The Grand Signal

A digital magazine covering the intersection of technology, human rights and social change.

Smart city movement offers a glimpse into our future

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Tripp on Flickr |

What will our cities look like in the future? Science-fiction buffs might point to spotless streets and sidewalks, modern high rises, picturesque parks, and a data driven culture. All of this this may happen sooner than we think. Two cities, Songdo in Korea and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, have been pushing to develop cities that leverage technology and other innovative techniques to make cities more efficient and ‘smart’.

Songdo – The new ‘smart’ city

Located a few miles West of Seoul on the coast of Incheon, Songdo was built on 1,500 acres of land with the first phase opening in August 2009. The concept behind the design was to a create city that melded both modernism and efficiency. With golf courses, a central park, shopping centers, state-of-the-art schools, and health facilities (they’ve partnered with Microsoft and 3M), it isn’t quite that far from the idyllic city we all wish we to live in.

What really defines Songdo however, is its emphasis on sustainability. The city is equipped with charging stations for electric cars, an underground waste disposal system (there’s no garbage truck collectors), and water-recycling systems to conserve water use. Everything seems perfect, but there’s one catch, not enough people are living and working there. Only 20% of commercial space is filled, with most corporate offices still located in the heart of the country in Seoul. Ultimately, what truly defines a city is its people. Without them, Songdo will be forever be known as the city that could’ve been.

Rio de Janeiro – The other ‘smart’ city

Despite continuous struggles to maintain stability in hostile favelas, Rio de Janeiro has been investing heavily in making their city smarter. A project in collaboration with Unicef and the NGO CEDAPS is using cameras placed in plastic bottles attached to a kite in order to collect digital data across 5 favelas. The city now even has an operation centre that monitors weather and is connected to sirens across different favelas if a disaster is looming. These projects won’t quite make Rio like Songdo, but it’s a positive step towards using technology and data to improve people’s lives.

Critics argue that these initiatives are simply a facade to improve the city’s publicity as the Olympics and World Cup approach. ”…It looks impressive to have a mission control, Nasa-style, but all that is coming into it, from what I can tell, is video feeds,” said Anthony Townsend, director of the US Institute of the Future about Rio’s operation centre.

via BBC’s stories on Songdo and Rio de Janeiro

What are your thoughts on Songdo and Rio? How soon until all our cities become ‘smart’? Share your comments below. 

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