City in a box, unboxed

June 10, 2010

Excitement online and in the twittersphere about the Cisco ‘city in a box’ being built in Songdo, South Korea. There seems to be a bit of a utopian city meme at the moment – instant cities,  floating cities and Paul Romer’s Charter Cities (which I discussed a while back). Last week’s Economist even showcased a whole series of prototype ‘cities for 2030’.

As the Economist piece points out, there’s something slightly odd about these kind of exercises. Cities tend to emerge and evolve organically, even chaotically, rather than being built from scratch: and their residents and users tend to be resistant to masterplanning.

A closer look at Cisco’s instant city actually confirms all this quite neatly. First, it’s not a city, it’s a business district – albeit one that could house up to 1m people. Second, it’s neither new or self-contained. Instead, it’s a bolt-on to an existing city, Incheon, the 3rd biggest in S Korea.

This kind of CBD megaproject has been done before – in Canary Wharf, for example, which works pretty well as a financial service cluster, if not as a functioning community. (With a working population of around 90,000 people, it’s over ten times smaller than Songdo.)

I can see the potential for this kind of plug-in planning in China in particular, given the pace of urbanisation there. The developer at Songdo reckons there’s a market for at least 20 more in China and across South East Asia. That’s plausible if the demographics and national economies hold up. But ‘build it and they will come’ is an inherently risky strategy – just look at Dubai.

I’d also love to see Cisco try this in a small, highly urbanised Global North country like the UK. Our biggest urban planning challenges in years to come is going to be greening the cities and buildings we’ve got. The eco-towns initiative doesn’t tackle this, and the programme is basically marginal.

But in growing places, there’s potentially an important role for high-tech, resource-efficient urban extensions – around Greater London, Manchester, York, Cambridge or Brighton, say. The problem will be the total lack of public funds to help actual building. Perhaps Cisco can step up to the Big Society plate and donate one?

ps. I’m now finally on Twitter – find me here.

pps. We’re now on holiday for a bit. Blogging returns in July.

One Response to “City in a box, unboxed”


  1. […] and offline are complements, not substitutes. Glaeser rightly plugs this into the development of smart cities and the internet of things. Adam Greenberg’s imminent book will tie a lot of this […]


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