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[INTERVIEW] Smart city expert unimpressed with Songdo

Cha Chung-ha speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the office of the Re!magining Cities Foundation in Itaewon in Yongsan District, Seoul. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Cha Chung-ha speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the office of the Re!magining Cities Foundation in Itaewon in Yongsan District, Seoul. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Re!magining Cities Foundation CEO criticizes Korean government's 'delinquent' planning of sustainable communities

By Ko Dong-hwan

It is safe to call Cha Chung-ha a "smart city" expert. His words of advice to clients of his nonprofit organization Re!magining Cities Foundation have enough weight to attract those willing to pay.

But it is hard to reach him at his office in Itaewon, Seoul, with his busy schedule as a keynote speaker at smart city forums worldwide almost every month. And the avid sustainability advocate isn't above paying for his own flights and lodging for such trips if host cities cannot afford it.

As passionate as he is about consulting people interested in smart cities ― sustainable urban environments that interconnect residents with the internet of things (IoT) and run on big data-based infrastructure with efficient energy management ― his views on the so-called smart cities in Korea and their procedural blueprints were scathing.

Take the Songdo International Business District, located in the southwestern coastal part of Incheon that has been the country's shining example of a smart city. Cha isn't impressed.

"The big problem with Songdo is the top-down approach to the city, which failed to work out," Cha told The Korea Times.

"They have Central Park and a bike path, wonderful. They have a vacuum tube waste collection, very nice. They have lots of cameras monitoring the city. What else? Is that smart? Are they measuring metrics or data? Do they open the data and allow access to it to citizens or startups? No. The bike path is also dangerously close to big wide roads. It's rather car-centric and lacks walkability."

Central Park's resort sector sprawls inside the Songdo International Business District in Incheon. Courtesy of the office of Incheon Free Economic Zone
Central Park's resort sector sprawls inside the Songdo International Business District in Incheon. Courtesy of the office of Incheon Free Economic Zone

Foreign experts on sustainable urban planning evaluate Songdo poorly, according to Cha.

For example, one neighborhood of Songdo which has been given Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for its energy- and resource-efficient buildings. However, the buildings have mostly "Certified" and "Silver" certifications, the lowest two of four LEED rating levels.

The USGBC evaluates each project seeking LEED certification based on categories like location & transportation, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, innovation and more. Cha said achieving Certified or Silver isn't difficult ― Certified requires 40 to 49 points and Silver needs 50 to 59, while "Gold" means 60 to 79 points and "Platinum" is 80 and over. And yet, Songdo "brags" about this certification.

According to the USGBC, Songdo has 19.5 million square feet of LEED-certified space, with 12 projects comprising more than 100 buildings. When The Korea Times asked the Incheon City Government how many buildings are LEED-certified and in which certification classes, it said it did not keep such records.

"Most people pursue not Platinum but Certified or Silver," Cha said. "Is that good for Mother Earth? Not really. That's just green-washing. Compare Certified- or Silver-certified buildings with non-certified ones in terms of energy use, water use or amount of waste produced. Do the ones with certifications outperform the latter? Not necessarily."

He said G-SEED ― the Korean version of LEED ― has also issued the lowest certification class the most frequently and its recipients are happy with the brand's superficiality. "The green building status in Korea is very poor," Cha said.

Cha Chung-ha speaks at a smart city conference in Amsterdam in March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha speaks at a smart city conference in Amsterdam in March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Cha also criticized the government's lack of leadership in researching and planning for smart cities. Some government officials he met were pessimistic about the country's mixed energy use plan which was announced without thorough research. Even the agenda was largely not persuasive without a detailed plan.

"Copenhagen announced it will go carbon-neutral by 2025 and the Danish government introduced new policies to fully support the plan," Cha said. "The Korean government, when Seoul is compared with Copenhagen, naysays such a comparison, questioning how a city of 10 million can do what a city of 770,000 does ― without doing thorough research. The most important thing when introducing a smart city is for the government to take leadership with substantive regulations."

Cha said the government's smart city plans have so far provided no details in how to fulfill them and were just far-fetched plans for 2030, 2040 or 2050, not broken down into a yearly basis including the immediate future.

"One Korean government ministry ― I cannot remember which ― once proclaimed in a statement, 'all buildings in Korea will go net-zero' (in emissions) in just one line, not even a section. The ministry's lower-level officials didn't even know about that line," Cha said. "Administrators brag about such initiatives when talking about carbon emissions and the renewable energy mix at big international forums like the G20. But foreign ambassadors know that such plans are impossible in Korea. It's really embarrassing."

