40% of all LEED-certified space in South Korea.
And since the city is being designed from scratch, it allows a lot of new and futuristic technologies to be implemented right from the start. Songdo has been designed with sensors to monitor temperature, energy use and traffic flow. These sensors can – in theory – alert you, personally, when your bus is due. Or let the local authority know about any problems. Computers are built into the buildings and streets. So its people can video conference with neighbours, or even attend classes remotely.
Many of these innovations are designed with the environment in mind. There are charging stations for electric cars, monitored bike paths and a water-recycling system that prevents clean drinking water being used to flush office toilets. But what really takes the cake is the waste disposal system. First thing you’d notice is the lack of garbage cans dotted around blocks of flats and garbage trucks crowding the streets. Instead, all household waste is sucked directly from individual kitchens through a vast underground network of tunnels, to waste processing centers, where it’s automatically sorted, deodorized and treated to be kinder to the environment. Somewhere in the future, some of this household waste will be used to produce renewable energy, but like many of Songdo’s technological innovations, it isn’t fully operational yet. And that’s because the city is currently less than half full. Less than 20% of the commercial office spaces are occupied, and the streets, cafes and shopping centers still feel largely empty. Despite being next to South Korea’s main international airport, transport links into the capital itself are rudimentary, and the incentives for companies moving to a new smart city don’t always outweigh the costs.
Songdo is nonetheless attracting families and young couples away from Seoul, though not necessarily for the futuristic technology or commercial district. The city has been planned around a central park, and designed so that every resident can walk to work in the business district. Families that have moved here have done so mostly for the better standard of living and for the shorter commutes to work and other places.
But while the residential flats are being occupied, Songdo hasn’t really attracted large business houses and companies. But this is one of the challenges of building a city from scratch. Business and economic growth tends to go hand in hand with the city’s population and its people.
The completion date for the city keeps being pushed back. It was meant to be fully functional by 2015, then 2018, now it’s 2022. Despite the delays in reaching the project’s earlier population benchmarks, the developers are thinking long term. Their goal is to create a resilient city, one that can last for centuries to come. And, well, that can’t be rushed. The pace of Songdo’s emergence might look slow if one were to compare it to other industrially advanced cities in world.
The developers say that a project of this scale and vision would take its time. A paced out and strategized development plan is much better than breakneck development speed that is found in other parts of Korea and Asia.