Episode 11: Connected Cities

The future of urban living

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Connected cities

Connected cities

Our programme about connected cities, asks an interesting question. If you...
Our programme about connected cities, asks an interesting question. If you to build a new country from scratch would you first build roads or would you first build internet and virtual connectivity?

It is very tempting to say that if you had a blank canvas and wanted to achieve the most, in the shortest possible time with the most efficient use of resources, you may well be tempted to build an information highway before you built a transport highway.

This is a very pertinent question as cities around the world are not only growing but whole new cities are being built like never before.

Urbanisation is one of the defining trends of the 21st Century. But cities are important not just because increasingly, that is where more of us are living, but because they are the crucible of most new ideas and our new vibrancy. But, as pressure on the city grows, we’ll have to use all of those new ideas and our new technologies to ensure that cities flourish in the decades ahead.

The global population exceeds seven billion, with more than half of us living in urban areas. But by 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion of us worldwide. More than two-thirds will be urbanised. An incredible 96 percent of this urban growth will come from the developing world.

I travelled to South Korea to see some of the most ambitious urban planning in the world. Songdo is a South Korean city that is being built from scratch. Its developers claim it will be one of the smartest, well-connected cities on the planet.

Walking round Songdo, it doesn’t look very different from any other city. There are more flats being built than might be normal and there is a very nice park but it doesn’t look like a city of the future as Hollywood would have us imagine it.

For a city being billed as a vision of the future, the biggest surprise is that it is surprisingly normal and even boring.

A decade ago it was nothing but 1,500 acres of reclaimed wasteland west of Seoul, but it is fast becoming a city. Phase 1 of Songdo was completed in 2009 and it boasts hi-tech living and working spaces that aim to enhance the lives of its inhabitants.

But what does all this hi-tech living really mean for the people who actually live here? I met with one such resident who, along with her daughter, has made Songdo their home.

Ms Soon-nam Kwon invited meet to her new connected apartment. In a world in which CCTV increasingly invades our space, in these Songdo apartments they have turned the tables and residents control the CCTV so she can look at the playground to check on her children, check the underground car park to see her car and husband arriving and through her TV joins an exercise class the other side of town.

A well-toned, youthful and thoroughly too healthy looking trainer joined Ms Soon-nam Kown and me for half an hour of exercise. Except we were doing it by her piano in her living room and he was in a gym.

Using an excuse that my Korean was not up to scratch did not wash with the trainer who could see us and kept encouraging me to do better.

It was a fun experience but in essence I did not feel that this was a technological breakthrough. It was a clever use of Skype-like technology that I use in the very old city I live in.

I was much more impressed by some technology that you could not see at all.

Songdo is a showcase for many of the technologies that Cisco and others have on offer, but to the plain eye, you ca not see much, and that is because it is buried underground.

Or should I say, sucked underground? In Songdo, getting rid of your household waste could not be simpler. I know it sounds odd, but what excited me most was their rubbish depot.

I have filmed at more rubbish depots than you might imagine and this one was different from every other one I have ever seen.

It was clean, did not smell and more to the point, there was no rubbish.

Every building in Songdo has a rubbish shoot. Residents put their waste in to their shoot, and it is then sucked through underground pipes to the central rubbish depot.

The depot looks like the sterile control room of a massive power station. In fact it is controlling an enormous hidden vacuum cleaner that is dragging in waste from all over the city. It is sucked from each apartment under the streets to a central hub.

It is then compacted on site and sent off to be dealt with. No rubbish trucks needed here. Songdo eventually aims to recycle a massive 76% of its waste.

There are interesting developments in Songdo which may offer guidance to other cities around the world. But I did not think it offered a clear vision of the extent of what we could do. There was more to connect it to the cities of the past centuries than the ones of the coming centuries.

I have seen similar new cities in China, which also boast huge leaps forward in the way they allow people to live but also seem modest in what they are actually achieving.

It does not mean that what these developers and politicians are doing is unimportant. Far from it, re-designing and re-thinking the way we live could be one of the most important developments of the next century. But we are making baby-steps at the moment.

It is no coincidence that we are increasingly living in cities.

The re-birth of art, culture and science that took place in 14th Century Italy and that became known as the Renaissance burst from the vibrant city of Florence because a critical mass of people, power, structure and ideas came together to become more than the sum of their parts.

We really do work better when we are together. What we have to do now is try to ensure our city hubs are not just growing bigger, but are working better.
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