Cha Chung-ha speaks during a smart city workshop in July 2019 with Ayala Land in Manila, the Philippines, which is the largest real estate firm in the country. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha speaks during a smart city workshop in July 2019 with Ayala Land in Manila, the Philippines, which is the largest real estate firm in the country. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Are you smart city-ready?

In late September, Cha attended the Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., as one of the key speakers. The three-day event, hosted by the Smart Cities Council, attracted 500 representatives from 100 cities in 40 countries and 120 experts. They shared state-of-the-art infrastructure features in existing smart cities through panel sessions, exhibitions and workshops.

Before the event, the council tested participants with the "Smart City Readiness Challenge," a list of questions that, based on the applicants' answers, evaluated how ready they were to start a smart city. It's actually the question worth asking to individual citizens, whose inclusion in the sustainability community is rising in significance.

The challenge was available on online platform "Smart Cities Activator." Questions asked whether the applicants have a smart city master plan, chief information officers reporting to a mayor, electric vehicles or a smart lighting system. They also asked if the applicants have a Wi-Fi network and if it was 2G, 3G or 4G.

This year's challenge had five winners. One was Baltimore in the United States.

"Baltimore has been preparing hard for that challenge, bringing personnel from various city departments," Cha said. "What Baltimore taught us is that city departments elsewhere are too cooped up in their own silos. They don't talk to each other. Garbage collection, water department, building maintenance, they all have to be part of a big plan."

Cha Chung-ha with Erik Ubels, left, the Chief Technology Officer of redeveloped smart building project EDGE Olympic in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha with Erik Ubels, left, the Chief Technology Officer of redeveloped smart building project EDGE Olympic in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Smart cities are not feasible in advanced countries only. Developing nations' cities, although they may not be as well supported as Baltimore or other advanced communities, are interested in the concept, according to Cha.

He is particularly active in Southeast Asian countries, or the ASEAN region. In September, he traveled to Kuala Lumpur for a smart city conference. The Malaysian bid invited him back for a follow-up workshop in December for three cities ― Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching.

"They are very hopeful for smart cities, doing more with less," Cha said. "Twenty-six ASEAN cities want to become sustainable cities. They want to gather technologies and big data, open the database to the public and allow university students access to that database so they can make better technologies and innovate better solutions. That's the direction in which they aim to drive their local economies."

He rejected the opinion that smart cities are only relevant to advanced countries. He said the concept is even more relevant in low-income countries. For example, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi becoming a smart city would help with sustainable water use and waste management.

"A smart city must be sustainable. Furthermore, it must be sustainable socially, environmentally and economically. That's three Ps, for people, planet and profit, respectively," Cha said.

"There are thousands of cities worldwide interested in being a smart city. They want to become more competitive, attract global business and talented millennial workers to their cities, and make their cities better for living, working and playing. Whether low-income or not, a smart city is what everyone wants."

Cha Chung-ha checks out the site of Lakeview Village ― a $6 billion smart city redevelopment project on the waterfront of Mississauga, Canada ― with the project's owner-developer, September 2019. Cha designed the masterplan. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha checks out the site of Lakeview Village ― a $6 billion smart city redevelopment project on the waterfront of Mississauga, Canada ― with the project's owner-developer, September 2019. Cha designed the masterplan. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

There's no failure

Cha said there is no success or failure in people's bids to make a smart city because what matters is what they learn from the process and using it for the next steps ― improving technologies, bringing down costs and starting to expand.

As to the Korean infrastructure ministry's plan to introduce three hydrogen-powered cities by 2022, Cha, while praising the initiative, declined to assess its feasibility.

"Without knowing how much energy those cities will use overall, which percentile of hydrogen will contribute to that overall supply of energy, and how much the entire project will cost, I can't tell whether the plan will succeed or fail," Cha said.

"Hydrogen is just one element of those cities. They will need other renewable energy sources as well, like solar, wind, energy storage systems, smart grid and biomass. Evaluating a smart city's outlook is quite complicated."

