How South Korea’s Incheon Smart City Makes Forgotten Inequalities Visible

This argument appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

By Hai Ri (Sophia) Jeon

In the early 2000s, Songdo, South Korea earned a global reputation as a smart city built from the ground up. The public-private partnership behind the smart city plan boasted of high-tech urban infrastructures (e.g., sustainable underground waste management systems) and was projected to become a “green city.” However, within the past two decades, the stark divide between those living at the urban center and those at the periphery of Songdo became apparent. The former enjoyed the benefits of efficient waste management technologies and its recycling initiatives; the latter was affected by negative consequences of illegal littering due to the lack of proper implementation of similar infrastructures in low-income areas. Set in Hambak Village, a low-income neighborhood at the outskirts of Songdo, South Korea, this paper investigates how its South Korean, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Vietnamese residents negotiate between the invisible top-down technological infrastructures that failed to include them and the very visible forms of “othering” prompted by not only xenophobia, but also by their material relations with waste as “discarded” populations. The paper documents the brief history of the urban center-periphery divide in South Korea and argues that it is the complex intertwining of contradictory meanings, values, and goals of science and technology and the roles and identities of the state, experts, and publics that deepen such a divide in Songdo.


When I first visited Songdo Smart City (henceforth Songdo) in 2019, I viewed it through the prism of existing accounts that described a “no man’s city”[1] and a “Chernobyl-like ghost town.”[2] It appeared to be a project that had failed to materialize South Korea’s ideological image of the tomorrow city. However, investigation of the continuous transformation of Songdo in the past decade and the sociotechnical effects of its transformation on neighboring, lower income areas revealed it to be a complex urban space with historical and cultural conditions, and interconnected narratives and discourses that transcend its significance as solely a failed smart city project. Songdo extends beyond both its rather disappointing immediate results and the works written about it in both academic and practitioner circles that perceive it as a failure in the “longer genealogy of utopian urban planning.”[3] This research attempts to observe the relationship between Songdo and a neighborhood at its periphery named Hambak Village as a consequential representation of South Korea’s larger smart city initiative. This initiative can be understood to hold the capacity to provide comfort and convenience to some while also damage the lived experiences of others, encouraging the production and reproduction of urban segregation through the power of infrastructure derived from the country’s techno-optimistic imagined future.

Background on the Smart City Movement

Although the smart city movement is relatively new, it is a dynamic and ongoing campaign that is emerging as an influential global force apparent in major cities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Italy, Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. Many of these countries have identified the smart city as essential to their national agenda with aspirations to be a part of a movement that promises to reorganize the global economy. However, those actors involved in the making of the “smart city” cannot agree upon a singular definition or conception, creating boundaries[4] for mutual understanding and agreement on how the conception of the “smart city” does and should manifest across different social and cultural groups. Some advocates and analysts of smart cities may point to “cities of tomorrow” such as Songdo or the PlanIT Valley in Portugal; while others may refer to Rio de Janeiro’s IBM-installed control center, or to Barcelona’s Cisco-created interconnected environment, in which “smartness” is developed through retrofits designed to append new systems to city infrastructure.[5] Academics have attempted to establish rigid definitions of the “smart city” organized around a singular criterion. For instance, researchers from technical universities in Europe devised a rubric with six characteristics, 31 factors, and 74 indicators to rank various smart cities around the world based on the level of their “smartness.”[6] Others seek a more open definition, with executives at Cisco defining the smart city as “one that combines traditional infrastructure (roads, buildings, and so on) with technology to enrich the lives of its citizens.”[7] Without resolution, these contrasting definitions make the concept quite nebulous and flexible, as collectively understood.

Songdo is no exception, having been variously described as “city that continues to grow and evolve with the application of smart technologies that work to solve the inconveniences of its citizens,”[8] “a smarter ecosystem of citizens, schools, and businesses,”[9] “a safe city, a convenient city, and a city in which information can be accessed by anyone, anytime, anywhere,”[10] as well as “an environmentally friendly and economically beneficial place to live”[11] and “a city of opportunity, with good livability that improves the housing settlement environment.”[12] For the purposes of this paper, however, Songdo is generally thought of as a “people-centric” platform and a “testbed” that improves the quality of life for its citizens by utilizing innovative Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), AI, Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing. Under construction since 2002, Songdo boasts of an area of about 5,829,446 square meters in size with a population of 183,911 as of November 2020.[13] By the end of 2022, it is expected to be an optimal international business city consisting of convention centers, parks, international schools, tourism and leisure facilities, and residential infrastructure.[14]

Center-Periphery Issues and Songdo

Although Songdo has received a relatively significant amount of both national and international attention within smart city literature, what has not yet been properly addressed is the layered relationship between Songdo and its neighboring areas that epitomizes the issues of spatial segregation and social polarization between the urban center and periphery prominent since the country’s rapid post-Korean War economic development. The subject of urban inequality has become highly complex within the social sciences as of recent years due to the accelerating pace of urbanization.[15] A plethora of works have indicated the ways in which capital and power drive urbanization processes, and reproduce the socio-spatial structures and relations of the city; they focus on “the operations of nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism”[16] and the identity politics involved in the shaping of the urban condition across the globe.[17][18] Previous literature written about Songdo is of similar nature, focusing on its macro social structure and relating it to the notions of power and knowledge,[19][20][21][22] or historically contextualizing it in comparison to other smart cities in the West.[23][24][25]

