Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 09:13 UK

South Korea's newest city emerges

By Linda Duffin
BBC News, Songdo, South Korea


Architects and developers on their vision of Songdo - report contains promotional footage of the city

A 20-minute drive from South Korea's main international airport, a new city is rising out of the mud flats at the edge of the Yellow Sea.

Songdo lies at the heart of a $200bn (100bn) development which its creators hope could reinvigorate the country's flagging economy.

Growth is slowing in the world's 13th biggest economy, thanks to the global credit crunch and South Korea's place on the map, squeezed between low-cost China and hi-tech Japan.

But the government is hoping to turn that geographical position to its advantage and transform itself into a regional business hub for north-east Asia.

Songdo is central to that ambition.

Location, location, location

It is in the Incheon Free Enterprise Zone (IFEZ) which means there will be financial incentives for overseas firms to relocate.

We will build in all this functionality...Whatever the citizens want to make their lives easier.
Catherine Maras, Microsoft

But will companies be willing to relocate in the middle of a global slowdown?

"I think a risk can be changed into an opportunity," says Lee Heon-seok, Commissioner of Incheon Free Enterprise Zone Authority.

And location is on its side, according to Stan Gale, a US developer helping to build Songdo.

"It's an hour-and-a-half's flight to Shanghai from Incheon Airport, it's an hour-and- a-half to Tokyo, and there are 50 cities with a population of over a million within a short plane ride of this location."

Foreign investment in South Korea is falling and the government wants to lure overseas firms to Songdo. But not just any firms.

South Korea is finding it hard to compete with the low wage bills offered by China and Vietnam.

So it wants to move away from the labour-intensive industries on which it built its fortunes and towards knowledge-based business.

"Not necessarily IT," says the boss of IFEZ's Business Opportunity Bureau, Min Hee-kyong.

"It could be anything from art all the way to bio or nanotechnology, the brain-based industries."

Smart technology

To attract that sort of business, Songdo has been designed as a so-called ubiquitous city, with wireless networks and radio-frequency identification linking all major information systems - residential, business, medical and governmental.

Model of Songdo, South Korea
The new city will become reality by 2015.

Residents will have smart phones they can use to pay their bills, access medical records or just open their doors.

And if all goes according to plan, they will be able to time their commute outside with the changing walk signals on the street 50 stories below their apartments.

In the west, ubiquitous computing is a controversial idea that raises the spectre of a Big Brother Society.

So will it be the sort of place where the authorities will know instantly if you don't recycle your drinks can?

"We will build in all this functionality," says Catherine Maras, Microsoft's Director of Worldwide E-Government who is involved in the Songdo project.

"Really it's opt-in or opt-out. Whatever the citizens want to make their lives easier."

She describes it as a city of the future and its 21st century towers are already being built on a huge swathe of land reclaimed from the sea.

International interest

A nine-mile long bridge will link it to Incheon airport and the city will boast parks and canals, tree-lined boulevards, a golf course and a convention centre.

Residential homes seem to be selling well but the developers are cagier about sales and rentals on the office space.

They say multinationals are interested but the selling process is only now getting underway.

No blue chip companies had signed up at the time of writing, but Songdo's first developments will be open for business from 2009 and the city is scheduled for completion in 2015.

By then, Songdo's success or failure will have been determined. And a lot of eyes are watching to see which it will be.

"It's like a giant Petri dish," says Dr. B.J. Fogg, head of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University in the US.

"The stakes are very high."

But he says Songdo's cutting-edge technologies will have worldwide talent beating a path to its door - giving it potentially huge business advantages as it heads into its future.

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