Hiatus: Comparing 3 Smart Cities

Author’s Note: With my finals week closing in, I’ve had to once again push off my next major post. Once summer starts, I’ll start building up a backlog again, and have new posts for the rest of the year. Until then, here’s another piece I wrote for my Smart Cities class.

New Songdo City

New Songdo City, AKA Songdo International Business District (IBD), is a South Korean planned city begun in 2008.  The city was designed by an international partnership, led by two New York companies. The plan covers many distinct and occasionally contradictory goals. First, Songdo aims to be the first  “ubiquitous city,” with technology in every aspect of residents’ lives (Kshetri, Alcantara, & Park, 2014). It was also built near the Incheon International Airport as an aerotropolis, claiming to be “a 3 ½ hour flight to 1/3 of the world’s population” (Songdo IBD, 2015). Songdo’s developers also claim it is a sustainable green city, but it is clear the main goal is to be a hub for international business.

Projects and Advancements

Figure 1: A master panel in New Songdo City (Ilhan, 2015).
Figure 1: A master panel in New Songdo City (Ilhan, 2015).

The master panel in every apartment in Songdo represents the ubiquitous services that define the city. These panels provide access to security cameras for the building and control lights, temperature, and air quality in the apartments. They also act as telephones, memo pads, and smart meters that provide access to the apartment’s power usage information (Foth, Brynskov, & Ojala, 2015). One of the more impressive functions of the city is its waste management system. All trash is collected through pneumatic tubes, which move it to a centralized plant, where it is processed, returning energy and heating water to the city (Anthopoulos, 2017). This is a highlight for many Songdo residents (Foth et al., 2015). Various other citywide smart systems are in various stages of prototyping. Songdo’s environmental programs include more than 20 million square feet of LEED certified space, the highest concentration in the world (Songdo IBD, 2015). The design aims to minimize car use, by making all neighborhoods pedestrian friendly and within 15 minutes of a source of public transit (Pollock, 2010).

King Abdullah Economic City

Figure 2: The King Abdullah Port in KAEC (HUTA Group photographer, 2015).
Figure 2: The King Abdullah Port in KAEC (HUTA Group photographer, 2015).

A massive undertaking begun in 2005, the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is just the first of four “Economic Cities” in Saudi Arabia. The $100 billion project hopes to move the economy of the country away from oil. KAEC’s industry is built on shipping, logistics, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and food processing (Moser, Swain, & Alkhabbaz, 2015). The city is broken into six areas: an Industrial Valley, an educational zone, a central business district, seaside resorts, a series of residential zones, and the King Abdullah Port. The port is the crowning jewel of the city, linking Asia, Africa, and Europe through the largest port in the region, built to serve the largest ships in the world.

Projects and Advancements

KAEC features a custom high-speed broadband system throughout the city, and all city functions run through central Integrated Operation Centers (Angelidou, 2017). The port uses state-of-the-art cranes and features berths for the largest ships in the world (figure 2). A high-speed rail system connects KAEC to Jeddah and Mecca. Finally, although a large-scale canal project was cancelled, the city incorporates a series of natural wadis, channels that help prevent floods and slow rainwater so it is absorbed into groundwater and doesn’t rush into the Red Sea, damaging coral (Moser et al., 2015).

Masdar City

Figure 3: Masdar City's PRT lobby (Masdar Official, 2010).
Figure 3: Masdar City’s PRT lobby (Masdar Official, 2010).

Masdar City is a masterplanned community near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a response to the UAE’s reliance on dwindling oil supplies, terrible carbon footprint, and vulnerability to climate change. The city broke ground in 2008, and is often described as the “first sustainable city in the world” (Crot, 2013). The city is intended as a sort of urban laboratory, built to test smart city technology on an urban scale, with a focus on economic and environmental sustainability (Cugurullo, 2016).

Projects and Advancements

Figure 4: The windtower at the center of Masdar City (Masdar Official, 2010).
Figure 4: The windtower at the center of Masdar City (Masdar Official, 2010).

Masdar has implemented a number of very interesting projects, although many of them have stalled as pilot projects. The Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) System, for example, has been the subject of much press about the city, despite it only consisting of 13 cars on a single 800 meter track (Hill, 2011, see figure 2). Other projects have seen more success. Although the planned solar panels on every building were scrapped, a 10-megawatt solar farm powers a large portion of the city, as does partial roof coverage. The narrow shaded streets promote pedestrian travel, and the combination of traditional Arabic building techniques with new materials cools buildings and streets naturally. The windtower in the center of the city helps funnel air through the central plaza (figure 3).


