Virginia’s Path to Digital Cities

by James A. Bacon

Songdo, a city 40 miles from Seoul, South Korean, can easily generate a case of “thinking big” envy. The Songdo International Business District, being built from scratch, aspires to become “the world’s smartest, greenest city” and “the commercial epicenter” of Northeast Asia. It’s a 1,500-acre mixed-use project with 600 acres of open space and parks, an advanced technology infrastructure, signature buildings designed by world-class star-chitects, and a commitment to sustainable design.

Among other highlights, Sangdo’s development consortium is partnering with Cisco Systems to impregnate the business district with smart-city services such as integrated building and facility management, on-premises safety and security, home networking and virtual concierge services. Businesses will have access to state-of-the-art video conferencing technology. Residents will be able to control lighting, HVAC, gas, curtains and other home devices with touch-screen wall pads, computers, tablets and smart phones.

Can anyone imagine such a project taking place in Virginia? Not by a long shot. Twenty years ago, Korea was still considered an “emerging” economy. Now it’s pole vaulting past us. It won’t be long before the Koreans and other East Asians consider us the developing economy.

But before you anyone spazzes out with wild-eyed ideas of sinking tens of billions of dollars Virginia doesn’t have into keeping up with the Jeungs, heed the words of Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend in a an article, “The Social Nexus,” in Scientific American.

Real estate developers, global information-technology companies and governments are attempting to build urban centers from scratch that are filled with technologically enhanced infrastructure and services. The designers say their grand conceptions will determine how future cities will be built.

But as models, these top-down projects pale in comparison to the emergent form of intelligence that is bubbling up from millions of newly cyber-connected residents. Truly smart — and real — cities are not like an army regiment marching in lockstep to the commander’s orders; they are more like a shifting flock of birds or school of fish, in which individuals respond to subtle social and behavioral cues from their neighbors about which way to move forward.

Ratti and Townsend advocate a ground-up approach to creating smart cities. The potential for change already exists thanks to the digital technologies already blanketing our cities: broadband fiber-optic and wireless technology grids connected with increasingly affordable PCs, tablets and smartphones, supplemented by a network of sensors and digital control technologies. Thanks to smart phones embedded with a GPS capability, every person becomes a sensor. “Our cities,” they write, “are quickly becoming like ‘cities in the air.’”

Here’s the key: Networked individuals can contribute vast amounts of data that would be useless individually but can provide valuable information in the aggregate.

The Copenhagen Wheel, a hybrid-like mechanism for storing otherwise wasted energy in bicycles, doubles as a sensor that measures temperature, humidity, noise and pollution data — data than can be mapped and made accessible on smart phones.

Trash Track in Seattle embedded electronic tags in household trash to track what happened to more than 2,000 items, including recyclable materials, hazardous waste such as rechargeable batteries, and electronics. One printer cartridge traveled 6,152 kilometers. Some ended up in illegal destinations.

Instead of building a costly network of dedicated vehicle sensors along roadways, Google polls a network of anonymous volunteers whose mobile devices report their location, thus revealing where traffic is flowing, slowed or stopped.

Ratti and Townsend advocate embedded sensors and actuators in buildings, plazas and even sculptures: “We need to build mechanisms for scanning, evaluating and cross-fertilizing good ideas — ways to spread the best methods for crowd-sourcing public services or using citizens as sensors.” In contrast to a top-down vision imposed by master designers, they argue, a bottom-up approach is inherently more innovative, flexible and tailored to the wishes and culture of the people.

Virginia cities don’t need to spend billions of dollars building Songdos from scratch. But we have to get off our derrieres and take the “smart city” concept seriously. By adopting the decentralized, bottom-up approach advocated by Ratti and Townsend, we can accomplish remarkable things to improve the livability of our communities. But someone has to take the lead. Is there anyone out there who might be interested in collaborating with Bacon’s Rebellion in drumming up interest?

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18 responses to “Virginia’s Path to Digital Cities”

  1. I understand o Donnell got approval for money lifters on i-95.

    How much you want to bet conventional tolling plazas are involved, and not just sensors.?

  2. Songdo. It sounds so nice. Funny thing – my Dad tells me of Sondo. Only he calls it by its traditional name – Incheon. Turns out dear ole Dad was there once upon a time. And it wasn’t pleasant.

    However, the spin on “Songdo” is nothing compared to this spin:

    “Ratti and Townsend advocate embedded sensors and actuators in buildings, plazas and even sculptures: “We need to build mechanisms for scanning, evaluating and cross-fertilizing good ideas — ways to spread the best methods for crowd-sourcing public services or using citizens as sensors.”.

    Jim, please re-read that statement. Are you serious?

    I know you hate the idea of government spending – whether its the Charlottesville Rt 29 Bypass or Rail to Dulles or actually making cities smarter. But claiming that cell phones will conspire to form ad – hoc networks which obviate the need to actual capital improvement is pretty outrageous.

