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].


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

Vienna’s Seaside City

Seestadt Aspern, literally the seaside city at Aspern, is home to Smart City Wien’s large-scale experiments. The planned community of 20,000 people in the northeast corner of Vienna will be completed in 2028. Much like Masdar City, Aspern aims to act as a “living laboratory” to prove various new technologies, from smart electric meters to entire smart energy grids. Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR), the company in charge of research in Aspern, sorts its projects into four “Smart” areas: Building, Grid, User, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

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Teaching an Old City New Tricks in Vienna

Vienna, Austria stands apart from other cities I have written about in a number of ways:

  • It’s the first–although probably not the last–I’ve noted that existed well before being envisioned as a city of the future.
  • It’s one of the most successful cities in the world. It is widely recognized both for its exceptional quality of life and, more recently, as one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.

However, such a community still faces problems. The Smart City Wien (literally, Smart City Vienna) initiative, created in 2011, lays out the issues of the modern city and Vienna’s commitment to solving them.

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Masdar City’s Architecture: A Review

Masdar City has a number of initiatives aimed at improving its environmental and economic sustainability. One of the largest, and perhaps most effective, are its building requirements: all are expected to reduce energy demand by 40 percent from average, water demand by 30 percent, and to achieve at least a 3 Pearl rating from the Estidama Pearl Rating System (roughly LEED Gold, an exceptional standard of efficiency). This, and the innovation culture inherent in Masdar, has resulted in a number of unique design choices. Read more

Eco-city, Smart City, or Laboratory of Dubious Success: Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

Early rendering of Masdar City plans. Credit: Nrman Foster/Flickr

A 2010 brochure for Masdar City states, “One day, all cities will be built like this.” Unfortunately, this brochure doesn’t seem to be publicly available outside the Khalifa University Library, and apparently the slogan is disused. The sentiment is, however, is a constant in coverage of the Emirati eco-city, which broke ground in 2008 and is still partially under construction. Now generally described as either the first or the most sustainable city in the world, it was founded under the auspices of One Planet Living, an international framework for sustainable cities; and with backing from the World Wildlife Fund. Unfortunately, as it is now, Masdar City’s example may be a poor one to follow.

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