Smart Cities: A Tale of Innovation and Collaboration in South Korea

Don Southerton takes a look at smart city development in South Korea.

Songdo (Image via Pixabay)

Over the past nearly 20 years, I have been engaged in Smart Cities. This work has involved various Smart City projects. The first was the Songdo International Business District in Incheon, South Korea, and more recently—cutting-edge Smart City Platforms.

The concept of “Smart City” is an emerging technology that many local governments see as the future; however, few municipalities have a solid roadmap.

The term “Smart City” can be defined differently. Some envision a green and sustainable community that offers a life-work balance and implements cutting-edge technologies to achieve these benefits.


For example, Songdo, on the West coast of South Korea was built on reclaimed land and covers roughly 1500 Acres. Today, Songdo is a community of 167,000 residents located within one of three Free Economic Zones (IFEZ) in Incheon, South Korea. The project has been approximately 86% completed. Aside from residential areas, the location is also home to a Global Campus, Pharma Hub, Startup Center, and international organizations such as the Green Climate Fund.

Songdo’s development aimed to create an integrated 15-minute city, where people can access 90% of their daily activities by bike or public transportation in fifteen minutes or less.

In Songdo, traffic sensor data is utilized to regulate signal timing on the technical front, while household waste is directly transported from homes to waste processing centers through underground tubes.

Additionally, various apps assist residents in managing their daily lives providing them with information on bus schedules or checking on parking availability in the area.


That said, since these innovative systems were first offered, many new smartphone apps are now available across Korea and provide these and other digital services.

Today, there is a continuing effort to foster the development of Songdo as an urban district under the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ).

Dr. Won Sok Yun, who has been named the new Commissioner of the IFEZ) notes, “Over the next three years, I will aim to attract foreign and domestic investment in pharma and healthcare, tourism and leisure, and high-tech industries to create a ‘world-class city’.”

Smart City Platform

Recently, we are seeing the adoption of Smart City Platforms. These provide an integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) platform. Plus, they offer municipalities some innovative urban solutions.

With the help of the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI, cities can enhance their emergency and fire response, traffic management, sanitation services, and facility maintenance. I’d add that it’s a tool for urban development and revitalization, and in some cases can enhance a city’s security.

Seoul, South Korea’s Smart City Platform is an example of successful integration. The system was developed between 2017 and 2019 to provide various services, including sophisticated drone defense monitoring.

The platform has been highlighted at recent Consumer Electronics Shows (CES) and gained global attention when it was modified during the COVID-19 pandemic to track real-time virus outbreaks.

In January 2024, neighboring Incheon’s Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok was quoted, “Building a smart city is a global challenge that all cities worldwide should aspire…. in collaboration with leading global companies and cities that possess state-of-the-art technology related to smart city construction.”

I agree that developing “Smart Cities” will require collaboration between private tech companies and local government. The mayor envisions building “eco-friendly smart cities centered around people’s needs.” This will address concerns about the ambiguous nature of the “Smart City” identity, which may mean different things to different groups.

The bottom line is that in discussions centered on “Smart Cities,” I suggest there is no one exact definition, however, the goal should be improved quality of public services and citizen welfare.


Incheon is a city located on the northwest coast of South Korea and is home to a population of about 3 million people. Its suburbs are situated on the outskirts of Seoul.

Moreover, Incheon is home to South Korea’s primary international airport, the Incheon International Airport, serving as a gateway to northeast Asia.


In 2003, the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) was designated as Korea’s first free economic zone. Within the Zone are three districts– Songdo, Cheongna, and Yeongjong International City.

Over the past 20 years, IFEZ has grown significantly and developed into a global city currently home to more than 400,000 residents, 3,300 businesses, 14 international organizations, and renowned foreign universities.

Picture of Don Southerton

Don Southerton

Don Southerton provides strategy, consulting, and training to Korea-based global businesses.

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