I came across an interesting article the other day while surfing the interweb about the future of new city building in Asia, (which is one of the few places in the world where cities spring up from scratch). In this age of bundling and value add ons comes a different vision of what a city is, how to make them more efficient, how they should be built, and how a couple of companies think they should be built. Estimates put spending on global infrastructure at $35 trillion over the next two decades and the new city market itself is likely to be worth at least $500 billion in the next ten years. How’s that for a growth industry?
Cisco’s Big Bet on New Songdo: Creating Cities From Scratch
By: Greg LindsayFebruary 1, 2010
The world is bracing for an influx of billions of new urbanites in the coming decades, and tech companies are rushing to build new green cities to house them. Are these companies creating a smarter metropolis — or just making money?
Stan Gale is exultant. The chairman of Gale International yanks off his tie, hitches up his pants, and mops the sweat and floppy hair from his brow. He’s beaming like a proud new papa, sprung from the waiting room and handing out cigars to whoever happens by. Beckoning me to follow, he saunters across eight lanes of traffic toward his baby, delivered prematurely days before.
Ten years ago, Gale was a builder and flipper of office parks who would eventually become known for knocking down the Boston landmark Filene’s Basement and replacing it with a hole in the ground. But Gale’s fate began to change in 2001 with a phone call from South Korea. The Korean government had found his firm on the Internet and made an offer everyone else had refused. The brief: Gale would borrow $35 billion from Korea’s banks and its biggest steel company, and use the money to build from scratch a city the size of downtown Boston, only taller and denser, on a muddy man-made island in the Yellow Sea. When Gale arrived to see the site, it was miles of open water. He signed anyway.
New Songdo City won’t be finished until 2015 at least, but in August, Gale cut the ribbon on the 100-acre “Central Park” modeled, like so much of the city, on Manhattan’s. Climbing on all sides will be a mix of low-rises and sleek spires — condos, offices, even South Korea’s tallest building, the 1,001-foot Northeast Asia Trade Tower. Strolling along the park’s canal, we hear cicadas buzzing, saws whining, and pile drivers pounding down to bedrock. I ask whether he’s stocked the canal with fish yet. “It’s four days old!” he splutters, forgetting he isn’t supposed to rest until the seventh.
As far as playing God (or SimCity) goes, New Songdo is the most ambitious instant city since Brasília 50 years ago. Brasília, of course, was an instant disaster: grandiose, monstrously overscale, and immediately encircled by slums. New Songdo has to be better because there’s a lot more riding on it than whether Gale can repay his loans. It has been hailed since conception as the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. A green city, it was LEED-certified from the get-go, designed to emit a third of the greenhouse gases of a typical metropolis its size (about 300,000 people during the day). It’s an “international business district” and an “aerotropolis” — a Western-oriented city more focused on the airport and China beyond than on Seoul. And it’s supposed to be a “smart city,” studded with chips talking to one another, designated as such years before IBM found its “Smarter Planet” religion.
Being seriously ahead of the curve explains why Gale had such a hard time finding a tech partner to bring this dream to fruition. First in line was LG, one of Korea’s homegrown conglomerates. None of its ideas had made it past the prototype stage. Next up was Microsoft, which signed a deal giving it carte blanche to mold the city in its image. “Designing an entirely new city from the ground up provides a unique opportunity to create an ideal technological infrastructure,” Bill Gates boasted. But before he could even measure for drapes, Gale decided a plumber would be a better fit and threw Microsoft over for Cisco.
Last spring, the networking giant became New Songdo’s exclusive supplier of digital plumbing. More than simply installing routers and switches — or even something so banal as citywide Wi-Fi — Cisco is expected to wire every square inch of the city with synapses. From the trunk lines running beneath the streets to the filaments branching through every wall and fixture, it promises this city will “run on information.” Cisco’s control room will be New Songdo’s brain stem.
And that’s just the beginning. No longer content to sell just plumbing, the company is teaming up with Gale, 3M, United Technologies (UTC), and the architects of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) to enter the instant-city business. At a Cisco event near New Songdo last summer, Gale stunned the room by announcing plans to eventually roll out 20 new cities across China and India, using New Songdo as a template. In the spirit of Moore’s Law, he says, each will be done faster, better, cheaper, year after year.
Cisco calls this Smart+Connected Communities initiative a potential $30 billion opportunity, a number based not only on the revenues from installation of the basic infrastructure but also on selling the consumer-facing hardware as well as the services layered on top of that hardware. Picture a Cisco-built digital infrastructure wired to Cisco’s TelePresence videoconferencing screens mounted in every home and office, with engineers listening, learning, and releasing new Cisco-branded bandwidth-hungry services in exchange for modest monthly fees. You’ve heard of software as a service? Well, Cisco intends to offer cities as a service, bundling urban necessities — water, power, traffic, telephony — into a single, Internet-enabled utility, taking a little extra off the top of every resident’s bill.