    And … here’s a basic – airports. Incheon International Airport is often rated the best airport in the world. You neglect to mention that it serves the capital Seoul. Of course, you neglect to mention that Sondo is Incheon so why am I surprised?

    Sorry, Jim – no gain without pain. No reward without risk.

    Your time would be much better spent trying to figure out where in Virginia we should build a Sengdo than hoping for absurd miracles where brilliance occurs because peoples’ cell phones form a robot network for the public good.

    Seriously, this was your most insane post ever. Even worse than your defense of the Trail Through a Hollowed Out Economy.

    Most of your stuff is great – but this?

    There is no free lunch, Jim. I think Ronald Reagan first made that point in American politics.

  3. gee.. I thought we were already building our own Songdo with Dulles Rail and Tysons’s Corner!

    re: toll plazas

    ironic that we had them in Richmond for years and years…eh?

    I suspect that we’ll have them – along with open road tolling and that a good percentage of people will have transponders especially if they plan on also using the HOT Lanes in NoVa.

    I have some satisfaction here in predicting that in lieu of opposition to gas taxes that we’d end up with tolls.

    if you think about it – the CBBT, the Powhite Parkway,

  4. By far, the best chance Virginia has to build a Songdo is somewhere near Dulles.

    It is no accident that Songdo is close to Seoul.

  5. “I have some satisfaction here in predicting that in lieu of opposition to gas taxes that we’d end up with tolls.”.

    I have no problem with tolls so long as everybody pays them.

    Of course, that is never the plan of the Clown Show in Richmond.

  6. Groveton, My dad was at Incheon, too . He served in the Navy. I don’t think he was particularly in harms way, but he was there.

    Regardless, we already have a lot of the infrastructure we need in Virginia’s major metro areas. And where we don’t have it, it’s probably the result of perverse FCC or Justice Department policy. (You tell me why Korea is so much more wired than Virginia — it doesn’t have anything to do with the “clown show” in Richmond, much less my advocacy of small-is-beautiful solutions.) The question is, what do we do with the infrastructure we have? Right now, it seems to me, Virginians aren’t doing much at all.

    Now, we could try to go out and raise $40 billion, or whatever it costs to build Songdo, or we could try an alternate model. Tell me how we raise $40 billion, and I’ll respectfully listen. Until you can come up with that kind of scratch, we have the choice of doing nothing (which is what we’re doing now), or trying to stimulate some kind of bottom-up initiative that allows us to take advantage of the bandwidth and other resources that are available to us.

  7. Didn’t Obama just propose Stimulus III? A $487B spending plan. And isn’t that on top of about $1T in prior stimulus plan funding?

    Sorry, Obama has so many spending plans, I can’t keep them straight anymore.

    Anyway, divide whatever old plans and new plans Obama has executed or proposed by $40B. That’s the Songdo factor. For example, this latest stimulus plan, at $480B or so would serve to build 12 Songdo’s in the United States. By the time you factor in the old plans, we could have a Songdo in every state.

    The difference between the South Koreans and the United States is that South Korea has a competent government and we do not. We fund Solyndra and they build Songdo.

    Where will we find $40B? Obama spends more than that per month with his various stimulus plans. Until we throw him out of the White House he’ll keep spending like a drunken sailor. Might as well spend the money intelligently.

  8. well.. you’ve got the deepest recession in 70 years, taxes are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years and aggregate consumer demand is flat or declining.

    I agree that stimulus is not a wonderful idea but the alternative proposal to cut taxes even more without also proposing a cuts-only budget is worse.

    We were told that tax-cuts in 2001 would result in more tax revenue not less and that part is true but it did not create net additional tax revenue.

    in other words – the tax cuts created deficits because – instead of ‘cutting” we actually spent more.

    now .. these are the very same folks who are saying that stimulus is wrong and that cutting taxes is the correct path.

    We’ve been there and done that and it did not produce the promised results.

    we tried it f0r 8 years and all it got us was doubling the debt from 5 trillion to 10 trillion.

    so.. let’s agree with the premise that what Obama is doing is wrong.

    what is right? and no.. I’m not buying that what is right is what we did for 8 years under Bush.

    We could bang Obama for being misguided even incompetent but what can you say about the other side who will not provide a cuts-only balanced budget and who insist that unspecified cuts with more tax cuts will be effective. That’s not misguided. That’s just flat out irresponsible and it’s exactly what got us into this 14Trillion debt to start with.

    the plain fact is that if the Republicans could actually produce a cuts-only balanced budget that they’d roll Obama in a New York minute and grease the skids for his one-term departure.

    so where is that plan?

  9. The problem with the stimulus is that it is administered by half wits.

    “Shovel Ready” is a figment of Obama’s fertile imagination.