All three of these cities seem similar at first blush: masterplanned greenfield developments, built to boost economies. However, these smart cities really come alive when they are compared and contrasted. To do so, I’ll compare the cities qualitatively across the three dimensions of sustainable development (Environmental, Social, and Economic), since all of them claim to be sustainable communities for the future. I’ll also include what quantitative data is available, although it is sparse and inconsistent for these brand-new cities.


All three of these cities were built from scratch, already troubling for their environmental impact. Songdo is perhaps the worst of these, being built on reclaimed wetland, immediately at risk from climate change. Masdar’s claim of carbon neutrality is belied by the constant oil-fueled construction projects, limited success of solar power, and need for offsite desalination, equally oil-fueled (Crot, 2013).

Both Songdo and KAEC feature canal systems with differing purposes and effects. Songdo’s water taxi canals use saltwater to prevent freezing and avoid wasting potable water. KAEC, on the other hand, only has pre-existing natural wadis, which only fill during the rainy season, act as drainage, and protect the offshore coral reefs (Moser et al., 2015).

On a higher level, KAEC has demonstrated little intent to move away from oil. The city shows no evidence of renewable energy activity. Masdar is doing somewhat better, though its success has been limited, as mentioned above. All buildings in the Emirati city are targeted to reduce internal water use by 30 percent and energy demand by 40, as well as rating 3 Pearls in the Estidama system, comparable to LEED Gold (Masdar, 2016).

However, Songdo may be the best of these cities environmentally: by accepted LEED as its design standard and limiting automobiles, the city purports to produce 70 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than developments of comparable size (Kohn Pederson Fox, n.d.).


Building brand new cities is always a gamble, and any city will fail if no one chooses to live there. Songdo is somewhat notorious for being a ghost town, with only a handful of companies and one-third of the residents it is meant to host (Poon, 2018). This has resulted in complaints about the lack of social life and neighborhood interaction, even forcing people to drive to Seoul on weekends to spend time with friends and family.

The other two cities have done somewhat better for themselves, attracting some industry, as well as students to their universities–King Abdullah University of Science and Technology near KAEC and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Masdar–but both have had trouble with privacy and security concerns (Angelidou, 2017). KAEC’s residential areas cover all income brackets, but they are homogenous, gated communities with a lack of interaction and diversity (Moser et al., 2015).

None of the cities perform well socially, possibly because none of their smart city programs feature any sort of resident input (Angelidou, 2017).


Songdo, KAEC, and Masdar were all built to boost their countries’ respective economies and draw foreign investment. All three are Free Economic Zones, with special tax, regulation, and legal benefits for companies moving to them. Masdar and KAEC both specifically aim to shift their countries’ economies from oil to more sustainable industries. Masdar perhaps does this better, as it works toward a specific industry, energy, while KAEC has much broader goals, including many oil-reliant industries such as plastics and shipping, as well as a much-celebrated Mars Bar factory (Moser et al., 2015). This does promote a certain amount of economic sustainability, by moving energy-intensive industry closer to the source of oil, but doesn’t do much to reduce reliance. Neither city, though, has much influence on the broader economy of their nations.

Songdo’s focus recently narrowed, hoping to build on its success attracting biotechnology companies (Poon, 2018). Ultimately though, Songdo’s struggle drawing people feeds back into a struggle drawing corporations and investment.

All three of the cities are also massive drains for their creators, well over budget and schedule. In fact, none of them are even complete yet, as their construction deadlines are perpetually pushed back. The hope is that, once they are complete, the cities will finally be able to pay these debts back in spades.


Angelidou, M. (2017). The Role of Smart City Characteristics in the Plans of Fifteen Cities. Journal of Urban Technology, 24(4), 3–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2017.1348880

Anthopoulos, L. (2017). Smart utopia VS smart reality: Learning by experience from 10 smart city cases. Cities, 63, 128–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.10.005

Crot, L. (2013). Planning for Sustainability in Non-democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City. Urban Studies, 50(13), 2809–2825. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098012474697

Cugurullo, F. (2016). Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: Where Masdar City fails and why. Urban Studies, 53(11), 2417–2433. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098015588727

Foth, M., Brynskov, M., & Ojala, T. (2015). Citizen’s right to the digital city urban interfaces, activism, and placemaking. Citizen’s Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking, 1–259. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-919-6

Hill, D. J. (2011). Masdar City Abandons Transportation System of the Future. Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://singularityhub.com/2011/03/01/masdar-city-abandons-public-transportation-system-of-the-future/#sm.0000mesr28l1gdgauz22iqwblaqbc

HUTA Group photographer. (2015).  King Abdullah Port, King Abdullah Economic City. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_Abdullah_Port,_King_Abdullah_Economic_City.jpg