However, questions of citizenship, ethics, justice, and the right to a city, centered on notions of smart urbanism and inequality contextualize the complex relationship between Songdo and Hambak Village, a low-income and multicultural neighborhood located five kilometers from Songdo and within the same district—Yeonsu-gu. Data collection may allow for better efficiency and responsiveness by improving the technologies’ capacity to predict desires of the smart city residents under a “society of control,”[26] but it enhances the ability of the government to administer and manage bodies and populations through the power of “invisibility.”[27] The citizen residing in a smart city is framed as an “analog-cum-digital information node,”[28] and can be perceived as a “surveilled, controlled and policed subject”[29] with the use of “apparatuses of security.”[30] Although many smart city initiatives, including Songdo, claim to be “citizen-centric” and “citizen-focused,” they retain an underlying ethos of neoliberalism and a mode of top-down governmentality.[31]

There is a shift in citizen roles and framing that reveals the dominant neoliberal model of citizenship operating within the smart city system. Neoliberalism moves citizenship away from inalienable rights and the common good, to individual autonomy, freedom of choice, personal onus, and obligations.[32][33] This reorientation of citizenship towards market principles secures a framework in which citizens are viewed as consumers to select various options on the “basis of their ability to afford them.”[34] Smartness leads to a “gamification effect”[35] in which notions of the “good” or “bad” citizen or consumer are developed through their ability to contribute significantly to the overall system. This strengthens discourses surrounding the justifications or challenges of the socio-spatial processes that discriminate and exclude certain members of society within a smart city. smart city vision has been argued by scholars such as Kitchin, Cardullo, and Feliciantonio to be a reciprocal process between the citizens and the state, organized with respect to “conviviality, communing, equality, civic deliberation, resource sharing, and social reproduction.”[36] This vision clashes with what is implied by the neoliberal model of the smart city, which can be a catalyst for issues surrounding so-called “dataveillance,” anticipatory governance, social and spatial divisions, and dynamic pricing that affects different groups of citizens variably.[37][38] The tension between this dynamic present in the relationship between Songdo and Hambak Village illustrates how the conflict between vision and reality can damage the lived experiences of one population while providing convenience to the other.

Approach and Aim of the Study

This ongoing ethnographic study observes the lived experiences of immigrant and South Korean residents in Hambak Village. While Songdo boasts an effective waste management system and various lifestyle amenities, Hambak Village is afflicted by the environmental and social effects of illegal waste dumping in its neighborhood. Although the municipality attempted to provide technological solutions for this issue through a bottom-up, citizen-centric “living lab” methodology, the municipality’s desire to showcase its technological expertise preceded the rhetoric of responsibility and democratic discourse necessary to provide sustainable solutions. I argue that it is the negotiation between these invisible technological infrastructures and the visible ruptures of friction amongst the different ethnicities who live in the area that epitomize the urban center-periphery divide between the development of smart city “new towns” and “old towns” respectively. The relationship of these two factors makes evident the tensions between, on the one hand, the scientists, technologists, and politicians involved in generating technological projects, and on the other hand, the communities these projects are meant for. It also aims to contribute to the larger discussions of sociology of scientific knowledge, the history of science, and science and technology studies, as it emphasizes the epistemic and ethical need for diverse voices, bodies, and knowledge to strengthen inclusion and equity in scientific ventures.

In this paper, I will first outline my methodology and then explain the history of urban development in South Korea from the 1960s to present day, including the country’s advancement into smart city development. I then use the ethnographic material gathered with the ES Smart City Lab of Incheon National University (INU) to present the relationship between Songdo and Hambak Village as a case study of the effect of scientific and technological initiatives on important issues in politics, industry and policy to make evident those who benefit from or are harmed by various initiatives for scientific and technological advancement. Such findings can additionally provide evidence on the patterns of inequity that continue to occur with (and perhaps due to) the incorporation of development initiatives that aim for sustainable growth, such as smart city models. It calls attention to how policymakers within countries and international organizations should be more conscientious of massive social inequality risks that can come with inclusive development strategies of the smart city model, which will be increasingly looked towards to organize economies and politics as nations around the world experience unprecedentedly rapid urbanization.


This paper draws from the author’s experience as a visiting social science researcher at the ES Smart City Lab at Incheon National University (INU). An ethnographic research design was specifically chosen because of its ability to generate a more personal understanding of people and their lived experiences; this scope was especially important to address as this paper delineates the importance of technologies and technological infrastructures carrying significant political, social, and ethical stakes.

