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A new city, built upon data, takes shape in South Korea

BUSAN (South Korea) — For Ms Lee Song-lee, a 30-year-old resident of South Korea’s first “smart city” experiment, the mirror in her family’s living room is not just for smoothing her hair on her way out the door.

Ms Song-Lee Lee uses a smart mirror to track her fitness in her new home in Busan’s Eco Delta Smart Village in South Korea on Feb 20, 2022. Fifty-four families volunteered to share data on everything from sleeping habits to trash volume to help developers make a city from scratch in Busan.

Ms Song-Lee Lee uses a smart mirror to track her fitness in her new home in Busan’s Eco Delta Smart Village in South Korea on Feb 20, 2022. Fifty-four families volunteered to share data on everything from sleeping habits to trash volume to help developers make a city from scratch in Busan.

BUSAN (South Korea) — For Ms Lee Song-lee, a 30-year-old resident of South Korea’s first “smart city” experiment, the mirror in her family’s living room is not just for smoothing her hair on her way out the door.

The three-foot-tall (0.9m) mirror — and a Samsung tablet mounted on a wall nearby — are the nerve centre of the three-bedroom home in the Eco Delta Smart Village, the first phase of a three-tiered development of wetlands at the outer reaches of this sprawling port city of artists’ neighbourhoods, temples and hiking trails on the southeast tip of the country.

Once Ms Lee activates the mirror, it becomes a futuristic-looking touch screen where she can monitor almost every aspect of her health, from her heart rate to how well she slept the night before; pick up suggestions on food and exercise for the day; and check in on the weather and the day’s news.

And the Samsung tablet — one of two in each home — is her window into every virtual nook and cranny of this smart home: What appliances are running, how much energy the family is consuming, if there is a parcel in her mailbox, even when certain foods in the refrigerator will expire.

Ms Lee, her younger sister and their parents comprise one of 54 households chosen from a lottery who are being studied in the Eco Delta Smart Village. When completed, the Eco Delta Smart City development will total 30,000 homes across 11.8 square kilometers (4.5 square miles) of coastal wetlands in the Nakdong River delta, at a cost of about 6.6 trillion Korean won (S$7.4 billion).

Construction of Busan’s Eco Delta Smart City is one of the more far-reaching attempts around the world to create “smart cities”. Other communities are also planning to build or rebuild cities or neighbourhoods based on data and a holistic approach to creating healthier and more sustainable live-work environments: Toyota is constructing Woven City in Japan to study new artificial intelligence technology, and residents of neighbourhoods in Helsinki and Amsterdam have been studied as they have used smart technology added to homes.

But the intent is to build this city from scratch as fully smart.

“By building a new city from the ground up we can come out with a more comprehensive city,” said Mr Lee Jae Min, deputy director of the smart city project with the Ministry of Land, Industry and Transport. “It’s not going to be soon, but in the future, we plan to have a standard model of a smart city and export that to the world.”

The Eco Delta Smart Village, the first phase in the creation of the Busan Eco Delta City, in Busan, South Korea, on Feb 20, 2022.

The Busan project is now in the experimental phase, assessing not only how South Koreans might live but also how the government and the private sector might build more efficient infrastructure using solar and hydroelectric energy, as well as more energy-efficient appliances.

“Given that South Korea has to import much of its energy, the success of these smart city pilot projects is important and very urgent, and also because there is a limited amount of land and a lot of people, which has led to a new demand for smarter cities,” said Dr Donyun Kim, professor of urban design and architecture at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

He noted that smart products exported from South Korea had already been integrated into offices and homes. “A smart city conceived from the ground up is just a more comprehensive version of that,” he said.

Residents in the 54 households in the smart village, which range from single-person units to three-bedroom homes, are living rent-free (they pay only for electricity and water) for three years, with a possible two-year extension, in exchange for data collected about them. It will be studied by developers, appliance manufacturers, the government and health care experts.

“Once the three- to five-year experiment is over, and the city becomes more fully occupied, we will no longer study the info, but the technology in these homes will be the same,” Dr Min said.

“All of the current tenants know how important it is to provide this information. With all the data we collect through the smart village, we can build a smarter city.”

The grand vision for the development is about sustainability: Though it will remain part of the city of Busan, it will have its own sewage treatment, water treatment and electricity through solar and hydropower.

All green spaces will be watered with recycled sewage water. Drinking water will come from the Nakdong River and filtered using the latest technology. Hydrothermal energy from the massive amounts of groundwater, combined with solar panels on energy-efficient homes, will keep costs and environmental effect to a minimum. Drones will deliver packages, and small robots will clean and monitor the streets for safety.

But to build a successful city for the future, studying the present-day behaviours of the Smart Village residents is essential, according to the project’s planners. The daily routines of residents and their usage of energy can be a bellwether to how future cities should be conceived.

“Every tenant has a smartwatch that is synced to the mirror and the overall system in the home,” explained Mr Kim Do-gyun, general manager of K-Water, or the Korea Waters Resource Corp., an affiliate of the Ministry of Environment that is assisting development of the Eco Delta Smart Village. “It monitors your body and constantly assesses you. It’s mandatory that everyone wears a watch for the three years.”

For Ms Lee and her family, it is exciting to be part of the test program, and particularly to experience the unexpected charms of their home.

“At 7am the light in my bedroom automatically comes on, and a speaker says, ‘Hi, Song-lee, good morning. Please stretch your body,’” she said. “And a few weeks ago, we burned something in the kitchen, and the air filter system just removed it immediately. The system sensed that something was wrong and dealt with it. It’s a thinking house.”

The family said the air-filter system had made a world of difference in a country with one of the highest pollution rates in the world. And they had come from a sixth-floor apartment in Busan with no balcony and close to the city’s crippling traffic.

“I’ve been here two months and it feels like I’ve been living in a hotel and having a two-month vacation with my family,” said Ms Lee’s mother, Ms Jeong Mi-sook.

Smart appliances, such as an automatic air cleaner and fitness mirror in a home at the Eco Delta Smart Village in Busan, South Korea, on Feb 20, 2022.

The air-filtering system is among the 15 products in each home provided by Samsung — including the AirDresser, a closet that can dry clean, steam and sanitise clothes — all of which can be controlled using the SmartThings app. But smaller businesses, in a country known for its electronics conglomerates, also have a presence.

Unmanned Solution, a company of 35 employees founded in 2008, is providing cleaning robots for the village, and South Korean startup Superbin, with 89 employees, provides garbage disposal services and recycling technology.

K-Water is the major player in this development as it is using its latest technology to not only transform the wetlands (making them developable by bringing in tons of sand and sinking concrete poles), but also to use the water in the Nakdong River for hydropower, drinking water and other uses. The hydropower will energise everything from homes to streetlights to sprinkler systems in the planned public areas.

With extensive data being compiled for help in health care planning, concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information with governments and businesses have been muted so far.

“I haven’t heard of any complaints so far from residents, but I know that all around the world people can be defiant about giving out their personal information,” Mr Min said. Nevertheless, he said, “a committee is drafting privacy guidelines and all of the info is encrypted.”

For Ms Lee and her family, life in the Eco Delta Smart Village is a dual experiment: For the planned city, but also for themselves.

“At first we thought moving in here might be a challenge, since there’s not a lot of infrastructure, such as subways or bus stops, and it’s hard to get food delivery,” Ms Lee said. “But it’s been so good for me, my sister and particularly my parents to learn the technology and get used to it. After all, this is the future.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Related topics

South Korea Busan sustainability eco-friendly smart city

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