In 2018, Cha sealed a deal to participate in the development of Lakeview Village, a $6 billion mixed-use waterfront redevelopment project in the greater Toronto area of Mississauga. The design, connecting 8,000 residential units to commercial spaces and the shore area next to Lake Ontario within one "smart" community, was approved by the Mississauga city government in late October.
Cha Chung-ha speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the office of the Re!magining Cities Foundation in Itaewon in Yongsan District, Seoul. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Cha Chung-ha speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the office of the Re!magining Cities Foundation in Itaewon in Yongsan District, Seoul. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Re!magining Cities Foundation CEO criticizes Korean government's 'delinquent' planning of sustainable communities

By Ko Dong-hwan

It is safe to call Cha Chung-ha a "smart city" expert. His words of advice to clients of his nonprofit organization Re!magining Cities Foundation have enough weight to attract those willing to pay.

But it is hard to reach him at his office in Itaewon, Seoul, with his busy schedule as a keynote speaker at smart city forums worldwide almost every month. And the avid sustainability advocate isn't above paying for his own flights and lodging for such trips if host cities cannot afford it.

As passionate as he is about consulting people interested in smart cities ― sustainable urban environments that interconnect residents with the internet of things (IoT) and run on big data-based infrastructure with efficient energy management ― his views on the so-called smart cities in Korea and their procedural blueprints were scathing.

Take the Songdo International Business District, located in the southwestern coastal part of Incheon that has been the country's shining example of a smart city. Cha isn't impressed.

"The big problem with Songdo is the top-down approach to the city, which failed to work out," Cha told The Korea Times.

"They have Central Park and a bike path, wonderful. They have a vacuum tube waste collection, very nice. They have lots of cameras monitoring the city. What else? Is that smart? Are they measuring metrics or data? Do they open the data and allow access to it to citizens or startups? No. The bike path is also dangerously close to big wide roads. It's rather car-centric and lacks walkability."

Central Park's resort sector sprawls inside the Songdo International Business District in Incheon. Courtesy of the office of Incheon Free Economic Zone
Central Park's resort sector sprawls inside the Songdo International Business District in Incheon. Courtesy of the office of Incheon Free Economic Zone

Foreign experts on sustainable urban planning evaluate Songdo poorly, according to Cha.

For example, one neighborhood of Songdo which has been given Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for its energy- and resource-efficient buildings. However, the buildings have mostly "Certified" and "Silver" certifications, the lowest two of four LEED rating levels.

The USGBC evaluates each project seeking LEED certification based on categories like location & transportation, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, innovation and more. Cha said achieving Certified or Silver isn't difficult ― Certified requires 40 to 49 points and Silver needs 50 to 59, while "Gold" means 60 to 79 points and "Platinum" is 80 and over. And yet, Songdo "brags" about this certification.

According to the USGBC, Songdo has 19.5 million square feet of LEED-certified space, with 12 projects comprising more than 100 buildings. When The Korea Times asked the Incheon City Government how many buildings are LEED-certified and in which certification classes, it said it did not keep such records.

"Most people pursue not Platinum but Certified or Silver," Cha said. "Is that good for Mother Earth? Not really. That's just green-washing. Compare Certified- or Silver-certified buildings with non-certified ones in terms of energy use, water use or amount of waste produced. Do the ones with certifications outperform the latter? Not necessarily."

He said G-SEED ― the Korean version of LEED ― has also issued the lowest certification class the most frequently and its recipients are happy with the brand's superficiality. "The green building status in Korea is very poor," Cha said.

Cha Chung-ha speaks at a smart city conference in Amsterdam in March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha speaks at a smart city conference in Amsterdam in March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Cha also criticized the government's lack of leadership in researching and planning for smart cities. Some government officials he met were pessimistic about the country's mixed energy use plan which was announced without thorough research. Even the agenda was largely not persuasive without a detailed plan.

"Copenhagen announced it will go carbon-neutral by 2025 and the Danish government introduced new policies to fully support the plan," Cha said. "The Korean government, when Seoul is compared with Copenhagen, naysays such a comparison, questioning how a city of 10 million can do what a city of 770,000 does ― without doing thorough research. The most important thing when introducing a smart city is for the government to take leadership with substantive regulations."

Cha said the government's smart city plans have so far provided no details in how to fulfill them and were just far-fetched plans for 2030, 2040 or 2050, not broken down into a yearly basis including the immediate future.

"One Korean government ministry ― I cannot remember which ― once proclaimed in a statement, 'all buildings in Korea will go net-zero' (in emissions) in just one line, not even a section. The ministry's lower-level officials didn't even know about that line," Cha said. "Administrators brag about such initiatives when talking about carbon emissions and the renewable energy mix at big international forums like the G20. But foreign ambassadors know that such plans are impossible in Korea. It's really embarrassing."

