For those not familiar with Korea’s New Songdo City, it’s “the first new city in the world designed and planned as an international business district. Overall, it will include 45 million square feet of office space, 30 million square feet of residential space, 10 million square feet of retail, 5 million square feet of hotel space and 10 million square feet of public space.” It hopes to eventually be home to 60 000 people, with another 300 000 working there, but until it begins opening in 2009, and is complete in 2014, you’ll have to be satisfied by watching this ‘fly through’ video of the city, complete with soaring Sigur Rós soundtrack.
But perhaps more interesting than a city that plans to combine elements of Sydney, Venice, Paris, New York, and London is one that plans to put ubiquitous technology at the centre of its space and culture:
Creating an “ubiquitous city,” or “U-City,” in which all major information systems (residential, medical, business, etc.) share data; computers are built into the houses, streets and office buildings; and the technology and facilities infrastructures are integrated would be a gargantuan challenge for an existing city. In the case of Songdo, it’s the easy part. Since Songdo is a completely new city, it serves as a blank canvas on which to freely imagine and implement a technology vision without having to incorporate existing buildings or legacy networks. Songdo also has the advantage of being located in a nation that boasts an extraordinary level of technological acumen, the highest penetration and variety of broadband services, and a population that is likely the most computer literate – and demanding – on Earth. What is more difficult is planning for the emergence of a “U-Culture” that is energizing and enabling, that results in applications both serendipitous and unpredictable, and where citizens will decide for themselves what kind of digital life they want… (Songdo U-Life)
What we have there is a scenario that may well result in the world’s largest living RFID laboratory. As Anthony Townsend puts in it Korea’s High-Tech Utopia, Where Everything Is Observed, “There are really no comparable comprehensive frameworks for ubiquitous computing. U-city is a uniquely Korean idea … Much of this technology was developed in U.S. research labs, but there are fewer social and regulatory obstacles to implementing them in Korea. There is an historical expectation of less privacy. Korea is willing to put off the hard questions to take the early lead and set standards.” Such an experimental situation will also inevitably involve failures, and in the same article BJ Fogg cautions “they should be prepared for the frailties of human nature to emerge.”
If this is the case for ubiquitous technology, then perhaps it is even more so in the realm of “u-life,” which is alternately described as a convenient life, a peaceful life and a safe life. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an example of where everyday life is so thoroughly integrated with technological infrastructures, but it seems to me that the experiment at hand is hardly limited to technology. Beyond different cultural expectations of privacy I can’t help but wonder about the broader social–and human–costs.