    Songdo is a well considered project that will change the nature of South Korea’s global competitive position.

    We spend PLENTY of government money in the US. 41% of GDP is more than enough.

    The problem is that our politicians are corrupt and our bureaucracy is inept.

    We don’t have a government funding problem we have a government competence problem.

    Giving our government more money to spend is like giving a teenager a machine gun. The best you can hope is that nothing will happen.


  10. Obama is no more or less competent than Bush.

    The real villains are in Congress. That’s where the core corruption and complete dysfunction lives.

    Presidents have term limits. Why don’t Congressmen?

  11. be that as it may…

    attacking Obama’s approach without putting forth the approach that Republicans support is a disservice to everyone.

    Give Obama credit for stepping up and providing a plan even if people think it is wrong

    but when all the opposition has ….is opposition … and no alternative proposal… then

    what do we have?

    we don’t have a competition between two different visions – we have gridlock.

    I expect those who say we don’t need to increase taxes to balance the budget to provide a plan – that they, as a group, support and advocate – as opposed to various individual plans that are not supported a the principled oppositions alternative.

    “ideas” about the deficit and debt are wonderful. We see them on both sides but when the Dems put forth a proposal then I expect the opposition to put their alternate proposal on the table and then for us to compare and contrast and decide which path to take.

    instead.. we have a road block to the Obama path.. and nothing else.

  12. My approach? Copy South Korea. Use the stimulus to build Songdo’s. Build 50 of them. At $40B ea – that would cost $2T. About what Odimba is going to waste anyway.

    The American Songdo’s could be hallmarks of functional human settlement patterns. Eventually, everybody would move there and the old cities and towns can be bulldozed.

    Seriously, that’s my plan.

    Your move LarryG.

  13. your approach is to go further into debt to carry out stimulus?


    in terms of shovel-ready – we have thousands of bridges that need replacement right now.

    I would think -.. that in terms of “quick” taking on those bridges would be quicker…

    but I’m shocked …. SHOCKED that you support making the deficit and the debt even greater!

    everybody and their dog is saying that Obama is killing the country by continuing his “stimulus” mindset and that instead we should be cutting.

    of course there is one small problem with the “cutters’ – they have no plan – it’s a bumper sticker…

  14. Shovel Ready? You mean the endless miles of orange cones cutting highways down to one lane? You mean the hundreds of trooper jobs writing tickets in the 35 mph zones those cones create?

    Thousands of bridges may need replacement but there is no Lego warehouse of DIY bridge kits. Each one must be engineered to meet modern standards and environmental regulations in a nation that can’t even define a salamander in a timely fashion.

    There are no shovel ready jobs. It’s just a meaningless slogan no different than GOP glueless bumper stickers.

  15. we’ve had bridges replaced up in our neck of the woods in under two years.

    remember – in terms of stimulus – it’s not how quick you do the job per se …
    it’s how quick people can start to work on it – and that includes the planners and designers… and besides – you have to start some where.

    we have two roads in our area – significant projects …millions of dollars that have been revived with stimulus that were dead in the water before stimulus.

    Darrell.. ya’ll have a bit of infrastructure needs down your way …right?

    Infrastructure has to borrow money anyhow… and paid back over time…anyhow…

    ginning up infrastructure (road, tunnel bridge) projects – will put people to work… give them paychecks.. spend that money on groceries and WalMart offal ….

    just as good as new Navy ships will….

    but I’m still getting over the shock of Groveton supporting stimulus…


  16. Larry:

    Be a good chap and re-read my post about Obama wanting to steal home.

    I don’t agree with the stimulus but once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. Like trying to steal home.

    Now, Obama wants to spend $450B more on stimulus – give or take. Jim bacon says it costs $40B to build a Songdo. OK, let’s have Obama build 11 Songdo’s. That way, we’ll have 11 internationally competitive cities and Obama will still have enough left over to pay back his campaign contributors with 20 more Solyndras (at a half a billion each).

  17. oh I got the stealing home part….. but conventional wisdom among most conservatives is that more stimulus is throwing good money after bad since we all know that no jobs were created by stimulus… so we’re just digging a deeper debt hole…

    you do’t agree?

  18. It doesn’t matter what I think of the stimulus plans. They are a done deal. Now, the question is whether we can spend the money intelligently. So far, the results don’t look very good.

    I respect the South Koreans. After the Korean War they had the same per capita GDP as Ghana. Now they are one of the wealthiest countries on Earth. If they think building a Songdo is a good idea, I’d be willing to consider doing the same.

    OSpendthrift is going to spend another $450M. That’s 11 Songdo’s. Fine. Let’s build 11 Songdo’s. At least there will be something to show for the money after we’re done.

    As an aside, I would have cut more taxes and spent less in stimulus if it were up to me.

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