Smart Cities

Citizens Remain the Seoul of the City in South Korea

The recent and tragic building collapse in Surfside, Miami, is just one of a number of high-profile building-related catastrophes we have seen in recent years. From the 23-story Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK, in 2017 to the partial collapse of a 15-story building in Houston, Texas, in 2020, to a spate of similar tragedies across Africa, which have all demonstrated the need to better monitor risk in our buildings. In South Korea, the Seoul Municipal Government (SMG) has turned to advanced blockchain and IoT technologies to address the problem by identifying buildings with a risk of decay or collapse to avoid potential future disasters.

The blockchain-based Safety Check-up Platform for Risky Structures will use IoT sensors attached to buildings to monitor and send warning signals when potential risks are detected. Sensors attached to walls, for example, will measure the slope and cracks in buildings, while blockchain networks will save and analyze the data to prove the accuracy of such information and abnormal changes to a structure. When potential risks are detected, safety alert text messages are sent to the district office and the building owner so that they can take preventive measures.  

“By applying leading technologies in managing the safety of buildings, the SMG will shape a reliable architectural administration for our citizens,” said Kim Seong-Bo, deputy mayor of housing and architecture headquarters of Seoul. “As a result, we will improve the predictability of safety management for private buildings, and thus prevent numerous kinds of safety accidents.”

The initial focus will be on hazardous buildings designated and managed by the municipality, dilapidated buildings built more than 30 years ago, and hazardous slopes near residential buildings. The project kicked off with 46 buildings for test operation in December and the system will now be applied to 824 older buildings in the South Korean capital by 2022 and those designated as structures that may be prone to disasters. Early results from May 2021 show 120 hazardous buildings, 598 small dilapidated buildings, and 106 slopes near housing that have already been identified.

While the new initiative is largely proactive, Seoul has experienced major building collapses in living memory. In 1995, the Sampoong Department Store collapse came from a structural failure that killed 502 people and injured 937. It was the deadliest modern building collapse until the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the deadliest non-deliberate building collapse until a tragic textile factory collapse near Dhaka, Bangladesh. In a more recent but quite different set of circumstances, nine people were killed in June 2021 when a five-story building undergoing demolition collapsed onto a parked bus full of people in Gwangju, South Korea, giving more impetus to the new initiative.

Seoul, however, is better known for being a world leader in urban development. The South Korean capital is renowned for its cutting-edge smart city innovation, often unparalleled in scale due to the size of 10 million population megacity. The city consistently appears near the top of global smart city rankings and the $1.2 billion 3-year investment plan announced in 2019 expected to help Seoul maintain its leading position. In 2019, South Korea also launched the world’s first 5G network, ushering in a new age of connectivity. The 5G network has already begun to disrupt the current in-building communications landscape by enabling buildings to utilize wide-area urban networks for their internal connectivity.

Going further, in July 2020 Korea Telecom (KT), South Korea’s largest telecommunications company, announced plans to launch a suite of smart building services in cooperation with its subsidiary, KT Estate. The new ICT-based integrated offering consists of two services — Smart Building Sensing and Smart Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) — presenting a smart building solution that will leverage KT’s infrastructure and brand recognition to become a leading solution for the South Korean Smart Buildings market.

“Smart Building Sensing monitors boilers, water tanks, motors, and other operational facilities, alerting the building manager in real-time to breakdowns, glitches and other malfunctions. The company’s IoT control center assists through around-the-clock, remote monitoring,” said Moon Sunguk, head of KT’s Enterprise New Business Development Unit. “Smart Building BEMS is a building energy management system jointly developed by KT and KT Estate, which specializes in property development and management. It is a real-time energy management and operational consulting service for building owners and constructors.”

Seoul’s recent success is a result of a decade of work towards these smart urban goals. When Park Won Soon took office as the Mayor of Seoul in 2011, he declared that he would build a city where the “citizens are the Mayor”. Today, smart citizens are front and center of Seoul’s smart city masterplan, with smart infrastructure and smart services completing the trilogy. The vision is to use ICT across the city’s fabric to transform the lives of citizens, including the underprivileged, through balanced regional development. The urban policy goals span the realms of traffic, safety, environment, welfare, economy, and administration.

The city’s government is also helping residents make better use of the things they own with the Sharing City Seoul initiative. It has supported a range of projects from local car-sharing company SoCar to websites like Billiji that help people share things with their neighbors. The goal of these services is to provide people with an alternative to owning things they rarely use in order to reduce waste and the environmental impact of consumerism, while also building stronger communities. All these projects, and future initiatives planned for the city, make Seoul a leading example of high-tech, proactive, and citizen-led smart city development.

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