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New Songdo: City in a Box

“New Towns, New Territories” conference organized by INTI hosted a session on New Songdo, a Korean city created in 1996 and hailed as one of the first truly “smart” cities of the 21st century.

The project began in 1996, initiated jointly by Daewoo and the Korean Government with Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in charge of the Masterplan. After Korea's bailout in 1998 and Daewoo's bankruptcy in 1999, the project re-started without OMA and with a new investor: Gale International, an American real estate and development company led by Stanley Gale. Gale International raised $40 billion for making New Songdo the most expensive private real estate development in the world.

Cisco Systems is the company in charge of providing technological resources in order to create an actual "smart" city. Jean-Louis Massaut, Director of Cisco's worldwide Smart+Connected Communities practice informed the audience that Cisco Systems comprises over 80% of the internet backbone. After which, he posed a rhetorical question to the audience asking if we were aware of why Cisco is interested in "smart" cities and explained how New Songdo is an attractive city model for Koreans. "Korenas do rent their traditional houses to expats in order to move to a modern skyscraper”. Massaud explained. "These new cities will attract investments from other Asian countries."

Besides planning cities for the country, Cisco systems is collaborating with Korean Telecom providing public services (measuring pollution, for instance). Massaut pleas for more public and private data exchange (“respecting personal privacy, of course”) in order to offer the best possible solutions to their customers. When he said that I thought about customized Internet banners we see in all websites related with our last google searches. Is George Orwell´s 1984 closer than we think?

Delving into this idea, Massaut showed us a slide with a “citizen menu”, where from home the citizen-customer can find things online such as a personal health monitor for a price of $10.

Tiffany Tsui, Strategic Project Director of China Region in Royal Haskoning DHV took the word on cities after Cisco. 
Her intervention company’s involvement was more technical in the Korean new town. Thus, she put more emphasis on the complexity of building a city on reclaimed land. She also explained the environmentally friendly planning of New Songdo summarized perfectly their integrated water management.

Afterwards, Ole Bouman, Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, revealed himself to be skeptical of new cities, due to nowadays how “the city is watched as management, the better the management, the better the city”.According to Bouman, the city is a “beautiful struggle” synonymous with interactive architecture: “architecture which makes people think”.

From his point of view, speaking about the cities there are three keys: the city has to exemplify what expect from their citizens; the city has to express our civilization level; and has to help to hold the society together. In his opinion, the former approaches to the city by Cisco and Royal Haskoning were promises, marketing promises. He finished by inviting architects to work “to create a city which helps people decide what they want to be for the rest of their lives”.

After these talks Dan Hill, posed the question to Jean-Louis Massaut about his company´s goal. “Cisco can help the people by providing important services and allowing them to save money”, Massaut answered. Their plan for Korea is only a part of a bigger plan in Asia.

Wouter Vanstiphout, TU Delft Architecture professor, participated in the debate explaining the situation was for him a déjà vu: he compared European cities in the 60´s, which had a lot of confidence in technology and large scale, with new Asian cities. In his opinion, the first 15 years all went well but then the crisis happened, “why wouldn't this happen with the new cities? Shouldn't the European experience be informative?” Jean-Louis Massaud responded arguing that in Asia there is a real pressure from the countryside to the cities and New Songdo model tries to deal with it in a cost effective way and with no environmental impact. 

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