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South Korea’s hi-tech city: Songdo

South Korea’s Songdo International Business District has reinvented city living with its avant-garde infrastructure ideas; even rubbish collection in Songdo is hi-tech, finds Rita Lobo

Songdo: South Korea's hi-tech city
Songdo: South Korea's hi-tech city 

Seoul, in South Korea, is one of the ‘smartest’ cities in the world; cutting-edge infrastructure is part of daily life. The metro is not only the world’s longest subway system, but also boasts ultra-fast wi-fi. The transport network is meticulously coordinated, with arrival and departure times displayed on laser panels outside stations. But a new development 40 miles outside the South Korean capital is so advanced that Seoul appears positively medieval by comparison. The Songdo International Business District, constructed on an embankment on the Incheon waterfront, is a purpose-built ‘smart city’, designed for efficiency, convenience and pleasant city living.

Building a city from scratch to fulfil a specific need is not a new concept; Canberra, Brasilia and Abuja were all built in the last 60 years as functional capital cities. But Songdo is unique, constructed as an integrated hi-tech environment. Developers describe Songdo as a “global business hub” and “home to a variety of residential and retail developments”, but at a cost of over $40bn is Songdo just a glorified model neighbourhood?

The smart city occupies 1,500 acres of land “reclaimed from the Yellow Sea”, making it the largest private real estate development in history. But it’s not the geographical space that makes Songdo remarkable. The district was built as part of former President Lee Myung-bak’s drive to promote low-carbon and sustainable developments as the principal avenue for growth in South Korea.

For over half a century, the country’s economy has been dependent on exports and South Korea has become known for its hi-tech industry. When the global economic crisis struck in 2007 and 2008, and foreign demand for South Korean products slumped, the government launched a stimulus package aimed at developing the country’s own infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on green investments. Lee launched the Framework Act for Low Carbon Green Growth – a $38bn economic stimulus package 80 percent earmarked for green and sustainable investments. In 2010 the National Assembly of Korea increased the value of the Framework Act to over $83.6bn to be invested over five years.

Songdo has been a huge part of the move towards sustainable growth. The city is a novel model – 40 percent of its area is dedicated to outdoor spaces. Seoul and other South Korean metropolises are densely populated with few open-air areas for residents. Songdo is unique, offering city habitants something they have never had access to before: green space for leisure. The district has been heavily promoting its 16 miles of bicycle lanes, its central park, and its waterways, which are based on New York City’s Central Park and the canals of Venice, respectively.

Songdo's impressive infrastructure
Songdo’s impressive infrastructure

Sustainable and business friendly
While some South Koreans might be less impressed by the district’s state-of-the-art infrastructure, it has certainly been a selling point for international investors. Songdo is the first district in South Korea to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation, and the largest non-US project to be included in the LEED Neighbourhood Development Pilot Plan.

This means the entire development adheres to the strictest environmental standards for energy consumption and waste. According to developers, over $10bn was invested in the design and build of the 100 main buildings in the district, including the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, which will be Korea’s “tallest building and most advanced corporate centre,” according to Songdo’s promotional material.

Because the district was built from scratch it has given developers the opportunity to invest heavily in technologies that have yet to debut in conventional cities. Take Songdo’s smart rubbish disposal system, a futuristic bit of hardware that spans the whole complex. No rubbish trucks will ever roam the leafy streets of Songdo, instead all household and office waste is sucked through a network of underground tubes to vast sorting facilities where it is all processed, deodorised and treated. The aim is to eventually convert all this sorted and treated waste into energy for the community, but this system is not yet fully operational.

All household and office waste is sucked through a network of underground tubes to vast sorting facilities

In many ways Songdo is a living organism. The city’s infrastructure contains sensors that monitor and regulate everything from temperature to energy consumption and traffic. Essentially, the city can interact with residents on a one-to-one basis. Smart grids and meters are already fairly common in Europe and the US, but the technology in Songdo is more pervasive than anything in the West. Because it was designed to this specification and not converted later like most ‘smart cities’ in the rest of the world, Songdo is completely geared towards sustainability; even the water pipes are designed to stop clean water, suitable for human consumption, being used in showers and toilets, and all of the embankment’s water goes through a sophisticated recycling system.

Everything in Songdo might have been meticulously designed, but there is one key element that has not gone according to plan. Since its official launch in 2009, the sustainable district remains woefully under-occupied. Despite its enviable location close to Seoul and it’s international airport – “just 15 minutes driving time from Incheon International Airport and three and a half hours flying time to a third of the world’s population and regional markets such as China, Russia and Japan,” reads the brochure – less than 20 percent of the commercial space in the district has been occupied.