Situated in INU’s Songdo campus, the lab is one of the first in the country to initiate the “living lab” methodology within the space of the smart city and its outer areas. Living labs are described as “physical regions, virtual realities, or interaction spaces [of] public-private-people partnerships (4Ps) of companies, public agencies, universities, users, and stakeholders… ”[39] The ES Lab, for example, is an amalgam of undergraduate engineering students and graduate engineering researchers, professors from different departments, Yeonsu-gu (Yeonsu district) municipal officers, representatives from various businesses such as Incheon TechnoPark and BG Eco, and users (such as Hambak Village residents) for whom the technologies will be built for. This methodology prioritizes the user through an open innovation ecosystem based on a systematic co-creation approach integrating research and innovation processes within communities in real-life settings and time. In contrast to the closed innovation paradigm in which innovation was an inherently limited process operating within the boundaries of R&D processes, the living lab challenges the vertically integrated model to assume a distributed, democratic, and nonlinear cooperation between internal R&D departments and the outside world, benefiting from the synergetic possibilities associated in this collaboration to generate a more extensive spectrum of social progress and inclusive development.[40]

Hambak Village was chosen from multiple possible neighborhoods in South Korea due to its extended issue of illegal littering (Figure 1). Focusing on a user-centric open innovation approach applied by the living lab methodology, the ES Smart City Lab conducted multiple one-hour meetings over the course of a year with its researchers and engineers, including myself, the Yeonsu-gu municipal officers, and the residents of Hambak Village.

In addition, surveys translated into Russian and Vietnamese were mailed to 100 Uzbek, Kazakh, and Vietnamese residents out of respect for those who may have had an illegal residency status. In addition to the participant observation conducted at the ES Smart City Lab, this research relies on recorded 60- to 80-minute interviews in Korean and English during and after the living lab project was conducted. They were conducted in person, and were semi-structured, loosely based on questions that were prepared beforehand. The interview questions focused on the effects of waste management, social inequality, and technologies on the interviewees’ lives, broadly speaking. I interviewed six South Korean and non–South Korean residents in Hambak Village. I also interviewed six residents of Songdo with similar questions to distinguish how their lives differed from those of residents living in lower-income neighborhoods outside of the smart city’s boundaries. Aside from these interviews, I conducted focused conversations with past and current urban planners of Songdo and Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), and the CEO of the IncheonSmartCity Organization to portray a more comprehensive view of Songdo. This was supplemented by consulting secondary resources on background, including English and Korean texts about Songdo and Hambak Village— newspaper clippings, books, brochures, and magazines—as well as South Korean media coverage on national smart city initiatives and YouTube videos. Korean-written historical resources were also consulted to provide a succinct genealogy of South Korea’s urban development post-Korean War.

All participants were informed of the purpose of the research and were assured that their data would only be used for academic purposes. I am not disclosing the names of the participants in this paper to avoid potential harm to their social and professional identities. I present my data by using alphabetical letters after “Interview” to maintain their confidentiality and to keep their names anonymous.

Figure 1: Illegal Littering in Hambak Village

Figure 1: Illegal Littering in Hambak Village

Source: Author

History of South Korea’s Urban Development

In the 1960s, South Korea initiated massive urban and housing development plans under the military authoritarian regime led by Park Chung Hee. The Korea Land and Housing Corporation was established to build public houses for low-income households, and both the “Act on Land Acquisition and Compensation” and the “Urban Planning Act” were passed to construct large housing complexes to form metropolitan areas in Gwacheon, Seoul, and Busan.[41] These efforts led to a 42.8 percent increase in urbanization as citizens began to situate themselves into these areas in hopes of finding job opportunities.[42] This continued well into the 1970s, which encouraged the development of apartment complexes to disperse the large influx of citizens and industries. Between the 1960s and 1970s, Seoul was one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises.[43] As Seoul experienced a rapid urban sprawl and population concentration in its urban center by the 1980s, large-scale cities started to appear in its outskirts, such as in Mokdong, Sanggye, and Sadang.[44] Due to this abrupt expansion, the government under President Chun Doo Hwan planned for large-scale urban development by enacting the “Housing Site Development Promotion Act” and launching the National Housing Fund to help benefit the development of these “new towns” and future urban growth. Hence, the 1990s saw the establishment of first generation “new towns” such as in Jungdong, Ilsan, Bundang, Pyeongchon, Sanbon that integrated the notion of “self-sufficiency” into urban design by incorporating shopping malls, office buildings, and transportation infrastructures along with relatively safe housing complexes as successfully as Seoul had done.

South Korea had reached 100 percent of its housing supply rate in the early 2000s, allowing its citizens to prioritize refinements in the quality of life, environment, education, transportation, and leisure activities. The state’s focus on urban development shifted to sustainability of the society, the economy, and the environment, rather than on providing housing and managing rapid urbanization as in the decades prior. With both swift economic growth and urbanization, South Korea launched its “UbiquitousCity” (“U-City”) initiative in the early 2000s. This initiative planned to combine a variety of advanced technologies to link the city under a network to provide a “better urban life and experience for the Korean people.”[45] The “U-City” brand launched in 2003, with the enactment of the “U-City” legislation in 2008 and the “Act on the Construction of Ubiquitous-City” passing in 2009.[46] The country’s rich experience in the construction of new cities and its remarkably quick progression as an economic powerhouse in just two decades after the Korean War were factors in the nation’s confidence to start a smart city project ahead of other countries. South Korea relied on its indigenous technological expertise and urban development abilities to develop its “U-City” model in Incheon, Songdo, and public initiative quickly began to center on the development of a smart city infrastructure that could lead the global smart city market.[47]

