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Dumb approach to a smart city

Aug 13,2018
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Jeong Jae-seung
The author is a professor of biology and brain engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

It has been both brain-wrenching and exciting since I was assigned in early May the ambitious job of master-planning the design of a section of Sejong City as a test bed for a smart city. It was an extremely hot summer, but my seat felt particularly hot. The job was both thrilling and frustrating.

I cannot forget my first meeting with LH Corporation, the state housing and land development operator, which is in charge of the infrastructure of the smart city project. I briefed them on my vision of a smart city. They looked stunned and asked me with genuine awe: “Do you plan to do all this [master-planning] yourself?” That reaction baffled me. “Isn’t that my job?” I asked. Their answer was even more confounding. “We can draw one up through an agency,” they said. “You just need to advise us with our plan.”

The state builder has been in charge of numerous urban development and so-called ubiquitous (or connected) city projects, but their so-called master planners’ role stopped at advisory guidance. In fact, the contract defined the role of master planner as “an adviser.” It is no wonder that all the planned cities look identical as they do not reflect individualistic philosophy and vision of the urban designer.

So I rushed to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and asked if the regulation on master-planning a smart city be revised — or actually, I asked that a new regulation be made. I asked for a formal definition of the role of a master planner, which is to master-plan the project. I spent the first 100 days without a formal title and worked on the blueprint without any budgetary assistance.

I can assure you that an agency cannot come up with a decent master plan to design a city. Such expansive work requires a qualified planner with a clear philosophy to design a city for the people with a vision of a future lifestyle. The work should contribute to developing the region, tourism and travel infrastructure to ensure competitiveness and an individualistic identity. The smart city cannot hope to draw visitors or new residents if it looks identical to a big city like Seoul or any other.

Upon appointment, I studied the blueprints for other urban developments. Urban development projects in Korea mostly were based on a two-dimensional perspective. Space was divided into residential and commercial districts and developed purely to maximize property value for sale. A city actually should be designed with a three-dimensional aspect. To make Sejong City “smart,” I proposed adopting a form-based code for third-dimensional configuration, introducing trade based on land purpose, and placing the properties and lands under public management for long-term leases instead of sale. For the best results, city planning should actually be done on a four-dimensional design with a vision of the future so that the city does not turn into a slum after a shutdown or pullout of industries.

A smart city is a future-oriented urban design by digitalizing all the activities into data for the purpose of raising the living standards of residents and promoting creative activities for sustainable development. A school should not be built without a vision for educating the future generation. A city should not be planned without a thorough study of health care services to provide a health-friendly environment. A cultural facility should not be installed without planning applications of technology to back theatrical and other cultural activities to entertain a city of a population of less than 1 million.

A smart city design should go beyond urban planning, as it must seek to create a society for the future. LH and the land ministry cannot do such work. It needs research and cooperating with other government organizations, including the ministry of science and ICT. From what I have seen so far, there is no other office offering help. They simply watch with their arms-crossed to see how the land ministry can pull the mission off.

To provide services to citizens, there must be an authority to integrate the data from all cities. The central and local governments should work with the private sector to establish a dedicated corporation. But strict regulations don’t allow for many inventive actions. A special act on creating smart cities has been proposed to the legislature, and the need for deregulation has been repeatedly expounded. But little progress has been made. Everyone talks of an environment free of regulation to fuel creativity, but the devil lies not just in the details, but in the will to make changes.

To set the basis for a good design, various public offices must put their heads together and study overseas examples. But there is little time because the smart city must be built within the remaining term of the incumbent government. If a city that must last for centuries is built within a few years, that city has no hope.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.