Incheon, 2009: I stand in the penthouse of US property developer Stan Gale, watching a life-sized music teacher on a high-definition video display. The teacher demonstrates a violin technique to a group of journalists who’ve gathered to see what makes Incheon a “smart city” according to Gale and networking vendor Cisco, who sponsored the trip and ran the fiber that makes the hi-def video possible.
The penthouse overlooks a greenfield environment: shells of high-rise buildings stand covered by construction netting, while inside, crews of construction workers pull cables through risers, including the “fourth utility”: fiber-optic cable installed along with traditional building utilities. There was nothing here a decade earlier except mud and grass.
Gale goes to another hi-def video screen and summons a screenful of icons: medical, emergency, household-control, education. It looks much like a smartphone screen full of apps, except that in ‘09, few of us did much with phone-driven apps.
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It’s a bold vision, but the choice of locale is clearly driven by the international airport at Incheon, and the untouched environment. Gale says that as the world’s population is increasingly moving toward cities, the plan is to build out Incheon and consider similar “smart city” projects elsewhere.
Flash-forward to 2017: Singapore’s Channel News Asia runs a series on smart cities and the Songdo International Business District-as the Incheon project area is now known-is profiled. According Wikipedia, the Songdo IBD is built on 600 hectares of reclaimed land and is “the largest private real estate development in history.”
Songdo leveraged the best conditions: in a country known for tech infrastructure, they created an urban area between an international airport and the city center. Greenfield opportunities of this magnitude are rare. Gale was supported in his endeavor by the-then mayor of Incheon: Ahn Sang-soo, who invited reporters on that 2009 visit to his nearby offices (Ahn ran for president three years later). Gale is still there, still bullish.
While definitions of “smart city” vary, the Songdo IBD remains an exemplar.
Attempting a short-list
‘The Smart City Playbook’-a study developed by Machina Research and commissioned by Nokia-aims to document best practices for smart cities. According to Nokia, the study: “provides concrete guidance to city leaders on successful strategies used by other municipalities to make their cities smarter, safer and more sustainable” and was developed through “primary research into the strategies and progress of 22 cities around the world.”
The 22 cities profiled in the study are: Auckland, Bangkok, Barcelona, Berlin, Bogota, Bristol, Cape Town, Cleveland, Delhi, Dubai, Jeddah, Mexico City, New York City, Paris, Pune, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Vienna and Wuxi. Some of those names pop out: few would confuse Bangkok’s wire-tangles and 4G woes with Tokyo’s orderly rubbish disposal schemes and universal FTTx.
A shorter list appears in a study from Bank of America Merrill Lynch called “21st Century Cities: Global Smart Cities Primer” which was published online in March 2017. The study declares: “We see Singapore, London, NYC, Paris and Tokyo as some of today’s Smartest Cities.”