Seoul recently topped our ranking of tech-enabled cities, and we’re not the first to give it that status. It has been top of the UN’s e-Government Survey since 2003, and is generally agreed to be one of the most ‘tech-savvy’ cities in the world. But what is it doing which is so special?
Seoul is one of a growing group of self-professed ‘smart cities’, cities who are using technology and information to increase sustainable growth and strengthen the city, while improving citizens’ “happiness and wellness”. It is generally agreed that a true ‘smart city’ is human-focused, and adapts to meet the needs of its citizens and residents. ‘Smart Seoul’ is very much people-focused, aiming not only to implement technological solutions, but also to develop a collaborative relationship between the city and its population. The mayor says that “human beings always [take] the central position in everything”.
Seoul has taken a strategic approach to its development as a smart city, and identified three phases of activity. Most of its current projects are part of the first phase, where ICT is used to improve individual city operations, including transport, safety and environment (for example, providing real-time bus timetabling information to users).
Recognising that infrastructure is crucial to creating a smart city, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has led efforts to improve its basic infrastructure. The network in Seoul now includes high-speed broadband optical wire, free wi-fi networks in parks and public buildings, and wi-fi on subways (in partnership with private enterprise).
A critical part of the strategy is increasing the use of smart devices, and the government has introduced a scheme to encourage smart device users to donate their old devices when they upgrade. These devices are checked and then donated to individuals and families who would otherwise not have access to the technology. The municipal government has also provided lessons and courses in smart device use over the last few years, particularly aimed at low-income groups, immigrants, and elderly people.
Seoul has also invested heavily in enabling citizens to access e-Government services wherever they are, and also in enabling city workers to work from new ‘Smart Work Centres’ much closer to their homes. It has introduced a concept called ‘Community Mapping’, which encourages citizens to ‘map’ problems or concerns in their local areas onto an app. Its initial use enabled disabled users to identify streets or shopping malls without wheelchair access, but it is seen as having potential for peer-to-peer interaction in solving neighbourhood problems. Seoul also aims to decrease use of scarce resources. Smart meters, which are being piloted in 1000 homes, not only provide detailed information about energy consumption patterns, but also provide suggestions for reducing energy use.
An innovative safety initiative was introduced in 2008 to support vulnerable people. It uses location-based services and CCTV to notify support services and families of emergencies involving children, disabled or elderly people, or those with Alzheimer’s Disease. If the holder of a relevant smart device leaves a designated safe zone, or pushes the emergency button, an emergency alert is sent. The missing person can then be located using CCTV and wireless networks.
Beyond infrastructure and its use, the municipal government has also developed or enabled a whole range of services. For example, there are various apps, services and information available as part of ‘mSeoul’, or mobile Seoul. Seoul takes an open approach to government information, and aims to share everything with its citizens. This enables citizens to develop their own apps, which can be shared with others to improve the quality and efficiency of city services. Over 150 government services are available to reserve and pay for online. And the government is also expanding its 3-D spatial information to provide tourist guides, street views and urban planning support.
Outside of government services, there are also new smart services developed by private companies, including Mobile Payment, where mobile phones can be used to pay for goods in participating stores, and ‘Virtual Stores’. These allow users to order goods from billboards, using QR codes, to be delivered to their homes later that day.
And what is the future? Seoul has identified two further phases of development as a smart city. The next phase will integrate processes and services within sectors (so, for example, users will be provided with information about buses, emergencies, road repairs and detours). The final phase will bring together services from different sectors, and integrate all services into a single whole. Watch this space, the future is going to be interesting.