SONGDO, SOUTH KOREA - It’s Monday morning and the wall computer has a few suggestions to kick off the day: Your blood pressure is high, so how about tofu for dinner? Try another route to work to avoid traffic. And there’s no more orange juice, so more’s been ordered.
That may sound like an episode of “The Jetsons,” but developers are making it reality with the construction of a $25 billion digital city in South Korea. The first 2,000 of a total 65,000 residents are expected to move into their wired homes in 2009.
New Songdo City, which its developers say may be the world’s largest private development project, is the crown jewel of an ambitious plan by the Seoul government to turn a muddy plot of 1,500 acres of reclaimed land on the Yellow Sea into a gateway to northeast Asia.
Built from scratch, it will boast the most advanced digital infrastructure imaginable, from blanket wireless Internet coverage and automated recycling to universal smart cards that can be used to pay bills, access medical records and open doors.
Songdo will merge medical, business, residential and government data systems into a so-called ubiquitous, or “U” city, on a scale never seen before. There are smaller ubiquitous projects — the local term for a digital community — but nothing compares to Songdo.
Homes and offices all have built-in computers that will collect data from swipe cards and sensors for the “U-life” management center. It will be run by Songdo U-Life LLC, a joint venture between Songdo’s U.S. developer, Gale International, and LG Electronics subsidiary LG CNS, the creator of Songdo’s digital backbone.
“In America and Japan, some building companies use group control or group management, but in our country it’s for a whole city,” said Jang Choong-moo, director of strategy and new business at Songdo U-Life.
It is the ultimate testing ground for services to track products and people with radio-frequency identification chips — a technology facing resistance in other countries because of privacy concerns.
Kim Kyoung Woo, a spokesman at the Ministry of Information and Communication, said South Koreans generally trust corporations with personal data and that “it’s not a big issue” for the public.
It is unclear exactly how the information will be protected, but Huh Jeong-wha, IT director at Songdo U-Life, says residents will have to give permission before their data can be used.
Liz McIntyre, who co-authored a book on consumer privacy and corporations called “Spychips,” said South Koreans should be wary.
“Songdo City’s anonymous tracking infrastructure could quickly be turned to new purposes, and its people could become virtual prisoners of their own technological creations,” McIntyre wrote in an e-mail.
“U.S. companies are having to look outside for places to implement their ubiquitous systems, and have turned to the more trusting people of South Korea for experimentation,” she said.
What would life at Songdo be like?
Homes will have a medical station to measure vital health signs like blood pressure and pulse. If a resident wants, those readings will be forwarded securely to the Seoul National University Hospital, where a doctor can give personalized recommendations for daily exercise and diet.
Traffic reports would be tailored for individuals whose computers could advise them, for example, to take an alternative road to work.
Schools and other buildings will have smart-card readers. Parents could find out when their children have arrived at school. A teacher also could find out if a student had done the assigned homework — say visiting a museum — because a chip in a mobile device will register each child’s whereabouts.
Researchers also are considering using RFID tagging for garbage disposal and recycling that could also be used to keep an inventory of office supplies, or even what’s left in the fridge.
Beyond technology, Gale is talking with major corporations to encourage them to relocate regional offices to the area, designated by the government in Seoul as a free economic zone with tax breaks and other financial incentives.
“In southeast Asia, Singapore and Hong Kong have that hub function. In northeast Asia, we are creating it here,” Gale International Chairman Stan Gale said in an interview.
Business travelers, Gale said, can fly to China in 90 minutes and return in the afternoon to the green of an 18-hole golf course. An hour from the capital and 15 minutes from Seoul’s international airport Incheon, the city will incorporate elements of New York, Sydney, Boston and Venice that Gale hopes will one day attract 350,000 people to businesses and homes.
A tenth of the size of Manhattan, Songdo’s architectural centerpiece will be the 65-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower. It will have a Central Park, an eight-floor aquarium, a museum, U.S.-style shopping malls, an international school and hospital.
With construction well under way, strong interest from multinationals and the first 2,000 homes sold for an average of $500,000 a piece, Gale International CEO John B. Hynes III is optimistic.
“New Songdo City appears to have secured a place in South Korea’s future,” he said.