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Smart New World

Ways of Seeing Spatiotemporal Logics of Social Refiguration in New Songdo City
Dominik Bartmanski, Seonju Kim, Martina Löw, Timothy Pape e Jörg Stollmann
p. 13-28


New Songdo City is one of the first smart cities built from scratch. It attracts scholarly attention primarily for its economic and political logics as a digital solution to planetary urbanization. Yet this emphasis on a progressive convergence towards a utopian Smart New World distracts us from the specific spatialization – in this case of South Korean middle class – that may ultimately signal a key role in the social legibility, desire, and renegotiation of hegemonic ways of seeing. This paper engages with the complex symptoms of related spatiotemporal logics in a triangulation of actors – the state, the city, the corporation – and their operationalization in the netting of cultural and historical conditioning. This provides a new plain on which to interrogate the powerful confluence of new technologies, urban textures and collective imaginations in everyday practices. For what is really at stake is a refiguration of spaces that thrives on interwoven and conflicting constellations rather than binary distinctions. The research draws on combined insights from relevant literature on New Songdo City and our own morphological and ethnographic studies over four years as part of the Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” at Technische Universität Berlin. Relating interdisciplinary findings on urban practice with hegemonic ways of seeing points to a shifting significance of the underlying spatial figures as a complex symptom of social change and unfolds new views on the quality of urban space.

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Note della redazione

The authors form an interdisciplinary research group as part of the Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” at the Technical University Berlin and co-funded by the German Research Foundation. Their current project «Smart Cities: Everyday Life in Digitalized Spaces» draws from sociology, urban design, and cultural studies.

Testo integrale

1. A Way of Seeing New Songdo City

1Imagine a reality that Aldous Huxley (1932) might love to hate because it would seem to materialize his dystopian anticipation of a totally planned society. Visualize it as urban design that Le Corbusier (1935) might hate to love because it would seem to epitomize his vision of a strict order of functional divide and vertical living, yet without ever crediting him. Now, complement both visions with a motivated everyday urban struggle striving for consumer-friendly packages of George Orwell’s (1949) totalitarian thought control by a technologically advanced, all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance city: at once open and controlled, exceptional and quotidian, green and artificial, manicured in the center and rough around the edges, and as bold as to call some of its flagship places ‘First World’. Make that urban reality alive, mesmerized by the technological fix of digitality that would nevertheless require actual new territory to work its magic – nothing less than an island of skyscrapers with a central park in the middle of it, which feels, however, more like a prototype simulacrum of Manhattan rather than a full-fledged variation on the original theme. It does exist. An actual man-made extension of the mainland with state-of-the-art schools, hospitals, apartments, cultural amenities, and universities which has been built in the metropolitan area of Seoul and whose name means ‘Pine Island’.

Fig. 01: The Brightly lit skyline of New Songdo City at night glitters like a set for a future film from Hollywood. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

Fig. 01: The Brightly lit skyline of New Songdo City at night glitters like a set for a future film from Hollywood. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

2At the time of its creation in 2002, New Songdo City was proclaimed a Smart New World without precedent, an entirely novel and artificial construction. However, contrary to the aforementioned utopias from literature and architecture with their thoroughly envisioned fabulations of social worlds, the abstract utopian vision of Songdo was promoted as a value-free technological fix and exportable model of city making (Cugurullo, 2016, 2418). With codified images of the urban as scenery, and marketing of infrastructure as smart, it assimilates the neoliberal logic of South Korean «postdevelopmental state» hitchhiking different hegemonic ways of seeing (Ong, 2000, 57). New Songdo City is developed in a joint venture between international corporations and state authorities. It is a profit-making endeavor that depends heavily on extracting value from real estate (Shin, 2016, 84), while being couched in indistinct promises of economic, ecologic, and social sustainability. This seems oddly ironic given that its social diversity is reduced to an enclave of a homogeneous upper middle class with an economic model based on extraordinary privileges as part of a free economic zone. In addition, the city is built on newly reclaimed land, which considering the destruction of the pre-existing and irreplaceable wetlands has caused an incomparable and irretrievable ecological damage (Rugkhapan, Murray, 2019, 287).

