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We built this city

Innovation 2017-09-14 Francis Dignan

In South Korea, one of the world’s newest smart cities embraces connectivity and sustainability. How can the technology be applied to the manufacturing world?

​​​Visions of the cities of the future tend to be dramatic. Cars that hover, human teleportation, holographic screens and pristine buildings of glass and steel are all part of the fictional visions of urban life in the 21st century. Then there are the visions of industry, with robots and automation manufacturing, the things once built by human hands.

The reality, so far at least, is somewhat different. The big trends and changes aren’t taking place for the individual, but instead for entire cities. Rather than changing the way we interact with the world, technology is changing the way the world interacts with us. In recent years we have seen the rise of the smart city, and Songdo in South Korea is one of the world’s leading examples.

Songdo started from nothing. Back in 2000, it was marshland along Incheon’s waterfront. A few years later, with help from a few million tons of sand, concrete, and many hours of construction, an entire city was formed. It was always planned as a smart city, and was built from the ground up to incorporate everything that “smart” involves.

“The most impressive aspect of the city has to be that it exists at all,” says Colin Marshall, an essayist and broadcaster based in Seoul. “Not only did its developers get the whole place up and running more quickly than most major cities in the West can execute a single project, they did it where there wasn't even any land before.”

​Most impressive, perhaps, is the sustainability aspect of the project. Songdo has 106 LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, which means these buildings are extremely efficient in their use of resources. They use less water and have a huge positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Residents can easily monitor and optimize their own energy use too, as all utilities can be controlled and analyzed through a single panel in the home or office space.

Another indication of the environmental awareness at the heart of Songdo is the amount of green space. The city is built around a central park. “It makes the concrete jungle more acceptable,” says Maria Teresa Bilotta, a photographer visiting Songdo for a project.

The waste disposal system is another huge innovation in Songdo. While it may not sound glamorous, the impact the system has on the environment, as well as the residents, is revolutionary. Rather than having individuals sort their own waste into various recycling receptacles, this process is entirely automated after the garbage has been thrown away. The system recycles anything that can be recycled, and transports the rest to a separate location. This means no missed garbage days, no trash cans on the street and no wastage. The whole system is managed by just seven people, with no need for garbage trucks at all.

Sensors and devices keep the city safe and efficient. Traffic is monitored, with traffic lights adjusting to the flow rather than being based on timers. Sensors in the ground can detect potential earthquakes and warn residents.Should the need arise, police can easily monitor areas and apprehend criminals based on live footage. Streetlights can adapt based on foot traffic, illuminating sidewalks where it’s needed, and saving energy when it’s not.

In addition to the city itself being connected, many of the individual homes are also connected. Cisco developed a telepresence system that allows residents to communicate with one another, book video yoga classes or simply go shopping.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however, as population growth hasn’t been as rapid as anticipated, due in part to the distance from the capital, Seoul. There are hopes for a high-speed rail system, but at present it takes more than an hour to travel between the two cities, long enough to put off many potential commuters. “Songdo’s very newness undercuts the benefits of the urban life its developers claim to provide,” says Marshall. “It all has the feeling of growing quickly but inorganically.” This is understandable, given that it’s a city that appeared out of nowhere in a very short space of time. “Only time can make Songdo into a place with a distinct identity,” he says.

There is evidence of this already, though. Although it’s a vision of the future, the seeds of a culture are already being sown. “What I notice when I go to Songdo,” Marshall says, “is the way that the essential Koreanness underneath seeps out into the international urban design – the old ladies selling dried squid in the park, the fountain statues shaped like children urinating into the canals, the awkward tropes of Korean English branding.” All of these aspects help to develop the character of Songdo, to add to its clean lines of glass and steel.

So far, as an experiment, the city can be considered a success. Of course there are things to improve, and things from which to learn, but as a proof-of-concept, it’s impressive. “It certainly feels like an idea of the city of the future,” Marshall says.

What remains to be seen is how cities and industries around the world react. After all, everything in Songdo can be adapted and scaled to meet any needs, from a manufacturing plant to a theme park. Now it’s about looking at the data, learning from it and using this smart approach to allow another environment to take steps into the future. What the future lacks in the glamor of hovering cars and teleportation it makes up for in shaping a world that is smart, sustainable and incredibly efficient.

The Sandvik Coromant view

The real impact of smart cities is yet to be seen, but the way they work can certainly inspire different industries and businesses. After all, the smartness isn’t in the city itself, but in the technology that drives it, and the biggest driving force behind these modernizations is the Internet of Things. We spoke to Jan Edvardsson, Market Analyst for Sandvik Coromant, about how these advances can apply to manufacturing.

“There are already many similarities between the two,” Edvardsson says. “Just like smart cities and their infrastructures, the manufacturing industry also considers what impact the Internet of Things can have on processes and the way things work.”


​The Internet of Things ("IoT") is changing the world around us, and combined with big data, it can be massively powerful, says Edvardsson. For manufacturing, this will involve the use of sensors to provide users with valuable data. “Sensors are used in manufacturing too,” he says. “With CoroPlus, we can monitor cutting tools and machines, stream the data, process it and analyze it. We can optimize every process and lower costs in the long run.
“It also makes the manufacturing process more sustainable,” he continues. “Through optimization you can cut down the amount of time machines are in use, as well as make sure they are performing as efficiently as possible. Sustainability is one of the drivers, and the IoT is one of the key enablers.”

As with any new technology, and particularly for connected devices, security is a key concern as safety is absolutely essential. For smart cities, the infrastructure cannot be vulnerable to hacking, and the same applies to manufacturing.

“The challenges are the same,” Edvardsson says, “but with the manufacturing industry it’s more vital that security is a priority, as it has a big impact on the safety of employees. Of course, all Sandvik products are extensively tested for security.”

We can’t see the future, but it’s clear that just as smart cities seem to be the wave of the future, the technology on which they are based will change the way we work.



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