This historical analysis shows the tremendous power of the state in urban development. Park Chung Hee’s authoritarian regime led to South Korea employing massive top-down urban development projects that were concerned with growth management, unlike other low-income postwar cities that embraced a neoliberal ideology of global city building. However, despite this ideology serving as a foundation for South Korea’s economic success, the “Miracle of the Han River,” the compressed, unprecedentedly rapid urbanization created new forms of social precarity. This was especially exacerbated by the continuous urban renewal and revitalization projects under South Korea’s five-phase “New Town Development” initiative that aimed to “yield outcomes such as housing market stabilization, improvement of housing condition, securement of public and green spaces, economic effect on related industries, and expansion of urban infrastructure.”[48] The “New Town Development” plan, however, forced the eradication of the urban lower class, typified by the presence of urban slum dwellers,[49] who were mercilessly forced to move out into the outskirts of cities. Conversely, the wealthy urban upper class, who were the main beneficiaries of the government-led urban revitalization projects through land speculation, and the urban middle class, who were also minor partners in garnering the benefits of the land speculation, were apathetic towards the government-conglomerate collaborations in urban development. This coincided with the country’s ideology towards perpetual progress, which causes civil society to be fragmented even today, as the wealth gap and income inequality in South Korea grows higher and higher every passing year.[50]

South Korea’s U-City Project: Songdo

The initiative to create Songdo as South Korea’s first smart city is indicative of the intimate relationship between the state, and science and technology in South Korea. National progress through advancements in scientific expertise and technological innovation have allowed the state to reaffirm its capacity to act as a “responsible” steward of the so-called public good. As state-driven narratives of responsibility construe and sustain technologically advanced futures, science and technology are established as forms of power through which to reimagine the nation and as mediums to stimulate feelings of promise, hope, and desire about the future. This prevailing “sociotechnical imaginary”[51] that emphasizes a nationalist development ideology with the application of indigenous scientific and technological knowledge is crucial to the discursive and material foundations of South Korea’s contemporary national identity. Hence, Songdo is an imagined urban space that, with its continuous development until the present day, embodies South Korea’s past, present, and future.

Located about 50 kilometers from the capital city of Seoul, South Korea, Songdo was constructed as part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). Free Economic Zones (FEZs) are designated regions that, with government support and appropriate legislation, have the “potential and desire to become specialized clusters of global companies.”[52] The IFEZ consists of not only Songdo, but also Cheongna and Yeongjong. Despite its relatively recent media coverage, the conception of Songdo can be traced back to 1962, when a private South Korean company, Woojin Mulsan, initiated a plan to reclaim about five square kilometers on which to build a new city.[53] Despite its approval by the central government on 30 December 1961, the idea of building a city from reclaimed land re-emerges in historical documents as a more concrete idea in April 1988 upon the visit of then President Roh Tae-Woo to Incheon.[54] Incheon had plans to reclaim Songdo Island to secure a central, international business district of information technology, communication, and commerce, and to support the construction of about70,000 housing units to accommodate its limited land supply.[55] The reclamation of Songdo Island eventually started on 19 September 1994,[56] with the municipality eager to produce a “city of the future” that would also be “Korea’s Silicon Valley.”[57] However, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 severely delayed construction plans for the Incheon municipality and the central government. It was only in 2002, after acquiring ample foreign investment and developing pivotal central government policies to create FEZs, that the blueprints for Songdo were publicly announced and plans to create a new land mass derived directly from the Yellow Sea of about 169.5 square kilometers were well underway.[58]

With the foundation of the New Songdo International City (NSIC), led by Gale International and the Posco Group—and later, Cisco—Songdo was envisioned by the state to be “the world’s first ubiquitous city”[59] in which public and private services could be delivered and received anytime and anywhere, to anyone.[60] Although a shaky concept in South Korea at first, the so-called “U-City” represented a paradigm shift of urban planning from conventional infrastructure to an intelligent one founded on ubiquitous computing systems,[61] and featured an invisible façade.[62] Not simply an informational landscape, the “U-City” aimed to act as both a “repository of data and a communicator and processor of the data”[63] that forged new standards and modes of living through new sociopolitical relations through a range of so-called “u-services” such as “u-health, u-education, u-transport, and u-government.”[64] The first phase of the IFEZ, which included reclamation and infrastructure provisions, was completed in 2009, but the smart city currently continues to exponentially develop.[65]

Its development is currently centered around enhancing the city as a site for bioresearch, education and research facilities, and culture and tourism. For its citizens, there is an emphasis on making a smart city that prioritizes safety and security, convenience, and eco-consciousness through technological infrastructure for a better quality of life. This plan may have backfired, however, as Songdo is what some of its citizens and even urban planners today refer to as a “bed town,” connoting a city that lacks occupancy because it is viewed as “a temporary place of rest for those who work elsewhere such as in Seoul”[66] which stands against what Songdo was an investment for: a primary destination.

Songdo was also constructed as a multicultural city. There are buildings and road signs written in English as well as in Korean, a diverse range of restaurants offered, tourist attractions with global influences such as its Central Park, an international school (Chadwick International School), and Incheon Global Campus, comprised of extended campuses of the State University of New York (Stony Brook University and the Fashion Institute of Technology), George Mason University, Belgium’s Ghent University, and the University of Utah.

