[Korea and the fourth industrial revolution <7-1 Smart City>] Sleek technologies for the city slicker

June 08,2017
Seoul’s first so-called living lab is a traditional Korean village nestled on a hill in the center of the city.

The famed Bukchon Hanok Village, with its quaint wooden houses and quiet courtyards, might seem like the last place one would find the latest technology for hypermodern urban living, but hidden in the neighborhood’s winding streets and alleyways are state-of-the-art sensors that can do everything from locate empty parking spots to detect fire hazards in the village’s famed wooden homes.

“The sensors are very small, so they’re hard to see,” said Kim You-sik, director of the information services planning division at the Seoul city government, “but there have been about 17 Internet of Things projects going on here since 2015, though some have pulled out.”

The Bukchon living lab is a public-private partnership between the Seoul Metropolitan Government and local IT companies. The government gives tech firms permission to use certain parts of the city to test wireless sensors, cameras and other so-called Internet of Things, or IoT, technology to provide services to residents depending on their needs. Based on residents’ feedback, companies can continue or pull out their projects. In the Bukchon Hanok Village, for example, the sensors can help drivers find empty parking spots through a mobile app called ParkingPlex.

ParkingPlex, operated by a local IoT company Ino-on, is a parking lot sharing service, almost like an Airbnb for private parking lots. It connects drivers with spaces in private and residential lots. As of March this year, it has connected 60 parking lots around the districts of Jongno, Eunpyeong and Seodaemun in Seoul. The company aims to expand its reach and add more lots to the service.

Since last year, the city has been experimenting with IoT devices in the residential district of Geumcheon in southwestern Seoul and popular tourist destinations like Hongdae, Sinchon and Gangnam, with the stated goal of making best use of IoT technology. This year, the city government plans to spend more than 5.87 billion won ($5.2 million) to foster living labs and other related projects.

Elsewhere in Korea, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning and government-run National IT Industry Promotion Agency have launched similar IoT test sites in Busan and Daegu, each with a plan to spend more than 20 billion won over a span of three years. The city of Goyang in Gyeonggi began a two-year project with a 6.56 billion won investment.

The push by Korean cities to develop their technological infrastructure is one answer to a large question facing megalopolises around the world: what is the future of urban living? As city populations continue to grow, mere expansion of physical infrastructure will no longer hold. Problems like traffic congestion, waste, pollution and crime will become more taxing and require smarter solutions.

Thus many cities, from Seoul to Singapore, are turning to new technologies for the answer. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to turn 100 urban areas into so-called smart cities. In Barcelona, Spain, Mayor Xavier Trias began a similar initiative after his election in 2011, installing touch-screen monitors at bus stops with real-time schedules, maps and locations for public bikes. Singapore, a financial powerhouse, wants to be the first smart nation in the world, and closer to home, the city of Incheon has built the Songdo International Business District from the ground up with technological infrastructure in mind.

“By 2050, about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in or near urban centers,” John Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco Systems said in a foreword to the book “Smart Cities and Digital Nations.” “If we don’t get our cities right, we’re in big trouble.”

Getting where you need to go

Lee Ye-ji, a 26-year-old resident of Yongin, Gyeonggi, starts every morning by opening up the Kakao Bus and Kakao Subway apps on her phone. The apps tell her the fastest way to get to work and also let her know what time a bus or train is arriving.

“I used to see my bus leaving right before my eyes and regretted why I didn’t run,” she said. “But now, I rarely miss buses because the apps tell me whether I have to rush or not as I step out the door.”

One of the biggest headaches in any urban area is traffic. A bigger population means more cars, which means more congestion and pollution. To overcome these problems, cities around the world are focusing on making their public transport systems more efficient and easier to use, with the hope that changes will boost ridership.

The bus and subway apps run by Kakao, a major tech company here, are based on information provided by the Seoul Transport Operation and Information Service, Topis for short, which began in 2004 as the city’s transport control center. One of the most notable projects under its purview is the digital signage at bus stops that tells commuters when a bus will arrive. The most recent update to the system last month included a feature that can indicate whether a bus is full.

The system has worked so well that Topis has exported it to countries like Azerbaijan, Colombia and Mongolia. “Foreign mayors and decision makers in city planning frequently visit Seoul to take the Topis program to their countries,” said Yang Youn-gye, a director at the Seoul city government’s Transportation Information Center.

Aside from public transportation, cities are also trying to create better parking systems. An IBM study estimates that 30 percent of urban congestion around the world is caused by drivers looking for a parking spot, so any improvements that help drivers more easily find parking space could cut down on traffic.