Cha Chung-ha speaks during a smart city workshop in July 2019 with Ayala Land in Manila, the Philippines, which is the largest real estate firm in the country. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha speaks during a smart city workshop in July 2019 with Ayala Land in Manila, the Philippines, which is the largest real estate firm in the country. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Are you smart city-ready?

In late September, Cha attended the Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., as one of the key speakers. The three-day event, hosted by the Smart Cities Council, attracted 500 representatives from 100 cities in 40 countries and 120 experts. They shared state-of-the-art infrastructure features in existing smart cities through panel sessions, exhibitions and workshops.

Before the event, the council tested participants with the "Smart City Readiness Challenge," a list of questions that, based on the applicants' answers, evaluated how ready they were to start a smart city. It's actually the question worth asking to individual citizens, whose inclusion in the sustainability community is rising in significance.

The challenge was available on online platform "Smart Cities Activator." Questions asked whether the applicants have a smart city master plan, chief information officers reporting to a mayor, electric vehicles or a smart lighting system. They also asked if the applicants have a Wi-Fi network and if it was 2G, 3G or 4G.

This year's challenge had five winners. One was Baltimore in the United States.

"Baltimore has been preparing hard for that challenge, bringing personnel from various city departments," Cha said. "What Baltimore taught us is that city departments elsewhere are too cooped up in their own silos. They don't talk to each other. Garbage collection, water department, building maintenance, they all have to be part of a big plan."

Cha Chung-ha with Erik Ubels, left, the Chief Technology Officer of redeveloped smart building project EDGE Olympic in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha with Erik Ubels, left, the Chief Technology Officer of redeveloped smart building project EDGE Olympic in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 2019. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

Smart cities are not feasible in advanced countries only. Developing nations' cities, although they may not be as well supported as Baltimore or other advanced communities, are interested in the concept, according to Cha.

He is particularly active in Southeast Asian countries, or the ASEAN region. In September, he traveled to Kuala Lumpur for a smart city conference. The Malaysian bid invited him back for a follow-up workshop in December for three cities ― Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching.

"They are very hopeful for smart cities, doing more with less," Cha said. "Twenty-six ASEAN cities want to become sustainable cities. They want to gather technologies and big data, open the database to the public and allow university students access to that database so they can make better technologies and innovate better solutions. That's the direction in which they aim to drive their local economies."

He rejected the opinion that smart cities are only relevant to advanced countries. He said the concept is even more relevant in low-income countries. For example, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi becoming a smart city would help with sustainable water use and waste management.

"A smart city must be sustainable. Furthermore, it must be sustainable socially, environmentally and economically. That's three Ps, for people, planet and profit, respectively," Cha said.

"There are thousands of cities worldwide interested in being a smart city. They want to become more competitive, attract global business and talented millennial workers to their cities, and make their cities better for living, working and playing. Whether low-income or not, a smart city is what everyone wants."

Cha Chung-ha checks out the site of Lakeview Village ― a $6 billion smart city redevelopment project on the waterfront of Mississauga, Canada ― with the project's owner-developer, September 2019. Cha designed the masterplan. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation
Cha Chung-ha checks out the site of Lakeview Village ― a $6 billion smart city redevelopment project on the waterfront of Mississauga, Canada ― with the project's owner-developer, September 2019. Cha designed the masterplan. Courtesy of Re!magining Cities Foundation

There's no failure

Cha said there is no success or failure in people's bids to make a smart city because what matters is what they learn from the process and using it for the next steps ― improving technologies, bringing down costs and starting to expand.

As to the Korean infrastructure ministry's plan to introduce three hydrogen-powered cities by 2022, Cha, while praising the initiative, declined to assess its feasibility.

"Without knowing how much energy those cities will use overall, which percentile of hydrogen will contribute to that overall supply of energy, and how much the entire project will cost, I can't tell whether the plan will succeed or fail," Cha said.

"Hydrogen is just one element of those cities. They will need other renewable energy sources as well, like solar, wind, energy storage systems, smart grid and biomass. Evaluating a smart city's outlook is quite complicated."

In 2018, Cha sealed a deal to participate in the development of Lakeview Village, a $6 billion mixed-use waterfront redevelopment project in the greater Toronto area of Mississauga. The design, connecting 8,000 residential units to commercial spaces and the shore area next to Lake Ontario within one "smart" community, was approved by the Mississauga city government in late October.
Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr


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