Digital Ecopolis

When I first heard about it I couldn’t believe it; computerized cities wired to improve sustainability and quality of life.  There are actually over one hundred of these “smart cities” in planning or development worldwide.  I immediately started looking into the facts and what I found was astonishing – The future is here!  I took a very detailed look into two of the most ambitious examples, one in South Korea and the other in Spain, both of which are prototype cities that exist only to push the limits of what is possible to hopefully one day be accomplished on a larger scale.

New Songdo City – South Korea

What was once the ocean floor beneath the Yellow Sea is now one of the most expensive development projects in history.  With a $40 billion price tag over ten years, the plan was to raise a futuristic and completely sustainable city from the ocean that will be built from scratch and attract international business development to South Korea.

The project is now called – “New Songdo City” – is a small subdivision of Incheon.  It is currently one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world but is still developing.  New Songdo features the world’s tallest residential towers, a man-made lake of saltwater redirected from the ocean, and 40% vegetative “green space” accomplished by redirecting 95% of the parking into underground lots and utilizing city rooftops as gardens.

New Songdo is the only spot in the country where foreign companies can own land and is a subdivision of Incheon, South Korea, one of Asia’s busiest hubs.  An estimated 30 million or more people per year pass through the Incheon airport and one-third of the world’s population within three hour’s travel time, making this an ideal location for foreign business development in the country. 

New Songdo has taken some pretty drastic measures to maximize their environmental sustainability.  For example, the entire city is outfitted with a Pneumatic Trash Collection system.  This system, similar to a high-tech sewer system, accepts trash deposited into the receptacle and, using air pressure, transports the garbage through the city’s pipeline network into a central location eliminating the need for collection vehicles and reducing the amount of plastic bags wasted. 

The city has also implemented an intricate plumbing network with separate lines for freshwater, sewage, and greywater.  This allows the freshwater to be used for drinking, cooking, and other similar uses, while greywater is used for irrigation, industrial purposes, toilet water, and things of this nature.  The cities buildings are also equipped to recycle a large portion of greywater internally while external rainwater traps are positioned to funnel freshwater into the system.  All water that is used in both the canal and lake is treated seawater.

Transportation has been identified as one of the leading causes of pollution worldwide.  This was addressed in Songdo with a plan to minimize the need to travel by car.  The city was organized with the utilization of vertical space as well as telepresence technology to bring people closer to the things they need.  Many of Songdo’s buildings are multi-purpose structures with both residential and commercial floors so that residents simply hop into an elevator rather than a car in order to get the groceries or other retail items they need.  Both businesses and students alike benefit from the telepresence devices available in every residence, office, and school.  Students in Songdo take advantage of what is being called a “global education”.  They converse with students across the world and are able to take part in both competitive and cooperative educational experiences using the technology.  When residents have needs that require them to travel within the city, there is still no need to get behind the wheel.  Dubbed a “walking city” the area was carefully planned for travel by foot or bicycle with every part of the city located within a 15 minute walk of central park.  There are also 25km of bike trails within Songdo, strategically placed to make carbon-free commuting as convenient as possible.

Green energy and power conservation are two more things that Songdo is doing extremely well.  By using low U value windows that reduce the transfer of heat through the glass, the buildings in Songdo consume far less energy to cool them.  The buildings utilize water cooling and also make use of recycled power with absorption chillers that can convert waste heat into cooling.  The power that they do require is generated through solar power, wind power, and recycling.  No resource is overlooked. Even human waste is processed through a recycling center and co-generation plant that not only treats the waste water, but extracts energy from it to help power the city.  All traffic lights, building lights, and street lights, are all low energy LED.  The city is completely wired with sensors that identify sources of inefficient energy use and notify the user of the problem.  All buildings are also equipped with a central home network system that provides an interface for home owners/businesses to interact with all of the systems in their buildings either remotely or on site.  The giant screen gives the user a complete picture of everything going on in the space at that time from open doors/windows to electronics or appliances that are running.

Santander, Spain

A similar project has also been undertaken in Spain.  Luis Muñoz, an IT professor from the University of Cantabria, has been granted €9 million ($11.7 million) in research money, most of it from the EU, to develop a prototype smart city.

Although this city is operating on a small fraction of the budget awarded to develop New Songdo, what has been accomplished here is quite comparable.  Santander was already an established municipality before Muñoz’s project began, while New Songdo was built from scratch, so it is very hard to compare the budgets.

Santander, which has drawn interest from major technology companies like Google and Microsoft, has done a magnificent job of streamlining important data in the city, as well as utilizing many available options to conserve resources and reduce waste, such as greywater and recycling programs. 

The city spent most of the $11.7 million budget on technology.  The entire city has been wired to track a plethora of information that will keep the management in the city well-informed.  For example, all municipal vehicles are wired with sensors that transmit positional and vector data, along with environmental readings from the area around the vehicle.  This is convenient not only to people wanting to know when the bus will arrive and other practical purposes, but is also used by the city’s government and agencies to create a map of noise and EU pollution levels. 

Sensors also are present in trash receptacles to gauge when they need to be picked up so the city saves a lot of money by not having to pick up ones that are still nearly empty.  There is also the environmental benefit of those heavy trucks not driving to check on empty trash containers.

The sensor system also detects wasted sources of energy around the city doing things like dimming streetlights when no one is around and gauging when park gardens or grass need watering.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the city’s initiative for citizens is the “pulse of the city” smartphone app.  This app is designed to create a sort of functional social network for the city.  The app can be used to access all of the data collected from the sensors and make it available for anyone who wants it.  People who are waiting for the bus can track the bus in real time along its route.  If a citizen notices a pothole or other issue, it can be photographed with a smartphone and then submitted to the city though the app.  The user can also use the app to track the progress of the repair and all others that have been submitted through the app.  Needless to say this has the street repair crews moving much faster than in cities with less accountability.

The app can also be used by local merchants to sell their goods, citizens to participate in city planning, and citizens becoming sensors themselves by activating the GPS integration feature. 


Along with a good part of the rest of the world I’m quite fascinated by technology.  Researching these cities and the systems in place there has me remembering shows like “The Jetsons” and “Back to the Future 2” which depicted kids zipping around on hover-skateboards in the year 2015.  While that world still seems pretty unlikely to become reality within the next 2 years, when I see some of the gadgets and concepts coming to fruition in places like New Songdo and Santander, I wonder if Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s vision for the future wasn’t that far off.

By Michael Faulds

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