Beneath Songdo lies a massive infrastructure of fiber optic cables intended to provide some of the highest bandwidth on Earth. The city’s infrastructure includes sensors that transfer data about the atmosphere, waste management, electricity usage, and traffic into networked computer systems. These systems then algorithmically manage how to most effectively respond to changes in the environment or the status of its resident population for the convenience of its inhabitants. This agent-oriented smartness is capable of handling both mundane and catastrophic future events, from banal smartphone alerts to crowdsourcing for disaster relief in the case of a massive meteorological, geological, or terrorist event.[67] Songdo is the product of one of the implicit assumptions of smart systems: that increasing the use of computation and data flow in an environment will overcome all and any future problems and threats. The new metrics developed in Songdo acting under the conditions of climactic and economic uncertainty became the forms of deferring general threats instead of ones specific to South Korea. As urban planners involved in Songdo have continued to reiterate, the titular smart city prioritizes “first and foremost safety and security, and then convenience and livability”[68][69][70]

Songdo, then, was conceived as a general platform that draws on a growing global “demo” ethos increasingly prevalent in the public sphere, which is characterized by the continuous delivery of updates and trials in an endless feedback loop between market research, personalization, and product development.[71] Songdo is considered an “urban laboratory”[72] and a “testbed” insofar as it can encourage the evolution of smart city infrastructure and ultimately facilitate the rapid construction of smart cities on a global scale.

Rather than a bottom-up, human-oriented approach that customizes technologies according to its residents’ needs, Songdo prioritized a topdown, technology-driven approach and a uniform service to create a fragmented testbed that could contribute to advancing the global smart city movement. However, as a past urban planner of Songdo put it, this was “inevitable…because South Korea had no choice but to start as a top-down smart city in the mid-2000s because the concept of a bottom-up approach to urban planning did not exist in the country at the time.”[73] The government’s failure to develop an urban space that met the needs of its citizens sparked a decade-long “smart city winter” between 2007 and 2017 in which the South Korean government did not initiate any new smart city projects. During this period, the state focused on a smart city approach that could democratize technology for a consumer-oriented city, generate innovation-based national growth, and provide sustainable services to its citizens. 

Hambak Village’s “Old Town” Waste, Songdo Smart City’s “New Town” Management

In the aftermath of the “smart city winter,” Incheon’s municipal government has been making an effort to employ the living lab methodology for a more user-centric approach to Songdo’s development in the present day. Despite the efforts by the Incheon municipal government to employ the “living lab” methodology, democratic discourse is still lacking, as there is a boundary of knowledge between the experts involved in the making of Songdo and the citizens themselves. This is particularly evident in the “old town” areas, or areas that are in need of urban regeneration, on the outskirts of Songdo such as Hambak Village, a low-income and heavily immigrantpopulated neighborhood. Although Songdo is a “new town” which contrasts with Hamabk Village’s “old town” due to its ground-up, networked technological infrastructure systems embedded into the landscape for increasing urban prosperity and quality of life, an “old town” region such as Hambak Village is not equipped with such surveillance, control, and communication infrastructures and are yet to undergo urban renovation to provide a certain level of comfort and convenience for its residents.

While Songdo boasts an underground waste management system that connects to smart trash cans in its streets and within residence buildings, Hambak Village has faced illegal waste dumping in its streets for the last decade. In South Korea, it is illegal to throw out waste on the street, and there are select days in which residents can discard recyclable items, food waste, and hazardous materials such as batteries.

South Korean, Uzbek, and Vietnamese residents communicated to me in interviews the adverse effects on health, safety, and the environment due to haphazard and negligent waste disposal. These included fumes from exposed waste, miscellaneous items hurting playing children, and waste runoff harming surrounding wildlife.

The residents of Hambak Village experienced the stark contrast between their own experience and that of Songdo’s residents: the invisible technological infrastructure embedded into Songdo’s landscape that was clearly lacking in Hambak Village. These experiences perpetuate the layered relationship between spatial and social boundaries that has existed in South Korea since the Korean War.

Instead of denying wrongdoing, the Incheon Metropolitan Office, along with Incheon National University, accepted responsibility by promoting a living lab methodology and encouraging an open dialogue between the affected citizens, the experts involved in the scientific knowledge production behind smart city technological infrastructure, and the municipal officers funding the project through a “collaborative partnership.” Yet Songdo became a site of struggle for a more just South Korea when, during these “partnership” discussions, implicit rhetoric of the state’s responsibility towards national development were used by the experts to advocate for technology. They viewed it as a panacea for the social, ethical, and environmental consequences that were paradoxically the results of the smart city planners marginalizing these “old town” areas in the first place. This “quick solve” approach is explained by one of the professors of Incheon National University as:

the norm because municipal officers and the experts have separate agendas in wanting to advance their careers with a project to add to their resumes…South Korea itself has always been about rapid and continuous development using science and technology as well, which sometimes makes the results of these projects unsustainable, as they are going to be replaced with something newer and flashier in the next couple of years.[74]

Following his opinion, it was noticeable during the discussions that skillful use of political language and conventions silenced the opinions of citizens who vocalized their doubts about a technological solution to their decades-long issue. Such doubts were understandable. The municipal government of Incheon had in previous years heightened the number of closedcircuit televisions in Hambak Village to resolve the waste issue but residents expertly found ways to maneuver out of the camera’s panoptic eye. Hambak Village residents were also aware that because they were an “old town,” their area was not equipped to maintain or sustain technologies that could work for a “new town” such as Songdo. Despite the intention to utilize a living lab methodology, it was apparent that deliberate tactics were being used to discreetly sideline how the bodies and knowledge of marginalized citizens residing in “old towns” were actively being marginalized by efforts to prioritize science and technology for rapid urban development.

