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Seoul: An Old City Embraces the Future

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Seoul: An Old City Embraces the Future

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All of Seoul seems to be looking into the future, as the city's infatuation with broadband has turned it into a model of tomorrow's digital lifestyle.

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Seoul: An Old City Embraces the Future

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 398 )

When the Asian Financial Crisis battered South Korea in 1997, Seoul began to wonder when the dark days would end. Back then, there were no neon lights glistening in the darkness of the night, and even during the day, the city had a hazy, ashen feel. Ten years later, though, today's Seoul is a prosperous, digitalized city that never sleeps.

Seoul has almost become a country of its own, with 10.4 million people, or 21 percent of South Korea's population, and a gross regional domestic product that is one-quarter of the country's GDP. More than 90 percent of the Korean headquarters of domestic and foreign firms are located there.

The Seoul that stumbled heavily in the late 1990s has climbed back on its feet and quickly caught up with its rivals, even surpassing them.

In the annual cost of living survey of 143 international cities conducted by U.S.-based international consultant Mercer Human Resource Consulting in 2007, Seoul was ranked third, trailing only Moscow and London, while beating out Tokyo to lead the way in Asia. In UBS's 2008 survey of "Prices and Earnings" comparing purchasing power in 71 cities around the globe, Seoul was ranked the second most expensive in Asia, behind Tokyo.

Broadband Coverage No. 1 in the World

Things get most interesting below ground in this affluent city. An eight-line subway system, which can ferry people from downtown directly to Incheon International Airport, about a 90-minute drive from Seoul, brings greater convenience to the brick-and-mortar city of today.

But the broadband installed throughout the subway network has helped Seoul make an early transition toward the world of tomorrow.

"If you want to see the past, see Beijing. If you want to see the present, visit Tokyo. If you want to see the future, come to Seoul," said the city's mayor Oh Se-hoon, who took over his post from Lee Myung-bak, now South Korea's president.

A sign of this future can be seen on a job site where the city is trying to restore the past. Outside the venerable Sejong Center for the Performing Arts near the downtown landmark of Gwanghwamun Gate lies a steel fence surrounding the job site where the Gwanghwamun Gate will be relocated. On it are written in big letters the words "U-city," referring to a city where the Internet can be accessed everywhere.

Another sign of this transition to the future is seen in a passenger car on the subway. After an elderly vendor lugging a suitcase and hawking gloves for 1,000 won (about NT$30) passes by, a young student pulls out a cell phone with an extended silver antenna and puts on earphones to watch a movie as though nobody were around him, killing time until he reaches his stop.

This invisible broadband network has served as the club that helped Seoul smash its image as an old, rundown city and forge a futuristic metropolitan area where the Internet is everywhere.

Seoul's nearly 90-percent broadband penetration rate is the highest in the world. More than 90 percent of city residents access the Internet, and every household on average has more than two cell phones. This unbreakable broadband platform has integrated Seoul into a separate, self-contained domestic market that, under policies jointly promoted by industry and the government, has become a testing ground for domestic conglomerates like Samsung and LG to introduce their latest electronic communications products. These domestic test runs resulted not only in strengthening South Korea's communications industry, but also in empowering Seoul to take the lead in defining how people will live in the future.

"Seoul is a vibrant exhibition hall for digital living. Digital technology is periodically embedded in the daily lives of the city's residents, whether they like it or not," says Lilian Lee, Project Research Center director at Topology Research Institute, who travels to Seoul every year.

In residential buildings of the future, cell phones and touch screens – the technological strong suits of Samsung Electronics – will comprise the foundation of digital living.

Anybody living in the building who has a cell phone can, for example, turn on the air conditioner before returning home. Busy professional women who have to cook when they get home won't even have to open their refrigerator. One touch of the screen, and the intelligent system will display a menu from available ingredients and immediately tell the user how to prepare the dish.

Health and fitness monitoring has also been programmed into the residential system. When a person's body is sending unusual signals, the monitoring system can immediately suggest timely exercises or directly connect to nearby hospitals or gyms. The wallpaper in a child's room can even be digital wallpaper that can be changed on a daily basis, and parents can preset their children's homework and Internet surfing content ahead of time.

As the UK-based Observer averred, there is no city that embraces technology as enthusiastically as Seoul. City residents rush to upgrade their cell phones and other mobile devices and buy domestically produced goods out of patriotic fervor.

Korean media once calculated that throughout the country 14 million mobile phones sit unused in their owners' homes, because many Koreans immediately switch cell phones as soon as a new service is introduced. Seoul, with Korea's highest rate of cell phone Internet surfing, is unquestionably making a major contribution to this rash of "abandoned pet handsets."

"Seoul people are crazy about new stuff," says Jean K. Min, business development director at Korean online media outlet OhmyNews. The arrival of the "MI age" ("MI" meaning "mobile internet") has greatly enhanced the ability of people in his city to network and mobilize forces, he observes. "You can hardly deny that Seoul has become more powerful."

At the beginning of May, Seoul's young student population, originally known for their political apathy, unexpectedly launched a candlelight vigil through Internet social networking and mobile text messaging.

The more than 10,000 youths who took to the streets to loudly protest imports of U.S. beef suddenly seemed to be following in the footsteps of their activist predecessors, the "386 generation," who took political activism to its height in South Korea in the 1990s. Young people even walked along Seoul's popular Cheonggyecheon Stream dressed as American cows handing out leaflets to promote their cause.

In the late 1990s, as the year 2000 grew ever closer, Helsinki, in northern Europe, was often hailed as the "city of tomorrow." But as the 21st century gets underway, it is Seoul that has taken over the title.

"Seoul is a city always prepared for the future," says Seoul native Young-sam Son, CEO of the Taiwan branch of South Korea's most popular social networking site Cyworld.

One out of every two Koreans has their own virtual miniroom in Cyworld, and after getting off work, lives his or her second life online. Ninety percent of online digital companies are concentrated in Seoul and create more than 10,000 new services a year, their phenomenal capacity prompting American and European online operators to make annual pilgrimages to Seoul to learn their techniques. Chinese online companies such as Sohu and Baidu have also deployed specialists to study the digital services of Seoul's online community.

Everybody participates in forging Seoul's image as the "city of the future," from the government to the average resident. In a country known for its popular movements, this may be this century's most important one of all.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

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