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Photo: Atorn Buaksantiah | Dreamstime.com

From smart toilets to future finance: Stanford sets up Songdo cities lab

07 June 2021

by Sarah Wray

Stanford University has established a smart cities research centre in Songdo, the 1,500-acre business district within the South Korean city of Incheon.

The Stanford Center at the Incheon Global Campus will bring together researchers from across Stanford’s seven schools with collaborators from South Korean industry, government and universities to explore advanced technologies to tackle urban challenges.

Songdo, opened in 2009 and developed from scratch on reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea, was hailed as the world’s first smart city. It features a NASA-inspired transport and operations centre, technology-laden buildings and streets, and the highest concentration of LEED-certified projects in the world, according to the developers. Traffic sensor data is used to control signal timing, household waste is sucked directly from homes to waste processing centres via underground tubes, and apps help residents organise their lives, from knowing when the bus will arrive to controlling their smart homes.

As other cities deploy similar systems, Stanford’s researchers are looking to what’s next. Their work could also help Songdo and other ‘smart cities’ shake off their tech-centric image and demonstrate more human-centred design.

Integrating sytems

The Center is funded through a five-year US$12.5 million commitment from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of the Republic of Korea; the Incheon Municipal Government; and the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority. The funds will be used to hire ten staff researchers who will work at the Incheon Global Campus, as well as funding ten faculty, postdoctoral and PhD-level researchers.

They will focus on four key areas initially: data collection, storage and visualisation; using data to improve health and quality of life; helping companies make the most of data; and financing for smart cities.

“This Center provides us with access to real-time smart city data, and unique infrastructure to test new technologies and ideas,” said Michael Lepech, Faculty Director of the Center and an Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering. “Essentially, it’s a city-scale lab for those of us who are interested in studying these topics.”

The researchers will create a digital twin of some components of Songdo and the Stanford campus based there.

Lepech told Cities Today: “We will be looking to visualise and explore, in cyberspace, the operational performance of smart city infrastructure like buildings, roads, bridges, and water infrastructure, along with the way people use these systems.”

He said integrating siloed city infrastructure systems can deliver “10X-scale improvements” in services and operations.

One possibility is ‘smart toilets’, based on work at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Lepech explained: “These internet-enabled toilets, which are part of the wastewater infrastructure system, are able to sense a number of medical conditions of users and communicate those to a healthcare provider.”

He added: “We are also looking at new ways in which autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles in smart cities can be better connected with the built environment to provide energy supply buffering, to potentially increase the amount and reliability of renewable energy on the grid.”

The researchers will also look at how data can be better shared with and used by start-ups, and how city innovation can be sustainably financed.

“Smart cities are expensive,” said Lepech. Using digital twins and other tools, the research will explore how predictive analytics can reduce costs.

“We think that this is possible, and will change the value proposition for investors around the world that invest in large infrastructure assets and municipal finance,” he added.

Another priority area will be the circular economy enabled by data and technology.

Human-centred design

The Stanford Center at the Incheon Global Campus will feature reconfigurable spaces

Despite its impressive innovations, Songdo, a US$40 billion public-private development, is sometimes cited as an example of the limits of top-down, tech-led smart cities. It has been referred to as “lonely” and a “ghost town” which hasn’t yet attracted as many businesses and residents as expected.

Lepech said he doesn’t believe these depictions are accurate.

“I was in Songdo this past weekend and it was full of folks walking around, enjoying central park with families, and coffee shops full of customers – well, at least as much as could be expected during a pandemic,” he commented. “If compared to Seoul, New York or Singapore, Songdo has less density right now…but I don’t think that is a fair comparison.”

However, he added: “I think that Songdo struggled with the same design challenges as many consumer products.  Often in design we think about what we could do, and not what we should do, for the customer or user.  It’s a trap that engineers and technology folks commonly fall into.  That’s why I’m so proud that our Founding Managing Director for the Stanford Center at the Incheon Global Campus, Dr Sohyeong Kim, is a world-class researcher at the Stanford d.school.

“The d.school is known around the globe as a leader in human-centered design, and through her leadership I think we will absolutely be changing the ways in which smart cities are designed.”

Image: Atorn Buaksantiah Dreamstime.com

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