Cisco Bets on South Korean Smart City

Songdo aims to be the most wired city on Earth

An airy penthouse on the 63rd floor of a brand new apartment tower affords a marvelous view of Songdo, mankind's latest attempt to build a "city of the future." This half-finished South Korean city, built on landfill dumped into the Yellow Sea at Incheon, is currently a patchwork of gleaming towers and empty plots of land. But when the 607-hectare Songdo IBD (International Business District), which forms the heart of the city, is complete in 2018, it will house about 65 000 people in what developers claim will be the greenest, most wired city in the world.

Because the city's planners were building a metropolis from scratch, they were able to configure it to meet the demands and challenges of our modern world. Gale International, the primary developer behind the business district, constructed towers that meet strict standards for green buildings, laid out neighborhoods smartly, and created an urban oasis modeled on New York City's Central Park. The South Korean government did its part, putting in a robust public transit network and a state-of-the-art water recycling system.

But what's a modern city without ubiquitous broadband Internet connections?

To that end, Cisco Systems has stepped in with an investment of US $47 million that promises to wire Songdo from top to bottom. The effort is part of a strategic shift embodied by Cisco's Smart+Connected Communities initiative. "We believe the biggest challenge for the 21st century is urbanization and sustainability," says Anil Menon, president of the new business unit. The company estimates that smart cities offer a $13 billion market opportunity over the next three to five years and says it is working with more than 20 cities worldwide on projects similar to Songdo.

The 63rd-floor penthouse is a showcase for Cisco's vision of the new urban home. A screen on one wall displays a menu from which lights, music, temperature, and window blinds are easily controlled. In another room, on another screen, Munish Khetrapal, Cisco's director of solutions in Asia, holds forth from his Singapore office via the company's TelePresence videoconferencing system. Khetrapal rhapsodizes about a time when every apartment in Songdo will be similarly equipped. "We're trying to make this equipment part of the standard system," he says. "When you turn on the tap you have water to drink, and when you turn on the TelePresence you have a conference."

Because Cisco joined the Songdo project only in 2009, five years after buildings started rising above the landfill, most apartments don't yet have the wired wonders found in the penthouse. But Cisco is now retrofitting some existing buildings and is working with developers to build its networking technology into new residences.

Khetrapal believes these high-tech apartments will change people's lives. He says that soon each new apartment will come with TelePresence capabilities; the resident will choose whether to pay the equivalent of $10 per month for an unlimited use plan—and whether to pay more money to various providers of remote services. For example, a resident could start her day with a live yoga class; later her child could get one-on-one English lessons from a teacher across the world. (These services wouldn't require upgraded Internet service: South Korea already has the fastest Internet connections in the world, with an average download speed of 14 megabits per second.) Cisco expects to install more than 10 000 TelePresence units in Songdo by 2018.

These domestic offerings are just the first step toward the city that Cisco envisions. The company wants to link energy, telecom, traffic monitoring, and security systems into one intelligent network.

"We want to build an IP-based platform that is open," says Menon. "Imagine iTunes, but for a city," he muses. "We'll build the platform, then local entrepreneurs build the applications." A utility company could give cheaper rates to residents who agreed to let the company turn off their appliances during energy peaks; a car company could give drivers real-time traffic information and directions, automatically pay their tolls, and send emergency messages to the police and hospitals in the event of an accident.

Next year, Cisco will move into a two-story operations center in the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, the new Songdo skyscraper that is South Korea's tallest building. The company hopes this operation center will one day buzz with representatives of the companies and public entities that are running applications on its network.

It's not yet clear what applications will be tried out—or if Songdo citizens will actually want all these high-tech amenities. But Cisco thinks it's fine even if some things don't work out. Songdo, says Menon, is a "living lab for the 21st century." And as any scientist will tell you, labs see both successes and failures.

A correction to this article was made on 29 November 2011.

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