The marginalization also occurs on a more intimate racial and ethnic level within Hambak Village, as its South Korean residents blamed the Kazakh, Russian, Uzbek, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrant families and migrant workers who heavily populate the area for being “too uncultured” or “incapable” of understanding how to properly throw out their waste. An interviewee who has lived in Hambak Village for over two decades confided:

as of a decade ago, Hambak Village had no issues at all. It was so clean but now with these foreigners coming in our neighborhood is becoming a discarded and dirty place…they have no respect for the neighborhood at all or for the specific rules and regulations our country has for waste disposal.[75]

This view was widely propagated by the South Korean residents of the living lab project, and many felt that the municipal government had to take accountability for these issues, as they attributed the movement of immigrants into their neighborhood to the development of Songdo. It was a shared opinion that Songdo’s proximity to Incheon International Airport created the means for immigrants and migrant workers to settle nearby, but because of the high costs of living in the smart city, many choose to live in areas at the periphery such as Hambak Village. With the large influx of immigrants into these low-income areas, many South Korean residents opted to move out due to “cultural differences making the neighborhood feel unfamiliar and strange.”[76] Efforts to mitigate tensions and frictions among different ethnic populations residing together in close proximity to each other through various Facebook groups, community service activities, and the erection of a cultural center, makes prominently visible the rampant xenophobia and “othering” that plagues the small and enclosed space of Hambak Village.

In surveying the Uzbekh, Kazakh, Vietnamese, and Russian residents of Hambak Village on the issue of illegal waste dumping, over 80 percent proclaimed that they felt they were often treated as the scapegoats purely because they were outsiders who “don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend South Korea’s waste rules and regulations.”[77][78] However, this extends beyond cultural and linguistic differences—it appeared that the foreigners themselves were blamed for polluting the area with their unwanted bodies. Waste in Hambak Village, then, extends beyond just discarded material. It is instead a statement of conflicting identity politics that reproduces and strengthens inequalities between not only different ethnic groups, but also between the high-income urban center, Songdo, and the low-income urban periphery, Hambak Village. Songdo’s technological infrastructure allows its residents to have a better material relationship to the waste they produce, and its multicultural initiative embraces the sometimes fraught relationships between various populations. Hambak Village on the other hand, is an example of the logic of exclusion and expulsion that is irrevocably tied to the concept of waste, which parallels the way in which the immigrants and migrants are being treated as redundant, temporary human beings who do not belong. In being tied together as the “same”[79] by those living in Songdo, the South Korean residents of Hambak Village feel as though they too are “unwanted bodies” that scientific and technological advancements have disregarded.

Invisible and Visible

The Incheon municipality’s approach to Hambak Village is indicative of the state-driven political rationality that underlies technological projects that threaten to normalize neoliberal arrangements and exacerbate social inequalities. This is not unique to South Korea, however. During IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge in 2012, the city of Durham, North Carolina was recommended costly tech-fix solutions that attempted to address its “complex problem of youth dropping out of school, having difficulty finding jobs, and potentially entering the criminal justice system.”[80] By reframing the problem in economic terms, IBM presumed that being disconnected from technology would lead youth to “criminal and other non-productive behavior” that could further burden Durham with additional costs and later deter its economic development. This report was a clear sales pitch to the municipality and a matter of providing the appearance of “superior” data collection tactics to rationalize support for its technological solutions; it negated the lived experiences of the youth as well as the social costs they and their disenfranchised communities were grappling with for the sake of allowing a host of organizations to share uniform and standardized data. There was a reductive framing of the problem, as IBM privileged technology-initiated solutions as if larger systemic problems such as poverty or lack of child support, were subordinate.

During the same challenge in 2011, St. Louis, Missouri was looking to gather recommendations to improve its public safety, especially being labeled the “most dangerous city in America” by the FBI’s crime data statistics. As with Durham, the primary recommendations were for “greater centralization, informatization, and privatization.”[81] This solution refused to take into account the tension between a predominantly white police force with minority neighborhoods in St. Louis. IBM’s report that emphasized identifying “top-priority” offenders through intelligence-led policing, police patrol metrics, performance-based appraisal systems, and electronic monitoring systems, were unlikely to resolve the larger social and cultural problems rooted in the urban landscape of St. Louis.[82]

These international cases represent the smart city’s reinforcing of “big data” methodologies as the answer to larger issues that were previously thought of as unfixable due to their layered complexities. It seems that Songdo’s living lab also indicated a promise to rationalize city functions to do more with less through technological systems. The results of the living lab were a disappointment to the residents who participated. Although the project lasted four months, the end result was a single digital monitor with translated directions (Figure 2) on how to properly dispose of specific items, equipped with four smart trash cans separated into non-recyclables, glass bottles, cans, and plastics that were motion sensitive (Figure 3). This overtly visible attempt was a proclamation by the municipal government that they had made a conscious effort to include Hambak Village in science and technology-centered urban renovation initiatives. It was a declaration that they were not forgotten solely because they were an “old town.” 

