Photo of Songdo taken by Dr Tang during her visit.

Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong

Previously, I mentioned being invited to an exchange program in Seoul, South Korea. One of the stops was Songdo. Its full name is Songdo International Business District, a smart city on an artificial island formed by reclamation near the Incheon International Airport.

Songdo is a large scale project with an investment of HK$273 billion. A result of public-private collaboration, it incorporates the concept of future technology and sustainable development. The city covers an area of 607 hectares (35% of the size of Lantau Tomorrow Vision). The first commercial and residential project together with a bridge connecting to the airport commenced in 2009. The whole project is expected to be completed by 2022.

It claims to be the world’s “smartest city”. The planning of this future city addresses many problems in a modern city, ranging from traffic congestion and air pollution to energy shortages and sustainability. Apart from using 85,500 tons of purified seawater for the lake in the central park, Songdo also claims to be the most green-technology intensive place in the world; the island’s 22 million square feet development was certified by the green building certification LEED of the United States in 2017. Through the use of widespread sensing devices, the average power consumption per person on the island is 40% less than those in other cities.

In addition to 41 hectares of central park (more than double the size of Hong Kong’s Victoria Park), it is a combination of residence, business, culture, leisure, shopping, university and hotel facilities. International organizations, such as the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Green Climate Fund have also set up office there. Unlike the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project, which addresses housing needs at the grass root level, Songdo residence is positioned for the affluent and international dwellers such as foreign businessmen and wealthy local young families. Therefore, it is natural that the development plan includes a golf course.

Not everyone is on board

However, this beautiful satellite city lacks local endorsement. According to the official data, the number of residents on the island was only 100,000 in 2016, and very much scattered in such a spacious area that some residents even referred it as a “ghost town”.

The tour guide showing us around the artificial island suggested that, in addition to high real estate price that deters people from living there, the long travel to the city and inconvenient transportation are also major concerns. Even with cross-sea bridge, highway and tunnel, it takes more than an hour to get from this smart city to the city centre of Seoul, not counting traffic jams – Seoul’s weekday peak hours start from 7 am and the average speed is just above 20km per hour at the expressway. This reminds me of Tung Chung at the time when the MTR was not a major part of Hong Kong life, San Tin’s The Boxes which has problems finding renters due to inadequate transportation.

Design matters

What’s more, Songdo is advertised as a car-free city, but it lacks railway directly connecting it to the city centre of Seoul or even commuting within the island itself. Its design aims for a pedestrian and bike friendly environs, so the shopping mall is only a 15-minute walk from the central park, but the designer has not considered the chilly winter wind in South Korea. Some western residents rushed to buy a car after a few months. 

Therefore, transportation is critical when planning new development. However, it has been neglected most of the time.

During the visit, I noticed that Songdo is still developing and construction sites are everywhere, so it is too early to say whether it is successful or not at the moment. I hope that at the next visit, Songdo’s management would have adjusted its strategy to increase its popularity. I also hope that they would make it possible for all of us to see and enjoy the realization of sustainable development. Maybe, it takes a longer time than expected.

Winnie Tang

Dr Winnie Tang is Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, The University of Hong Kong and Advisor of Our Hong Kong Foundation.