2. Spatialization of Everyday Social Figurations

3Propagating notions of technological progress to solve urban problems is a longstanding human strategy (Johnston, 2018, 48). Especially in modern culture this technological determinism built into collective imaginations of progress has manifested in distinctive figurations of social life, urban morphologies, and spatial logics. The legibility of the urban grid of Songdo with linear streets partitioning functionally separated building plots of skyscrapers, is but one morphological characteristic reminiscent of high modernist urban planning that James C. Scott (1998) famously relates to as a way of «seeing-like-a-state». Yet, these seemingly objective representations of a universal and homogeneous modernity come in different spatial logics at different times and in different sociocultural settings. In Songdo, they are spiked with postmodern and late modern imprints, mingling with international style and corporate architecture as well as cultural traces of the characteristic developmentalism of South Korean compressed modernity (Chang, 1999).

4What we see as a spatial reorganization in Songdo cannot be reduced to the mismatch between how smart cities are rhetorically promoted and their everyday reality, with which a great part of the critical literature on Songdo engages. To measure the promised effects of digital technology applications goes hand in hand with the appreciation of smart city solutions as an end in itself. This necessarily lacks the complexity of historically and culturally entwined urban textures and social figurations. But also, co-production approaches that have reintroduced social thickness into the understanding of technology, often refuse to acknowledge that some ways of seeing do manifest themselves in collective imaginations or even in urban physical form. This spatial vision and the accompanying changes in Songdo have hardly been taken up in research so far. This is all the more surprising since the smart city is obviously a much-propagated form of spatial reorganization of the world. We hypothesize that although New Songdo City was conceived of as a business-oriented and high-tech model of city making, this implemented fantasy of rationality and new beginnings (Bach, 2011, 101) showcases a specific spatialization of social figurations of South Korean middle class. Following Sheila Jasanoff (2015, 19), we argue that both approaches – technological determinism and the idiom of co-production – fail to take on board the spatial texture and with it «the constructiveness of seeing in all its complexity». Depending on historical and cultural imagination inscribed in physical urban environment, everyday practice is trained in ways that delimit vision and transparency. «Yet, perversely, vision remains the great naturalizer» (ivi, 20).

3. Refiguration in a Triangulation of Ways of Seeing

5In order to unpack conflictual spatiotemporal logics of social change in New Songdo City we introduce a triangulation of ways of seeing as a conceptual framework. It focuses on different socio-material practices and collective imaginaries of principal actors involved – the state, the city, the corporation. Each related way of seeing can traditionally be assigned to existing and historically shaped narratives, but whose patterns of action are gradually changing. Accordingly, the way of seeing-like-a-state is understood here as aiming at disciplining society through the legibility of urban textures, while seeing-like-a-corporation is strongly linked to the objective of generating profit by control of desires through marketing. Both these ways of seeing are thrown together in urban practices into textures and collectives, where they are constantly renegotiated in the way of seeing-like-a-city. We refer to the interwoven tensions between these ways of seeing as refiguration, which is to say, as a complex emergent process, not a linear additive one (Knoblauch, Löw 2020; Löw, Knoblauch, 2022). Refiguration is a circumscription of the figure in the process of movement (Brandstetter, 2007) and of the associated tension of figuration (Elias, 1976), in order to understand change in terms of the formation of order, not only in complex but also in spatial logics. These fundamental tensions are not to be seen as ones between two ideal typical extremes of a spectrum, or between an earlier and a newer ideal, but instead are conceived of as arising out of a performative entwinement of different spatiotemporal logics. Building on refiguration, we recognize that rather than representing the supposed stability of a system, figuration is a paradigmatic category of description of modern society (Knoblauch, 2019, 8). What’s important here is that different, subsequently occurring figurations do not simply replace one another completely, or add up to create a predictable whole. Yet, refusing to acknowledge that some figurations do retain power over long periods and relate to hegemonic ways of seeing, would obscure the processes of naturalization so crucial to their constitution.

  • 1 Our thanks go to our colleagues from the Institute for Urban Humanities at the University of Seoul (...)