Figure 2: Waste Disposal Guidance Produced by Songdo’s Living Lab

Figure 2: Waste Disposal Guidance Produced by Songdo’s Living Lab

Source: Author

Figure 3: Digital Monitor to Guide Waste Disposal Produced by Songdo’s Living Lab

Figure 3: Digital Monitor to Guide Waste Disposal Produced by Songdo’s Living Lab

Source: Author

But because Hambak Village was an “old town,” the technology had no means of being able to be maintained or sustained in its original condition, because no one took the responsibility to enhance the infrastructures that were already in place. As one resident said:

the garbage cans don’t even respond to movement anymore, and the monitor doesn’t even work. So now people just place their garbage next to it. We appreciate the government and the university for trying to provide us with a solution, but honestly I think it’s a failure and if anything contributed to making our street look even messier than before.[83]

Another resident confided:

the government had no intention of any kind of responsibility during the project. What was the point of participating in the discussions when our voices were not even heard? If anything, this solution makes me feel even more disregarded because now I understand that this failure of a project is all we are worth.[84]

Hambak Village’s proximity to Songdo’s thriving urban center with efficient waste management systems that are annually upgraded and efficiently managed by the smart city’s control tower only perpetuated the feeling of abandonment and disappointment for the residents of the former. It was an invisible prioritization of the affluent that highlighted the range of insecurities within Hambak Village that are constrained in the manner in which they can be resolved. The municipality and the university were accused of falsely stimulating feelings of promise and hope about the future of Hambak Village. Trust in expertise wavered, and the citizens’ constant negotiation between the visible forms of “othering” and the invisible technological infrastructures that seemingly marginalized their knowledges and bodies created the means for a continuous divide between Songdo’s urban center and periphery and the division of social relations.


Smart cities involve multiple discourses of science and technology studies, and of capital, power, and governmentality. It has become imperative to question how social relations and spatial divisions within smart cities are produced and reproduced, and how citizens, citizenship, justice, and the right to a city are being conceived and operationalized within the smart city as well. Previous literature on smart cities and inequality focus on nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism, as well as the identity politics involved in the shaping of the urban condition across the globe. This framework should extend beyond the space of the smart city itself and to its neighboring areas. The influence of smart cities transcends the boundaries of its own urban space; Songdo and its relationship to Hambak Village is indicative of how smart city solutions that are deemed to be universal can instead reinforce new forms of citizenship and identities that continue to be marginalized in different spaces.

Since the 1960s, South Korea’s attempts at urban revitalization and renovation have been constant and continuous. Efforts to advance scientific knowledge and technological expertise were often made in conjunction with such attempts, as they were perceived as forms of power through which the nation could be reimagined and rebuilt as autonomous and self-reliant especially after the trauma of colonialism and the Korean War. The prioritization towards the future of national progress, rather than on the problems of the present, has divided South Korean society by dismissing its negative social, ethical, and environmental consequences.

The case of Songdo and Hambak Village makes clear the stark divide between those living at the urban center (“new town”) and those living in the lower income neighboring areas (“old town”) of a smart city. The former enjoys the benefits of efficient networked technological infrastructures while the latter is inconvenienced by various health, safety, and environmental causes of illegal waste dumping. Hambak Village’s South Korean, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Vietnamese residents negotiate between the invisible top-down technological infrastructures that failed to include them and the very visible forms of “othering” prompted by xenophobia and their material relations with waste as “discarded” populations. Although a smart city evokes images of a futuristic city that aims to create equity and equality, comfort and convenience, and safety and security of all citizens, my ethnographic fieldwork set in South Korea’s Incheon speaks of a more complicated and layered relationship between technology and the human in urban space.

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2 Harry Petite and Chris White, “A Glimpse into the Future? $39 Billion High-Tech Smart City in South Korea Turns into a ‘Chernobyl-like Ghost Town’ after Investment Dries Up,” Daily Mail, March 28, 2018.

3 Ayona Datta, “New Urban Utopias of Postcolonial India: ‘Entrepreneurial Urbanization’ in Dholera Smart City, Gujarat,” Dialogues in Human Geography, March 15, 2015, 3.

4 Thomas F. Gieryn, “City as Truth-Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies,” Social Studies of Science, 2006, 5–38.

5 Cisco, “Cisco Smart Connected Communities Media Backgrounder,” Cisco, 2011.

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8 Interviewee B, Interview with Author, April 2021.

9 Interviewee I, Interview with Author, May 2021.

10 Interviewee F, Interview with Author, May 2021.

11 Interviewee G, Interview with Author, May 2021.

12 Interviewee C, Interview with Author, April 2021.

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14 Incheon Free Economic Zone, “Songdo International City,”

15 Jan Nijman and Yehua Dennis Wei, “Urban Inequalities in the 21st Century Economy,” Applied Geography, 2020.

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17 Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities (New York: Routledge, 2006).

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21 Olesya Benedikt, “The Valuable Citizens of Smart Cities: The Case of Songdo City,” Graduate Journal of Social Science 12, no. 2 (2016): 17–36.

22 Glen David Kuecker and Kris Hartley, “How Smart Cities Became the Urban Norm: Power and Knowledge in New Songdo City,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110, no. 2 (2020): 516–24.