Ilhan, A. (2015). Evaluation ubiquitärer Informationsdienste in New Songdo City. LIBREAS. Library Ideas, (27). Retrieved from http://libreas.eu/ausgabe27/06ilhan/

Kohn Pederson Fox. (n.d.). New Songdo City. Retrieved March 3, 2019, from https://www.kpf.com/projects/new-songdo-city

Kshetri, N., Alcantara, L. L., & Park, Y. (2014). Development of a Smart City and its Adoption and Acceptance: the Case of New Songdo (*). Digiworld Economic Journal, (96), 113–128. Retrieved from http://www.comstrat.org

Masdar. (2016). SUSTAINABILITY REPORT 2016. Masdar City. Retrieved from http://www.masdar.ae/assets/downloads/content/669/sustainability_report_2016.pdf

Masdar Official. (2010). Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) driverless vehicles in Masdar City. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/94219060@N03/8576433809/in/album-72157634017125975/

Masdar Official. (2010). Center Courtyard and the Windtower at the Masdar Institute Campus, Masdar City. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/94219060@N03/8577531966/in/album-72157634017125975/

Moser, S., Swain, M., & Alkhabbaz, M. H. (2015). King abdullah economic city: Engineering Saudi Arabia’s post-oil future. Cities, 45, 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2015.03.001

Pollock, N. R. (2010). A Green City Rises. Architectural Record, 198(10), 60–66. https://doi.org/10.1108/00251741211266697.

Poon, L. (2018). Songdo, South Korea’s Smartest City, Is Lonely – CityLab. Retrieved March 5, 2019, from https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/06/sleepy-in-songdo-koreas-smartest-city/561374/

Songdo IBD. (2015). [online] Available at http://songdoibd.com [Accessed 3 Mar 2019].


Hiatus: Comparisons of Smart Cities

Author’s Note: Between my trip to Vienna and my general school work, I’ve run a bit behind on writing blog posts, so for this month I’ll be putting up a few things I wrote for my Smart Cities class, taught by Professor Alenka Poplin (from my various Vienna posts).

As smart city programs become more and more common, it is becoming necessary to understand them and recognize their successes and, perhaps more importantly, their failures. Studying any individual city can give some information, but real understanding comes from comparing these projects to each other. However, comparisons of such complex entities are not easy, and a lot of work has gone into finding ways to compare cities to various ends.

There are any number of reasons to compare smart cities: choosing the best place to live or build a business, finding ideas for new programs (and steps not to take), marketing success and revealing opportunities for growth, or just as an opportunity to academically study how these cities perform. Different needs and biases have necessitated differing comparison methods and results, from simple if opaque rankings to complex categorical analysis to individualized qualitative descriptions. Comparisons also vary in their scope, from massive worldwide studies to granular examinations of small categories.

Read more

Vienna Day 3: VR, Real Cities, Urban Innovation, and Architecture

With everyone in the group finally landed, we started the real program off with a busy Monday. After breakfast, we made our way to the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) to meet with Drs. Ioannis Giannopoulos, Gerhard Navratil, and Paolo Fogliaroni at the Spatial HCI (Human Computer Interaction) Lab, where their group studies how humans can interact with spatial data, from large-scale geoinformation to individual building models, using emerging technology. This means using Augmented and Virtual Reality to study how people interact with space, as well as exploring new techniques of data visualization and functional uses for this technology. Of course, we got to try out a few of their systems. Read more

Vienna Day 2: Schönbrunn

My group spent Sunday mainly wandering around Schönbrunn, the royal family’s summer residence and just one of the dozens of amazing public parks in the city. While beautiful, there’s only so much urban planning or smart city information to glean from a 300+ year old garden. I picked up a few things today though, notably the importance of art in public space. Almost every square in inch of Vienna has some sort of art, from sculptures in plazas to paintings above subway staircases (the subways also feature professional buskers, who audition for the right to play for an hour and a half at a time), and of course, architecture. One very interesting bit of art appeared in a display case attached to the already beautiful entrance to an underground parking garage, a regular site in the city. Many in my group find these to be extremely exciting, since they simultaneously protect historic buildings and landscapes while hiding cars and the ugly parking garages that come with them.


South Korea’s Ubiquitous City: New Songdo

New Songdo City, South Korea has been in planning and construction since 2003. It is and has been many things: a truly global city, an aerotropolis supported by the nearby Incheon International Airport, a green city, a “ubiquitous city” with technology in every aspect of life, and the backdrop to scenes in the video for the hit song “Gangnam Style.” As an early and long-running smart city project, Songdo says a lot about what we want from our cities of the future – and about what we may actually get. Read more