6The research draws on combined insights from relevant literature on New Songdo City and our own morphological and ethnographic studies as part of the Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” in Berlin1. At the core of this four-year study were repetitive fieldwork phases in which the research team lived in a flat in Songdo for several weeks. We conducted 42 semi-structured interviews (after Schmidt, 2004); half resident interviews and half expert interviews with planners, politicians, local service management companies and international corporations. The interviews were analyzed using qualitative content analysis in our Korean-German team. While most interviewees compared their personal urban practices in the tension between different social and political figurations of public space and invisible digital space for infrastructures (Farias, 2020, 174), key questions of the analysis were: How do figurations change for different actors? How are changes experienced emotionally and figuratively? And how are spatial imaginations performed, reflected, or naturalized in relation to different ways of seeing? The ethnographic observation focused on the use of public spaces and the entrance areas of apartment complexes. In this context, morphological analyses and photo and graphic visualizations made it possible to survey symbolic-material structures and relate them to the urban fabric.

7Instead of utilizing inductive observation and deductive reasoning, the research fleshes out an abductive strategy (Timmermans, Tavory, 2012). The applied techniques become entwined, reciprocally reconstituted and actionable through their anchorage in preexisting ways of seeing. Recognizing that any empirical investigation is itself an experiential and performative practice rather than mere technique (Amin, 2014), we gathered data by focusing on dynamic pattern recognition in the environment that is seen as providing sensory cues afforded by different constituting spatiotemporal logics. Especially the occurring juxtapositions between speculative urban design methods that build on material-semiotic and phenomenological analysis, and ethnographic descriptions stemming from direct observation and indirect comparison, continuously challenge binary epistemic assumptions that emerge as particular (Jasanoff, 2015, 35; Farias, 2020, 185). The different data types were merged using hybrid mapping (Baxter et al., 2021).

4. Constellations and Logics of Spatial Figures

8Key findings of the field surveys in New Songdo City are the changing figurative tensions within everyday practices. This study of different figurations related to the proposed three ways of seeing is thereby grounded in the dynamic entwinement of four basic spatial figures proposed by Martina Löw (2021, 173); these are “territorial space”, “network space”, “trajectory space” and “place”. At this point, it is worth recalling the inseparable spatiotemporal logic in the concepts of refiguration, figuration and figure. This contrasts with the modernist abstract separation of transformative time and static space with the territorial nation-state as the dominant spatial figure. The latter is characterized by a homogenization towards the inside – as in Scott’s seeing-like-a-state (1998) – and is enclosed by well-defined borders towards the outside, which also makes it a container space in synthesis. The functional divide and the zoning of New Songdo City follow this spatial logic of the inert and closed system of state territory (Deleuze, 1992; Löw, 2021, 171). However, we claim, that it is possible to draw a comprehensive modernist grand narrative in the case of Songdo only in combination with the three other spatial figures, each of which compensates for different missing temporal or performative aspects of the enclosed territory. Accordingly, the spatial figure of the necessarily physically located place (Löw, 2020, 156) gains relevance primarily in modern contexts, where and when the identically specific and historically grown is experienced as a loss. While the place thus contains a strong relational orientation toward history, the abstract and linear trajectory is oriented towards a vision and stands for the modern idea of progress. «Seen from the trajectory, everything becomes a destination – or an obstacle» (Vinken, 2021, 21). Taken to their extremes, the ‘timeless’ territory and the ‘spaceless’ trajectory might together depict most impressively the abstract spatiotemporal separation of modernity. Finally, the connecting network is, according to Löw (2020, 159), not defined by borders or boundaries – as is territory – but by the relation of distant elements. These elements define themselves out of relationships and thus we perceive them as connected. In summary, this means that each of the spatial figures follows a different spatial logic and is challenged by different constellations. Their ‘new’ combinations and entwinements are thereby understood as refigurations, which are articulated by changing qualitative aspects in relation to the ways of seeing.

5. The case: New Songdo City seen in a Triangulation of Actors

9The city can be seen as a paradigmatic site of refiguration, a locus of particularly strong socio-material entwinement. As a satellite city of the Seoul Metropolitan Area, New Songdo City is built on an island of artificially reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea (see fig. 02). Its top-down and self-contained construction is frequently labeled as «super-fast-urbanism» «bypass implant urbanism» (Shatkin, 2008, 384) or «instant city» (Murray, 2018, 191). According to David Murray this represents a new trend in international urbanism that cannot be understood by a linear temporal evolution of conventional urban growth. Contrary to the state-led visions from high modernism like Brasilia and Chandigarh, New Songdo City is the result of a public-private partnership, which has become a dominant organizational paradigm for smart cities (Halegoua, 2020). Specifically, it is a collaborative enterprise between the American real-estate giant Gale International as lead developer, South Korea’s largest steelmaker Posco E & C as construction manager, and Incheon Metropolitan City as public sector partner (Gale International, 2020).