Songdo is a global business hub
Songdo is a global business hub

But where are the people?
Pre-planned cities have been around for centuries, and they always face the same challenges: how to attract residents and businesses to an untested and unpopulated area. China has faced this problem as the building boom of the early 2000s encouraged developers to invest in new cities and shopping districts that ultimately failed to attract buyers. Songdo is very well connected, and the business facilities are second-to-none, but attracting inhabitants may still be a slower process than developers had hoped for.

In order to speed up the population process, developers have been investing heavily in top-quality international education centres. The hope is to entice a diverse international community. Before the end of 2014 four universities will inaugurate campuses in the business district, including the first overseas university to open a campus branch in Korea, the State University of New York, Stony Brook, as well as George Mason University and the University of Utah, all sponsored at least in part by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. There is also an enormous and exclusive international school catering to children from kindergarten all the way up to high school.

Where to shop

LOTTE Shopping Town
LOTTE Shopping Town

LOTTE Shopping Town
Designed by star architect Daniel Liebeskind, the LOTTE Shopping Town will be the most exclusive shopping destination in Songdo when it inaugurated in 2015.  With 150 shops, a multiplex cinema and an ice rink, LOTTE will be the focus of Songdo social life.

Spread over 280,000 sq m, the shopping centre will cater to international visitors and local tastes alike, and will appeal to shoppers looking for luxury but weary of overcrowded Seoul malls. With over 7,5000 parking spaces available, LOTTE will doubtlessly attract shoppers from all over the country.

The shopping town is conveniently located within walking distance of the Northeast Asia Trade Tower and the Sheraton Incheon Hotel, overlooking the scenic Central Park.

Sheraton Incheon Hotel
Inaugurated in 2009, the Sheraton Incheon Hotel has stunning views over Central Park, and is within walking distance of most of Songdo’s top business spots like the Songdo Convensia Convention Centre, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower and Riverstone Mall.

As well as 321 rooms and suites, the hotel hosts four restaurants, two bars, a health club and a spa. In addition, club room and suite guests have access to the Sheraton Club Lounge, complete with televisions and office space.

The Sheraton Incheon Hotel embodies Songdo’s eco-friendly values and is Korea’s first fully non-smoking, LEED-certified hotel. It also appeals to Songdo’s business visitors with 16 meeting venues, all featuring complimentary high-speed internet access.

What to see

Songdo's Central Park
Songdo’s Central Park

Central Park
Opened in 2009, and inspired by New York’s eponymous park, Songdo’s Central Park is the centrepiece of the district’s green space. Located in the city centre and surrounded by striking architecture including the North East Asia Trade Tower, the park is 4.2 million square feet of vegetation, lakes and canals. Visitors can take a leisurely water taxi around the network of seawater canals that crisscross the park. Central Park has been envisioned as a “beautiful place of refuge, inspiration and relaxation in the heart of the city” and it will certainly become one of the focal points of life in Songdo. Residents and visitors are already enjoying the benefits of an urban green area of this magnitude.

IFEZ Songdo Arts Centre
Opening in March 2015, this multi-purpose centre ticks all the boxes when it comes to culture: challenging and modern architectural design, a music and a design school, a contemporary art museum, as well as a concert hall and opera house. The IFEZ Arts Centre will be Songdo’s one-stop shop for arts and entertainment and will house outposts of the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra and Asia Opera Company. Designed to appeal to the most discerning public, the complex is on the edge of Incheon Lake and will offer almost one million square feet of culture and leisure facilities. There is no doubt that IFEZ will quickly become a hub for culture, not just in Songdo, but in the whole of South Korea.

Jack Nicklaus Golf Club
Jack Nicklaus Golf Club

Jack Nicklaus Golf Club
Golf course powerhouse Nicklaus Design is behind this 18-hole, championship golf course. Located on the southeastern extremity of Songdo, it is one of only 25 Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses in the world. Complete with a lake and a luxurious clubhouse, the club will be the most exclusive destination in the area, with only 250 full memberships and 250 weekday memberships up for grabs. The course plays over 7,300m, with multiple tees and strategy options, making it accessible for golfers of all levels of ability. For the uninitiated, the clubhouse features a choice of restaurants, a bar and lounge, fitness and swimming facilities, and even a spa. Dotted around the club complex are also 179 exclusive villas.

Where to meet

Songdo Convensia Centre
Open since 2008, Songdo Convensia is the largest column-free structure in Asia and has already achieved landmark status. Donated to the City of Incheon by Gale International and POSCO E&C and managed by Incheon Tourism Organisation, Songdo Convensia is popular with international conferences, trade shows and meetings, and has even become a trendy filming location for commercials and music videos thanks to its striking mirrored surfaces, reminiscent of Sydney Opera House. The 34-acre site includes two exhibition halls, 23 conference rooms and three ballrooms. Support facilities include wireless internet, RFID card systems, voice recognition cameras, and interpretation in eight languages.

