What is it Really Like Living in the World's Smartest City?

Since the day we’ve arrived here in South Korea, we’ve been fascinated by the culture of this incredible country. This is the most culturally distinct place we’ve ever lived or traveled to. We’ve been asking ourselves since day 1, how does a typical South Korean family live? That’s not the easiest question to answer, however, because one thing we’ve discovered is that we aren’t living in a typical South Korean city. We are living in Songdo. A city designed and created to be a “ubiquitous city”. Ubiquitous in the sense that it intends to be the World’s Smartest City.

The problem is, you’d never know it. Park Yeon Soo has been designing this city for over 30 years and considers himself a visionary. Yet, he says he built a Mercedes and now he needs someone to drive it

What is it Really Like Living in the
World’s Smartest City?

Songdo was built in tandem with Sejong. Officially, Songdo is Songdo International Business District. Officially, Sejong is Sejong Special Autonomous City. No one in the world wants to say either one of those names more than once in their lives.

Both cities were built to house the upcoming generation. The generation of Koreans who are supposed to have more than two children. The generation that must proliferate or the culture and nationality of Korea will begin to decline in less than one single decade from now. Starting in 2030, Korea will need to begin importing people. 80,000 people annually to drive their economy. Insert: Songdo.

The City Where People Want to Live, Where People Build the Future Together.

Located southwest of Seoul as an attraction for families, businesses, and the future, Songdo was billed as the World’s Smartest City. Nine years ago with $35 billion dollars developers set out to build Songdo in much the same way Boston was built, with 500 tons of sand poured onto the mud flats of the Yellow Sea on reclaimed land. This is also interesting because Songdo is the same size as Boston.

Boston isn’t the only city that has acted as a muse for developers. There are also canals that mimic Venice; a Convention Center that is modeled after the Sydney Opera House in Australia; and a Central Park much like New York’s.

Central Park Songdo with Kids in Incheon, Korea: The World's Smartest City
Central Park Songdo

What Makes Sondgo the World’s Smartest City?

The plan for Songdo, and Sejong alike, includes three main components. No trash, no cars and knowing what you need before you need it.

Instead of trash bins and sorting organic from inorganic material manually, pneumatic tubes are installed citywide to whisk the trash magically away from view and deep underground. At least that was the idea.

What is it Really Like Living in the World's Smartest City?
Pneumatic Tubes for sorted garbage at Global Apartments Prugio

The World’s Smartest City didn’t intend for anyone to have a car or much less drive, however government mandates require a 8-10 lane highways that make up the composition of the city, and are impossible to ignore.

At home, elevators can anticipate when you are leaving your apartment and when you are coming home and have an elevator waiting for you. Your TV can provide you with a private tutor for language or math classes. 500 cameras ensure total grid coverage to regulate or detect ‘suspicious’ behavior, and that’s both the least of humanity’s problems and the greatest.

Songdo falls somewhere in between The Stepford Wives and The Truman Show. It’s not that anything nefarious is going on behind closed doors, it’s just something feels a little bit off. The picture of Songdo doesn’t match the caption.

A Day in the Life in The World’s Smartest City?

At the Incheon Global Campus we take our garbage downstairs to a large room in the basement that overflows each night. Then it is sorted by an individual who oversees that everything is in its proper place from used diapers to kiwi peels. Not exactly smart, if you ask me.

Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA
Garbage pile at Incheon Global Campus

There are elevators, but they don’t all work. There are keypads to unlock doors, but the doors don’t lock. There are video cameras, but they delete everything after 30 days.

There aren’t flying cars or robots cleaning the streets, but there are shimmering glass buildings that touch the sky. The World’s Smartest City is full of 39-60 story apartment buildings with everything you could ever need.

Every community has exercise machines. Every community has a playground for children. Every community has a name. Everyone has a little shopping center with kids cafes, salons, a popsicle store, restaurants and take out diners, and schools. Not unlike what you’d expect in any neighborhood anywhere in the world. The difference is elsewhere everything is sprawled out over a distance, here everything is located in compact high rise building communities.

Playgrounds in Korea
Playground at Lotte Castle in Campus Town

There are places to shop and spend your money with rotating vendors that change every weekend. Bins full of wares and goods and commodities. The World’s Smartest City has everything you need, and apparently the people here need a lot of stuff.

And it stinks. No, literally, it stinks. Despite having a distinct lack of garbage trucks, the smell of rotting waste is putrescent. It’s not so pervasive that you can’t walk around without being offended, but far too often the wafting smell is overwhelming.