23 Chigon Kim, “Place Promotion and Symbolic Characterization of New Songdo City, South Korea," Cities 27, no. 1 (February 2010): 13–19.

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30 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78, ed. Michel Senelart (Paris: Picador, 2009). 31 Dan Hill, “On the Smart City; Or, a ‘Manifesto’ for Smart Citizens Instead,” but what was the question?" (blog), Medium, February 1, 2013,

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33 Kitchin, Cardullo, and Feliciantonio, “Citizenship, Justice.”

34 Kitchin, Cardullo, and Feliciantonio, “Citizenship, Justice,” 13.

35 Kitchin, Cardullo, and Feliciantonio, “Citizenship, Justice,” 13.

36 Kitchin, Cardullo, and Feliciantonio, “Citizenship, Justice,” 17.

37 David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1973).

38 Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford Press, 2003).

39 Mika Westerlund and Seppo Leminen. “Managing the Challenges of Becoming an Open Innovation Company: Experiences from Living Labs,” Technology Innovation Management Review 1 (October 2011),

40 Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” Harvard Business Review (November 2006).

41 OECD, The Governance of Land Use in OECD Countries: Policy Analysis and Recommendations (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2017).

42 OECD, The Governance of Land Use.

43 Erik Mobrand, “Struggles over Unlicensed Housing in Seoul, 1960—80,” Urban Studies 45, no. 2 (February 1, 2008): 367–89.

44 Junghwan Lim, “Korea’s Smart City Policy & Strategies,” May 20, 2019,

45 Cheong Wa Dae, “SPEECHES.”

46 Intralink Limited, “Smart Cities South Korea: Market Intelligence Report,” Department for International Trade, United Kingdom, June 2019,

47 Lim, “Korea’s Smart City Policy & Strategies.”

48 Sang Keon Lee, Heeyoun Yoo, and Heeseo Rain Kwon, “Korea’s Pursuit for Sustainable Cities through New Town Development: Implications for LAC,” Inter-American Development Bank, June 2015,

49 Kang, Myung Goo, “‘Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy:” Mixed Governance and Welfare in South Korea,” Development and Society 27, no. 1 (June 1998): 99–120.

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52 Shwayri, “A Model Korean Ubiquitous Eco-City?” 46.

53 Datta and Shaban, Mega-Urbanization.

54 “Incheon Songdo Sees Ground Breaking for New City,” Hankyoreh, 1994.

55 Datta and Shaban, Mega-Urbanization.

56 “Songdo’s Novel Marine City Wastes Six Years,” Hankyoreh, 1993.

57 Interviewee B, Interview with Author, April 2021.

58 Datta and Shaban, Mega-Urbanization.

59 Interviewee B, Interview with Author, May 2021.

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61 Sang Ho Lee, Tan Yigitcanlar, Hoon Han, and Youn-Taik Leem, “Ubiquitous Urban Infrastructure: Infrastructure Planning and Development in Korea,” Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 10 (2008): 282–92.

62 Yigitcanlar et. al., “Can cities become smart without being sustainable? A systematic review of the literature,” Sustainable Cities and Society 45 (February 2019): 348–365.

63 Interviewee D, Interview with Author, April 2021.

64 Shwayri, “A Model Korean Ubiquitous Eco-City?” 43.

65 As of 2022, Songdo is constructing a Waterfront Project that will invest approximately 621.5 billion KRW (about 472 million USD) to build new bridges, sluice gates, and marina facilities, along with an artificial beach, water terminal, and an aquatic sports experience center by 2027.

66 Interviewee F, Interview with Author, May 2021.

67 Tracey Schelemetic, “The Rise of the First Smart Cities,”, September 20, 2011.

68 Interviewee B, Interview with Author, April 2021.

69 Interviewee C, Interview with Author, April 2021.

70 Interviewee D, Interview with Author, April 2021.

71 Orit Halpern and Gökçe Günel, “Demoing unto Death: Smart Cities, Environment, and Preemptive Hope,” Fibreculture Journal 29 ( July 2017): 1–23.

72 Thomas Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Interests of Scientists,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 6 (1983): 781–95.

73 Interviewee F, Interview with Author, May 2021.

74 Interviewee G, Interview with Author, May 2021.

75 Interviewee H, Interview with Author, May 2021.

76 Interviewee E, Interview with Author, April 2021.

77 Interviewee I, Interview with Author, May 2021.

78 The survey had a questionnaire that asked participants to answer on a scale of one to five (one being strongly disagree and five being strongly agree) questions such as the severity of Hambak Village’s littering issue, if they felt there were unfairly judged, etc. The latter half of the survey asked for short answers on possible solutions to the issue and about their frustrations on the tension between the immigrant community and the South Korean community in Hambak Village.

79 Interviewee H, Interview with Author, May 2021.

80 Torin Monahan, “The Image of the Smart City: Surveillance Protocols and Social Inequality,” in Handbook of Cultural Security, Yasushi Watanabe, ed. (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2018): 210–26.

81 Monahan, “The Image of the Smart City,” 216.

82 Monahan, “The Image of the Smart City.”

83 Interviewee J, Interview with Author, May 2021.

84 Interviewee H, Interview with Author, April 2021.