Gateway Centre
Songdo’s foremost office complex, the Gateway Centre has already become one of the district’s most iconic sites. The five towers feature curved glass surfaces, giving the impression the buildings are made of glass waves. Designed by Kling Stubbins, the complex is among the most innovative in all of Songdo. Each of the five towers has a rooftop garden, which will offer occupants impressive views of the dramatic Songdo skyline, from nearby Central Park out to the Yellow Sea. Gateway Centre, along with International Plaza, will form the heart of the city’s commercial district. The complex occupies three city blocks and features a 3,480-car garage to cater for its many business visitors.

International Business Square
Songdo’s official commercial hub, The International Business Square was inaugurated in 2011, and has quickly become a destination for multinational corporations. It is located at the crux of the business district and with easy access to Incheon International Airport and Seoul, the striking tower boasts over 4.5 million square metres of business space for commercial projects. The International Business Square is one of the tallest and most distinguished skyscrapers and it dominates the Songdo Skyline. The building is set to become one of the most sought-after office facilities in the region because of its location and cutting-edge design, as well as its flexible leasing and renting opportunities.

Weekend in the city

With Songdo mere miles from Seoul, you’ll be well placed to experience the delights of the South Korean capital.

Seoul Design Festival

December 18-22
Now in its eleventh year, the Seoul Design Festival showcases the best of both internationally renowned and undiscovered South Korean design talent. The event has consistently drawn around 60,000 visitors and will feature the best of handcrafted product design, to digital innovations and graphic design.

K. Will in concert

Kyung Hee University
December 24-25
K. Will, South Korean ballad-singing sensation, rose to fame with his first single Dream in 2006. Four albums and numerous awards later, the singer has begun to break the US market, performing a concert in LA in 2013. Spend an alternative Christmas watching him live at the university’s Grand Peace Palace.

Spirit of Chun Kyung-Ja

Seoul Museum of Art
Until December 31
Dedicated to the museum by the artist, this collection spans Chun Kyung-Ja’s career, from 1941 to the late 90s. The diverse exhibition includes observational drawing, abstract paintings, self-portraits, and landscapes from Chun’s extensive travels to India, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and New York – where she eventually settled.

Changing of the Guard

Daehanmun, Deoksugung
Daily at 11am, 2pm, 3.30pm
Dating back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), the changing of the royal guards was an integral part of palace security. After thorough historical research the ceremony was first re-enacted in 1996 and has become a colourful and popular tourist attraction, featuring historical dress, drumming and processions.


January 31
Seollul, or Lunar New Year’s Day, is one of South Korea’s biggest national holidays and celebrations usually go on for three days. The morning begins with an ancestral rite, offering foods and saying prayers together. Everyone then enjoys tteokguk (rice cake soup), before playing games and giving gifts.

And while Songdo is not yet a hit with the international business community, young professionals have flocked to its leafy boulevards looking for a better lifestyle than the hectic streets of Seoul can offer. The district offers over 22,500 new housing units built to different specifications – from garden houses to sleek high-rises – all connected to the district’s energy, water and waste facilities.

But businesses may soon follow, attracted by the skilled workforce provided by the universities, the young professionals, the sustainability credentials and the tax breaks. “It’s the occupants who make a city,” Jonathan Thorpe, CIO of Gale International, the American developer behind Songdo told the BBC. “You’re trying to create a diversity and a vitality that organic development creates, in and of itself,” he explained. “So, it’s a challenge to try and replicate that in a masterplan setting. At the same time, with a masterplan you have the ability to size the infrastructure to make sure the city works – now and in 50 years’ time.”

And the brains behind Songdo have thought carefully about incentives for businesses. Companies relocating to the district will have access to tax reductions, estate support and subsidies. No property tax will be levied for ten years, followed by three years where businesses need only pay 50 percent of taxes due; small and medium companies will also be considered for rent reduction; and employees of companies with over a 30 percent international investment will be able to claim a variety of perks – from location subsidies to promotion results compensation.

For South Korea, Songdo is more than a hi-tech business district, it is also a template for future developments. It is the prototype for the green investment the government wants to build the economy on in the future. It is all designed to appeal to foreign investors, but its manicured gardens and glassy towers also give it an unmistakable air of luxury. This is the aspirational South Korea where everyone is wealthy and your mobile phone controls the temperature in your apartment. Songdo is the city of the future; all that is missing are the residents.

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