The one place you can’t get rid of it is at home. You can even smell it in the water. No one here drinks from the tap, and bottled water is often a scarcity depending on the time of day or the day of the week that you go to the store. Dishwashers must remain open, and clothes need a lemon added to every load.

All anyone ever talks about is the plastic problem. In Songdo, you have to pay for plastic single use grocery bags, but the water is so bad here, you can’t drink it. If anything, The World’s Smartest City should have figured out how to reduce plastic, not contribute to it.

What’s Missing in Songdo, The World’s Smartest City?

People, affordability and individuality.

When we first drove through the city, leaving the airport and crossing the 7 ½ mile bridge that links Yeongjongdo Island to Songdo, we were taken aback by the uniformity that imprints itself upon the city. The only distinguishing attribute to the sea of high rise apartment buildings are the bold typeface names plastered along the top floor. Everything looks the same, everything feels the same, and everything repeats itself.

Buildings in the World's Smartest City
Rinse and repeat

Songdo means Pine Island as the city is intended to have 40% green space. Everything is built to be within 12 minutes walking distance to Central Park intending to serve as a gathering place for the residents and large families drawn to Songdo. It is meant to be a hub for the thriving communities that are said to absent throughout the rest of Korea.

The apartments, as grand as they are sucking away garbage through pneumatic tubes, are largely vacant. Only 100,000 people live in Songdo a town built for 300,000 and scoped for double that. The playbook for building Songdo was taken directly out of “Field of Dreams”: Build it, and they will come. After a decade they still haven’t come.

Living in the World’s Smartest City is a ghost town. We made that comment on day 3, and it’s remained true. You don’t have to travel anywhere to do anything, unless you want to attend a play, go to a museum or experience anything cultural beyond spending money on material things.

If you want street food, one of the things that put Korea on the map, you won’t be able to find it anywhere in Songdo.

Eating Bugs in South Korea
Street food at Namdaemun Market

Take a few steps outside of Technopark, Songdo’s most recent development, into Dream City or Tomorrow City and see what happens to a neighborhood in the World’s Smartest City after only a few years. Smog and pollution are higher in Songdo than they are in Seoul, creating a teeming environment for grime. Escalators are so rusted you might mistake them for an apocalyptic waste zone.

Electricity is coal powered and still comes from China. Many suspect that these plants are the reason for the foul smells that fill the air and penetrate the water supply. Because of the pollution, windows cannot be opened most of the year, while heat runs all winter and air conditioning all summer.

Not to mention, The World’s Smartest City doesn’t have central A/C. Part of the problem with heating and cooling is that the Air Conditioning unit is located in the main living areas. Only in the main living areas. It’s a corner tower that runs full blast, all day and all night, to achieve any sort of reasonable living temperatures. It’s such a poor use of inefficient electricity.

Tomorrow City was fashioned after Tomorrow Land at Disneyland. Here you could get the classic futuristic ice cream dippin dots and view scaled models of what was coming to Songdo. After just 6 months city officials shut everything down and declared tomorrow was yesterday, much like the tired tagline of the ice cream no one wants.

Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea, World's Smartest City
Welcome to Gangnam!

Everything is too expensive. Songdo is considered a neighborhood for the elite wealthy. So much so, that Psy filmed part of his Gangnam Style music video in the Songdo Subway Train system. Even the agency that manages investments and services for Songdo admits they can’t live here. People who do live here claim it feels like prison. Every weekend, everyone from Songdo takes the two hour commute to Seoul to experience museums and culture and street food, while everyone from Seoul comes to Songdo to get away from the dirty garbage strewn streets covered with cigarette butts and filth.

There is supposed to be a speed train from Songdo to Seoul, but it’s just another thing that is missing.

So, What’s it Really Like Living in Songdo?

Songdo, The World’s Smartest City, is more of a test bed that didn’t come to fruition. It’s basically no different than any other city, other than a few minor behind the surface tweaks that you can’t really see, and definitely don’t feel.

Despite everything though, it’s truly astonishing how much has been accomplished here. Standing in the middle of Songdo, you’d never believe 10 years ago this place was a sloshy mudpit covered in seagulls, snails and rats.

For that reason alone, it’s a masterpiece.

What is it Really Like Living in the World's Smartest City?
What Songdo once looked like

Check out our experience traveling to the DMZ and what you need to know before you enter no man’s land.

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