10Being part of Incheon Free Economic Zone, Songdo is additionally influenced by the South Korean central state and closely interwoven with the state’s broader development strategies. It represents the spatial interest to participate in networks of global economic liberalization and to overcome the state territorial non-coincidence with the reach of international corporations (Easterling, 2008). In this state-centred view of spatiality, New Songdo City emerged from a logic of exception at the heart of the relationship of state sovereignty and national territory (Ong, 2000), manifested in administrative spaces of enclosure for homogeneously disciplined societies (Deleuze, 1992; Scott, 1998, 2). Bae-Gyoon Park (2005) calls this new spatial strategy of exception of the South Korean state a “spatially selective liberalization” based on what Aiwa Ong (2000) named “graduated sovereignty”. Against the spatiotemporal logic of seeing-like-a-state, which would be a homogenizing development, the state spatially differentiates parts of national territory and segments of population in relation to different degrees of participation in the global market. As a large-scale and holistically designed project promoted by the state, that addresses the needs of networked models of distributed production as well as of exclusively upper middle class (Shin, 2016, 83), Songdo epitomizes a tension between the spatiotemporal logics of enclosed national territory and connecting global network.

Fig. 02: New Songdo City as territorially enclosed island whit rational urban texture structuring an archipelago of tower collectives. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

Fig. 02: New Songdo City as territorially enclosed island whit rational urban texture structuring an archipelago of tower collectives. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

11This tension between a homogeneous nation-state and its global aspirations refers to a complex nesting of ways of seeing and epitomizes in the socio-material practices and collective imaginaries of the city. According to Keller Easterling (2008, 30) we witness a «new urban paradigm» where the special economic zone becomes a city itself, fusing the categories (see fig. 02). New Songdo City becomes a characteristic place, imagined and lived. In the following, different ways of seeing are discussed related to their tension and identity-creating negotiation processes in everyday practices: the legibility of a rational urban grid becomes an everyday experience of modern progress and generates an antithesis to the modernist super blocks found in early apartment developments of Gangnam. Thereby, the desire of the elite for internationality as cultural difference is itself deeply inscribed in the collective imagination of the South Korean middle class. While the latter finds its ideals of security and convenience in the composed seclusion of the internationally connected island on the edge of the mass urbanization of the Seoul metropolis.

6. Seeing-like-a-state: Legibility as Spatial Practice

12Here we elaborate on the legibility of the urban texture of New Songdo City. Urban texture in this context is analyzed first and foremost as a syntactic relationship of the built environment, as much as of its dependence on culturally and historically shaped ideal images related to different ways of seeing.

13From a bird’s eye view (see fig. 02), Songdo appears as a blueprint of the spatial logic of Scott’s seeing-like-a-state with its orthogonal street grid dividing the urban space into separated blocks for living, working and leisure. «Songdo is like a great chess board» (Interview 11 Songdo, 20.09.2018). Gerhard Vinken (2021, 148) describes this sort of rational design in his spatial reflections as a triumph of the linear trajectory. «[It] looks as if it was cut with a cutter and a ruler. It’s so perfect» (Interview 7 Songdo, 05.06.2018). For a western urban researcher Songdo might seem to be a South Korean version of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris (Sennett, 2018, 166).

Fig. 03: The legibility of Nwe Songdo City’s urban texture. Photographic caricature: T. Pape.

Fig. 03: The legibility of Nwe Songdo City’s urban texture. Photographic caricature: T. Pape.

