[Analytics] From South Korea to Malaysia, world’s ‘smart cities’ are empty

Prospective buyers look at a model of Forest City, in Johor Bahru, in Malaysia. Photo: Reuters. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Across the globe, urban developments conceived by corporations have been pitched as technological and eco-friendly utopias. But many are prohibitively expensive and catalysts for land dispossession and social inequality. Oliver Wainwright from The Guardian at the South China Morning Post.

Every morning, at 8.30am, an announcement is piped though a speaker in the ceiling of Kim Jong-won’s flat, barking the daily bulletin in a high-pitched voice. The disembodied broadcaster details new parking measures, issues with the pneumatic waste disposal chute and various building maintenance jobs to be carried out that day.

“There’s no way of turning it off,” sighs Kim’s wife, Jung-sim, as she prepares breakfast. “I hate technology but my husband is an early adopter. He has to have everything first.”

It was Kim’s love of the latest tech that prompted him move his family to the future, or the nearest thing to it – Songdo, South Korea’s self-styled “smart city”, built on a 600-hectare parcel of artificial land dredged from the Yellow Sea near Seoul’s Incheon airport. It is a place where the garbage is automatically sucked away through underground pipes, where lamp posts are always watching you, and where your block of flats knows to send the lift down to greet you when it detects the arrival of your car. Sensors in every street track traffic flow and send alerts to your phone when it’s going to snow, while you can monitor the children’s playground on television from the comfort of your sofa.

The feature Kim enjoys most is a small touch screen display on his kitchen wall that allows him to keep track of his and his wife’s consumption of electricity, water and gas and, most important, compare it against the average statistics for the building. Flicking between the screens of bar charts and graphs, a broad grin spreads across his face: for yet another day running, they are more energy-efficient than all their neighbours.

From their living room window at the top of one of the city’s new residential towers, a panorama of downtown Songdo unfolds. Across an eight-lane highway lies Central Park, a broad swathe of trees surrounding an ornamental lake, flanked by rows of glass towers with vaguely jaunty silhouettes. Armies of identikit concrete flat blocks march into the hazy distance beyond, terminating at a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. It looks a lot like many other modern Asian cities, a place of generic towers rising above a car-dominated grid. Public life is mostly confined to the air-conditioned environments of malls and private leisure clubs.

Initiated by the South Korean government in the late 1990s, when Incheon airport was being planned, Songdo represents a model that has been replicated numerous times around the world. Started as a joint venture with US developer Gale International – which has since hawked its “city in a box” kit to other countries – the Songdo International Business District was conceived as a US$40 billion hub for international companies, an exemplar of sustainable urbanism and testing ground for new smart city technologies.

It claims to have the highest concentration of green Leed-certified buildings in the world, yet it is still entirely car-based, with not even a train line to the nearby airport. To get to Seoul, just 30km away, takes an hour and a half by metro. Songdo may have an “Integrated Operations Centre” – a Big Brother control room where reams of data are funnelled in real time from thousands of sensors across the city – but the physical urban model is no different to any other car-riddled business district. For all its low-energy labels, it is an expensive, exclusive and impersonal place.

Across the world, there are countless new cities like Songdo in the making. Barely differentiable, and often designed and serviced by the same international consultancies, these hi-tech urban enclaves are cropping up from Kenya to Kazakhstan. India has pledged to build 100 smart cities, while Africa is seeing US$100 billion pumped into at least 20 projects. China, having initiated 500 of its own smart city pilots, is now summoning a string of outposts through its Belt and Road initiative, from the dry port of Khorgos, on its border with Kazakhstan, to East London’s Royal Albert Dock, reborn as the Asian Business Park.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to trump them all with Neom, a US$500 billion mega-project billed as an answer to Silicon Valley. Planned as a centre for renewable energy, biotechnology, manufacturing, media and entertainment, it sprawls across an area 33 times the size of New York City. It claims to be nothing less than “the world’s most ambitious project”; an incubator for “the next era of human progress”.

The escapist urge to build cities from scratch is nothing new. At the turn of the 19th century, the Garden City movement saw a generation of bucolic communities planned in reaction to the grime and overcrowding of rapidly industrialising cities, driven by a powerful campaign for social reform. Half a century later, the New Town movement developed these ideas, promising a brave new world of modern, self-sufficient municipalities rising from the ruins of the second world war, and focused on building an inclusive, democratic society.

Now, in the first decades of a new millennium, a surge in global population growth and a sense of impending environmental Armageddon have spurred an epidemic of planned cities of a very different kind. This time they are being conceived by private multinational corporations as gilt-edged gated communities and tax-exempt free-trade hubs, each branded as the ultimate techno-eco-utopia.

The need for urban expansion is clear: the United Nations calculates that 68% of the world population will live in cities by 2050, adding another 2.5 billion people to urban areas, the vast majority in Asia and Africa. All these newly minted urbanites will need somewhere to live and work. Yet the vast majority of the newly planned cities are not being designed to house the coming tidal wave of rural-urban migrants. They are instruments to attract international investment and make the urban rich even richer, at a time when property has become the ultimate global currency.

