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Smart cities: how do the UK and South Korea compare?

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South Korea is betting big on smart cities, and it’s showing up in the unlikeliest of places.

Take, for example, the Nakdong River delta on Korea’s south coast. The river winds lazily through 500-acres of machine-cleared plots that used to house hundreds of small-scale rice farms.

Rising improbably from the horizontal landscape is a futuristic white tower, a glass-encased toadstool. It will be the central point of a Busan Eco-Delta Smart City, a multi-billion-pound urban development site that aims to house 80,000 people on this spot by 2023.

Koreans out in front

Thus is the ambition of South Korea’s national strategy on smart cities (a catchall sector for the cost-reducing digitisation of urban services). Nearly £3 billion in public money are now flowing through local governments and companies.

Innovate UK recently sent a group of industry experts to South Korea as part of a Global Expert Mission to see how the UK stacks up.

South Korea’s over-arching plan is to fund four massive-scale demonstrations to deploy innovative technologies. New solutions will be grafted onto existing infrastructure in the cities of Sihueng and Daegu; the new cities of Sejong and Busan Eco-Delta will be built smart from the ground up.

Bitcoin for data

Apps and robots will deliver everything from healthcare to education; officials will integrate data from citizens’ mobility choices, health, energy use, and local environment to track needs and improve performance; citizens will be rewarded for their data with bitcoin. It’s a futuristic data circus.

South Korea’s smart city mega-projects are reminiscent of similarly-branded efforts the world over—from Google’s Quayside in Toronto to Saudi Arabia’s Neom. But Korea’s case is different: it’s based on experience from dozens of successful (and unsuccessful) pilots; it’s supported at the highest levels of government as a key component of the industrial strategy; and it exists at multiple sites and scales, with unique features adapted to local characteristics.

UK in comparison

Compared with the UK, South Korea’s ambitions on smart city implementation are certainly grander. The UK has a small number of smart city pilots and demonstration sites, with no national-level strategy or programme.

Innovate UK, for its part, has funded the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London, Future City Glasgow, and CityVerve in Manchester. Global rankings have put London top of smart city tables (just above Seoul)—and Bristol won a global smart city competition in 2018. Nonetheless, the UK lags behind South Korea in the scale and comprehensiveness of its smart city ambitions.

Recent developments may help the UK to catch up, however. One catalyst is the government’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Concrete targets signal to public and private sectors that sustainability is non-negotiable. A multitude of smart city tenets—like resource efficiency and digitisation–are synonymous with emissions reduction.

Another boon in the UK are the quasi-public innovation centres called Catapults. Two of these Innovate UK-funded organisation (Transport Systems and Future Cities) tended to the smart cities sector.

In April of this year, however, these two were combined into the Connected Places Catapult (CPC). The merger integrated UK best practices in connected urban infrastructure, digitized urban planning, and the future of mobility.

With a new joined-up approach, the CPC will address hindrances to the advancement of new solutions—things like developing digital standards, understanding human behaviour and market insights, and helping to scale-up promising SMEs.

Final verdict

South Korea is charging ahead with well-coordinated, large-scale investments in the smart city sector. But there are still major challenges. Chief concerns include questions like:

  • What are the standards for data integration and how will privacy be protected?
  • How can these smart cities be designed so that citizens actually want to live in them?
  • How can innovative start-ups be engaged to foster new businesses and job creation?

Interestingly, these are exactly the kinds of questions that the CPC is answering now. As a convener and market catalyst, the Catapults help cities and firms to deliver effective innovations. The CPC counts among its staff experts in data science, behavioural economics, UX design, spatial planning, and organisational theory.

In short, they are tuned into the social science nuances that determine whether big infrastructure investments succeed.

While South Korea is leading the global smart city race in terms of planning and physical infrastructure, the UK is more quietly refining its own complementary expertise. And it’s the kind of expertise that will ensure that smart cities realise their full potential.


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