14However, when considering its morphological appearance, Songdo becomes just another satellite city blending seamlessly into the territorially homogenized landscape of apartment complexes of the Seoul Metropolitan Area. The comprehensive realization of standardized and mono-functional residential high rises has its roots in the historical trajectory of the South Korean compressed modernity. Tailored from its very beginning to the needs of the middle classes and promoted through the specific role of Chaebols, South Korean developmentalism has become an instrument of control that shapes social desires of modern living and social progress (Gelézeau, 2007, 102). While Songdo is often referred to as «Second Gangnam» (Interview 22 Songdo, 02.11.2018), the spatial qualities differ decisively from its predecessor in the center of Seoul. «It is hard to maintain cities like Seoul since … they are mixed. … It is clean here, even cleaner than other new cities» (Interview 7 Songdo, 05.06.2018). While in the large-scale modernism of centrally located Gangnam, complex and incomprehensibly big mega-blocks are separated by urban canyons similar to highways, the smaller dimension of functionally and visibly clear structured blocks in sprawling Songdo is particularly striking. Again, compared to central Seoul, where the view from the apartment usually ends abruptly on the wall of the neighboring house, the generously spread-out development in Songdo mostly provides a good overview of the rational city fabric. Designed by its planners as a «walkable city» (Kohn Petersen Fox Association Pc, 2020), the city’s organization seems to be easier to grasp, leading to a different quality of spatial experience. One never has the feeling of losing track of the layout of adjacent blocks and the entire city, even when walking or driving. Instead of a distancing vision and directed movement, the linear streets take up a connecting network quality in Songdo as an overview of, and tangible movement through the urban grid (see fig. 03). In other words, the modernist top-down standardization is tangibly deconstructed by its own means of legibility. In this way it creates a new identity for the place Songdo that unfolds in a tension between an idealized high-modernist vision and its contextualization as an antidote to the modern super blocks in central Seoul from the 1960s.

7. Seeing-like-a-Corporation: Desire for International Urbanity

15This is where we discuss New Songdo City as a connecting network in the spatiotemporal logics of social desire and branding represented by the way of seeing-like-a-corporation. Contrary to a modernist state logic, the flow of capital does not cover the globe. It abandons the idea of a homogeneous national grid of legibility and discipline altogether in connecting dispersed and discrete enclaves in a point-to-point fashion (Fergusson, 2005, 380). Similarly, New Songdo City is a free economic zone, which means that on its physical territory different rules apply for corporations than in the rest of the national territory (Bach, 2011, 100). Additionally, global corporations are endowed with sovereignty and power over the design of the new city (Murray, 2018, 188), striving to control social desires (Shin, 2016, 84). A sophisticated strategy of branding promotes New Songdo City not only as a high-tech global network hub attracting direct foreign investment but also as an attractive urban place maximizing profitability of the real estate sector through commodifying urban experience (Shatkin, 2008, 388). As a smart city it becomes a magnet for a global urban imagination addressing a transnational elite that shares the desire for an efficient, secure, and convenient lifestyle (Bauwelt, 2008, 46; Bach, 2011, 110). The architects Kohn Pedersen Fox from New York envisioned an exclusive collage of international architectures by referencing, inter alia, Manhattan’s central park and skyline, Paris’ Champs-Elysees, Sydney’s opera house and Venice’s canal system (English, 2004; Segel, 2006, 5). This follows the logic of postmodern debates that seek to dress up and humanize abstracted and dematerialized modernist environments with historically and culturally charged attributes (Davis, 1985, 112). In Songdo, it additionally matches with the entrepreneurialism of public-private partnerships that comes with a spatial logic of place rather than territory (Harvey, 1989, 7).

Fig, 04: New Songdo City’s desire for internationality. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

Fig, 04: New Songdo City’s desire for internationality. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