According to research from Savills, real estate is now a more valuable asset class than all stocks, shares and securitised debt combined, with a total value of around US$228 trillion. That represents three and a half times global GDP, or 40 times the value of all the gold ever mined. While once we dug down to extract value from the earth, the bristling glass towers of these new urban enclaves are the inverted mineshafts of today – complete with equally damaging side effects.

This new breed of city takes various different forms, from government initiatives, to public-private partnerships, to entirely private enterprises. Many are being used to jump-start economies in the developing world, with masterplans carefully calibrated to attract foreign investors and treasuries looking to sink their funds into something concrete. They provide a powerful means for wealthy countries to expand their strategic influence abroad, with the construction of new cities acting as a form of “debt-trap diplomacy”, tying host nations into impossibly burdensome deals. They are billed as a panacea for the world’s urban ills, solving overcrowding, congestion and pollution; yet, more often than not, they turn out to be catalysts for land dispossession, environmental degradation and social inequality.

At the southern tip of Malaysia on a series of four artificial islands, one such promised Elysium is sprouting from the sand. Launched in 2014, Forest City is a US$100 billion joint venture between the Chinese developer Country Garden and the Sultan of Johor. It is planned to house 700,000 people by 2050.
Forest City has been marketed as an “iconic urban area” moments from Singapore, a “new Shenzhen” where the “concepts of safety, convenience, green and smart are integrated into every corner of life”. It features luxury flat towers, hotels, offices, shopping malls and an international school, all smothered with a lush blanket of greenery and surrounded by a “virtual electric fence”.

The flats are prohibitively expensive for most Malaysians but a relative bargain for Chinese investors, who have been flown here in droves and bused to the spaceship-shaped sales gallery to marvel at the enormous model of the Avatar-like world that awaits. Cashiers stand at the end of the guided tour to take credit card down payments before the tourists get back on the bus.

This self-styled “eco-city” is being built on 162 million cubic metres of shipped-in sand that has already had a damaging impact on the surrounding marine environment. The causeway built to facilitate the land reclamation for the islands cuts right across the Tanjung Kupang seagrass meadows, a precious habitat that helps to stabilise the sea floor and protect coastal erosion, while mangroves have been trampled to make way for the development’s prefabrication factories.

Reclamation began without the required environmental impact assessment, and the effects have already been felt by local fishermen, who complain of reduced catches due to the destruction of their fragile ecosystem. The emerging island community, meanwhile, is not so much a city as a ghostly duty-free resort, a haunted Photoshop montage mostly bereft of full-time residents.

A similar story is taking place thousands of miles away on the west coast of Africa, where “an investment opportunity on an unprecedented scale” is being touted on a patch of sand dredged from the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Lagos. Eko Atlantic is another public-private partnership, this time brokered between the state government and the Chagoury Group, an influential Nigerian business empire, with engineering expertise provided by the China Communications Construction Company – a state-owned conglomerate that appears to have cornered the market in conjuring land from the ocean, being responsible for dredging Forest City as well as terraforming disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Eko Atlantic is protected by its own sea defence barrier made of 100,000 five-tonne concrete blocks, dubbed the “Great Wall of Lagos”, making it a secure private island for the few, shielded from climate catastrophe at the expense of others. It is a raised atoll for the wealthy Nigerian elite, while the poor remain consigned to low-lying coastal slums whose exposure to deadly flooding and coastal erosion has only increased since the construction of the sea wall.

As the environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey put it, the project “is contrary to anything one would want to do if one took seriously climate change and resource depletion”. As if to cement Donald Trump’s image as the poster boy for climate denial, the US embassy recently announced it will be relocating to a secure five-hectare compound there.

The glamorous computer-generated visions of Lagos’s exclusive new appendage have sparked a thirst for similarly futuristic and climate-inappropriate schemes across the continent, as countries race to provide the answer to housing the additional 1.3 billion people that are projected to be added to Africa’s population by 2050. Ghana unveiled plans for the Hope City – Hope is an acronym of Home, Office, People and Environment – a US$10 billion fantasy that would be home to Africa’s tallest building.

It has been joined by Tanzania’s Kigamboni New City in Dar es Salaam, Kenya’s Tatu City in Nairobi, Rwanda’s Vision City in Kigali, and Senegal’s plans for the US$2 billion Diamniadio Lake City (designed by the appropriately named Bad Consultant) – all of which follow the cookie-cutter approach of car-based, hi-tech hubs, rarely planned with existing populations in mind.

As Rachel Keeton and Michelle Provoost of the International New Town Institute say in their new book, To Build a City in Africa: “New Towns are becoming islands with high quality services, while many existing African cities continue to suffer from unreliable electricity provision, limited access to clean water, and other ineffectual municipal services. Because of limited access to mortgages and other home financing models, the real African middle class cannot afford to live in these New Towns.”

Despite the evidence of half-built utopias lying mostly empty around the world, the seductive dream of building new cities from scratch shows no sign of abating any time soon. City-making, and the innumerable planning, engineering and technical services that go with it, is a booming industry, and corporations are intent on recycling their ideas irrespective of local context.

Back in Songdo – whose developers proudly list the exotic destinations where their ideas have since been rolled out – an innovation centre showcases the latest in parking violation sensors and crime-fighting lamp posts, all branded with the u-City logo. Why “u”, I ask? “It stands for ubiquitous,” says the company rep. “Ultimately, we want our kind of city to be everywhere.”

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