In Korea, start-ups are developing apps to do just that. Modu Company, creator of the parking lot sharing app Modu Parking, signed partnerships with local district offices in Seoul including Seocho, Dongjak and Yongsan so that citizens can share their residential parking lots as well as public parking areas.

Similar options exist in the United States. An app developed by Streetline called Parker can help direct drivers to spaces in empty lots based on users’ selection of a street and lets them know price, payment options and hours available for each lot. Covered cities include Los Angeles, Boston, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C.

Green is gold

Environmental concerns are also driving cities’ technological upgrades. In 2025, the amount of waste generated by cities around the world is expected to reach 2.2 billion tons, up from 1.3 billion in 2012, according to the World Bank, and the cost to manage that waste is likely to rise to $375.5 billion by 2025 from $205.4 billion in 2012.

The city of Goyang in Gyeonggi thinks it’s come up with a way to efficiently manage waste removal. Around 200 garbage bins in the city have wireless sensors installed by telecom company LG U+ that can notify street sweepers via mobile app when a bin needs to be emptied. The government has also installed 30 solar-powered trash compactors around the city.

Both types of waste bins in Goyang, developed by a local company Ecube Labs, are being exported to other countries for their efficiency. Last year, 25 of the sensor-equipped bins were installed in Washington, D.C., and 100 more are expected to be installed in Los Angeles this year. From there, the government and company hope to expand their global presence.

Cities are also trying to save energy by installing smarter streetlights. Rather than just lighting up at a programmed time, which most streetlights currently do, smart ones are equipped with motion detectors to light up only when a person or car passes by. Cities with a network of such lights can save as much as 70 to 80 percent on maintenance and electricity costs, industry experts say.

A similar smart lighting system was installed and has been tested in Busan since 2015. The southeastern port city has been experimenting with fixing streetlight poles with CCTV cameras, beacon lights and fine-dust sensors.

Safer cities

On May 12, a 4-year-old boy was locked in a bus for over two hours after he dozed off on his way to a day care center in Gyeonggi. The bus had arrived at the center, but no one noticed he was still on the bus until a passerby happened to spot him trapped inside.

The child has since enrolled in counseling programs following the incident, and his parents have sued the center. The case spawned a nationwide conversation about how to better track kids and ways that technology can help.

An app called KidsBus, developed by Korean start-up Egencomz, was one of the participants in Seoul’s living lab project last year in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. The app is wirelessly connected to a sensor that can be attached to a child’s wrist or bag and let parents track the location of their children. The app can also be linked with the bus so drivers can let parents know when a child has arrived at school.

While the service started in partnership with Woonhyun kindergarten in the living lab district, it has since expanded business to more than 20 kindergartens, elementary schools and private academies.

Korean IoT start-up Lineable has also released a smart band product with IoT sensors that can alert parents when kids run 20 to 30 meters (66 to 98 feet) away from them.

The path to smart cities

Although cities around the world are installing wireless sensors on their streets, transportation trackers on their buses and cameras in their neighborhoods, the “smart city” movement is still in its infancy. According to the National IT Industry Promotion Agency, a government-run institute in Korea, only 15 percent of the world’s metropolises are expected to commit to becoming smart cities by 2025.

In Korea, regulations are seen as an impediment to implementation of new technologies within cities.

“While the basic feature of a smart streetlight is controlling its brightness depending on weather conditions and time, certain expressways fall under laws that limit light poles from reducing brightness,” said Kim Duk-sin, a team leader at the Busan IT Industry Promotion Agency. “Privacy issues are another thing in Korea, because we cannot disclose massive amounts of useful data and information due to tight privacy protection laws in the country.”

Many other cities around the world face the added obstacle of already established and aging infrastructure. Korea has managed to work around that issue - by building whole cities from scratch, and equipped with the latest technology.

Perhaps the best example is the Songdo International Business District in Incheon, which was built with an integrated infrastructure in mind. Through the city’s network, citizens can have immediate access to a host of urban services including health care, government, transportation, utilities and security when they need it. For instance, if a fire is detected by a sensor, firefighters are immediately alerted without needing someone to call. Water, electricity, density of fine dust and parking lot availability are all monitored through the city’s control center. Such connected infrastructure allows IoT technologies to have a bigger impact on the city.

“What’s makes Songdo special is that it was aligned as a smart city from the beginning and that people were developing different services for the end-customers,” Caspar Herzberg, president of Schneider Electric’s Middle East and Africa business, who was instrumental in smart city planning for Songdo, said in a phone interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “So depending on what’s most important to you in a city, certain cities have used technologies better there.”

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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