Is aerotropolis Songdo really the city of the future?

Songdo from above. Image: Fleetham/Wikipedia.

The ‘aerotropolis’ has been described by U.S. business consultant John Kasarda, the pioneer of the concept, as the “city of the future”. The notion of building a city around an airport, not the other way round, has been deemed to be crucial for economic development. Just as urban areas sprawled around railroads in the 1800s, and highways in the 1900s, the thinking is that business and commerce will jump at the opportunity to be based near a world-class, international hub.

Amsterdam Schiphol and Seoul Incheon have been widely seen as the two poster children for the concept of the aerotropolis. But are airport cities really that glamorous in reality?

Fast forward eleven hours from Heathrow, and one lands in the stylish Terminal 1 of Seoul Incheon (IATA code: ICN), a routine prize-winner in the "World’s Best Airport’ awards. Every time I have landed there, there is some new addition to the hi-tech gizmos on show in the arrivals lounge, whether high-tech sanitation in the restrooms, a high-speed railway linking Incheon with the rest of Seoul, or, on my recent arrival, automated robots making sure the floors of Arrivals were polished to perfection.

Yet much of the attention has focused not on ICN, but its aerotropolis of Songdo, officially the Songdo International Business District. A ‘smart city’ built from scratch on reclaimed land, Songdo was destined to be the prototype cosmopolitan aerotropolis, the city of the future: home to international university campuses, globe-trotting businessmen, multinational financial firms, as well as a place for high-end tourism. The 2012 Presidents Cup golf tournament was played at the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in Songdo. What better way to attract an international clientele?

Yet have a look around Songdo, and it feels like a ghost town. The students are there, businessmen come and go, restaurants and department stores open their doors, yet something is missing.

The lack of footfall and sporadic numbers of ‘cosmopolitan clientele’ were crystal clear as I walked down the deserted streets. Songdo is no exception to South Korea’s obsession with high-rise life, but more apartments are being built than tenants moving in. In what looks like a half-hearted attempt to emulate the epitome of global urban cosmopolitanism, New York, the high-rise apartments encircle a designated park named Central Park.

Central Park. Image: Dongjun Kim/Wikipedia.

Songdo also promised environmental and technological progress. Amongst the city’s many accolades, it has claimed the title of the world’s first ‘smart’ city: sensors have been placed throughout the area to gather information on traffic flows, and apartments are fitted with the latest technological accouterments. The frequent-flying businessman can make video calls from the televisions in the apartments, and the global student can attend university classes remotely. Trash is collected and separated automatically, sucked out of apartments by a vacuum chute, and, within the blink of an eye, arrives at the sorting facility.

These are hallmarks of an efficient city – but only if there are car users for whom tracking pollution levels and traffic flows may be useful, if there are businessmen who actually make use of the LED television screens to conference call, and if there is enough trash to be recycled and sorted, come to that.


Speaking to those who live in Songdo and its vicinity, the hype all seems a bit much. With South Korea increasing in its technological innovation day-by-day, the ability to host a conference call from one’s LED television screen is no big deal. Similar waste collection has been tried tested in Singapore, amongst other cities: again, nothing to get excited about.

And most of all, when I asked where the cosmopolitan citizens are, the reply was simple: “They are all in Seoul, and will stay in Seoul.” Something has clearly gone wrong for Songdo, not least the fact that the city’s construction on reclaimed land has attracted its fair share of criticism from environmental groups – but a big problem is that it has failed to attract the globetrotting, frequent-flying, citizen-of-the-world.

There are plenty of airports around which commerce, retail, and residence are becoming ever more numerous, which raises the question of whether the aerotropolis is actually something new. Just as it is nothing out of the ordinary that businesses sprawled along the railroads in the 19th century, maybe the airport is just the railroad of today: it is only natural for urban life to blossom around it.

Maybe we should pay less attention to the new ‘cities’ springing up around airports, and more on the airports themselves. They may seem like mere waiting rooms to some – but they can be rich sources of architecture, technology, big data, and fascinating places in their own right. Incheon’s Terminal 2 opened in January of this year. It promises to be just as glamorous, efficient, and technologically-embedded, if not more, than Terminal 1.

So next time you see someone checking-in to a flight with an ‘ICN’ tag on their luggage, you may know one thing. They may be flying to Incheon, but chances are they will not set foot in Songdo.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.