16However, taking a more socially centered view of the South Korean «post-developmental state» (Ong, 2000, 57), this exclusive imagination is tied into a renegotiated seeing-like-a-city logic of the earlier mentioned «spatially selective liberalization». South Korean family-owned large-scale capitalist enterprises, the so-called Chaebols, play a key role in this contradictory process between a landscape of regulations as legacy of the developmental state on the one hand, and on the other hand an exclusive and politically contested neo-liberalization in the dynamics of democratization since the 1980s (Park, 2005, 860-863). This has led to a triumph of mass-produced high-rise apartment complexes as a symbol of modern living and social progress for the growing middle class of South Korean society. Valérie Gelézeau (2007) calls this phenomenon «Republic of Apartments». The monotony of these spaces with little possibilities of individual expression through different forms of living is subdivided through a sophisticated system of branding by the construction corporations and establishes a hierarchical classification of society. More than a materialized commodity, the choice for an apartment complex relates to a portable lifestyle between a traditional collectivism and an advancing individualism. «Most people just condition to desire that as a symbol of entering middle class or even wealth» (Interview E18 Seoul, 06.11.2018). In this line of thought, also the physical appearance of New Songdo City as symbolic representation of an ‘international smart city’ can be seen as a continuation or upgrade of the historical trajectory of South Korean developmentalism. A local resident points out that «actually the word [international] has different meanings. In Korea, I think it means it is an important city. It is not international in terms of diversity» (Interview 10 Songdo, 20.09.2018). Here the elite fetishism of cultural difference denoting an aspiration for the global is incorporated into a collective socio-technical imaginary of modern progress in which the canals of Venice or the skyline of Manhattan stand interchangeably for an image of a ‘future city’ (see fig. 04).

8. Seeing-like-a-city: Renegotiating Disciplinary Control against pervasive Surveillance

17On marketing brochures New Songdo City appears like a dreamscape of «supermodernity» (Augé, 1995), where the city as real estate profit machine for speculative interests provides a place of insouciant life for the South Korean upper middle class. The metropolis of Seoul is demonized here to the same degree as the enclave is utopianized as a solution to urban problems and as an alternative universe for privileged forms of human life. This owes much to the phenomena of gated communities emerging in the late 20th century and described by Mathieu Perrin (2016) as a postmodern utopia with a spatial and social reversal. The elite no longer dominates from the center but retreats to peripheral and isolated enclaves, where they can live their nostalgic modern and disciplined social visions in a homogenized and enclosed territory (Schaber, Stollmann, 2001). Yet, this vision needs to be protected. Cctv controlled bridges close off the ‘gated community Songdo’ from its relatively unprivileged surrounding districts of Incheon. «The best advantage to live in Songdo is safety. Songdo is only connected by five bridges. Even if a crime breaks out, the criminal can’t leave Songdo by car, when five bridges are blocked» (Interview 12 Songdo, 20.09.2018). That safety is nonetheless the most frequently mentioned characteristic of Songdo in the interviews indicates the performative intertwining of conflicting socio-material relations (Larkin, 2013), which Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2016) refer to as a way of seeing-like-a-city. More than a planned foundation on which other powers perform, urban outcomes stem from the performed entwinements of their social figurations, and their emerging urban morphologies create power and constraints at the same time. In the everyday life of Songdo these performed entwinements can be found ubiquitously and throughout the archipelago of self-contained apartment complexes, which in turn are each managed and monitored by private security companies. In contrast to conventional ‘gated communities’, these apartment complexes are not hermetically closed off with fences or walls but semi-open landscapes with free standing residential towers, prescribed visual axes and connections to public areas. «I like just the safety and security and the openness, and it is very green, …you feel like you are living in almost a semi-rural environment» (Interview 10 Songdo, 20.09.2018). However, as unimpeded as entry from the outside may be, boundaries that are difficult to cross are quickly established on the inside of these ‘semi-gated communities’ through disciplined collective practices and complex digital surveillance systems with smart cards, sensors, checkpoints, and Cctv cameras (Bartmanski et al., 2021). This leads to a blurring of boundaries through highly interwoven spatial figurations applying performed and symbolic demarcations between inclusivity and exclusivity as well as public and private spheres.

Fig. 05: Semi-gated communities of New Songdo City. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

Fig. 05: Semi-gated communities of New Songdo City. Photographic caricature: T. Pape

18Exemplary for this porous interweaving are the pompously designed gates, which, now freely passable on both sides, have lost their original function of entrance control and degrade to symbolic remnants (see fig. 05). «People are just saying: ‘we have Cctv for that’» (Interview E10 Songdo, 29.10.2018). In fact, Cctv cameras look at you from every corner and seem to comprehensively monitor the apartment complexes. «Just no idea if they are even in operation or merely attached» (Interview 16 Songdo, 16.10.2018). In the interviews, the feeling of security is often attributed to physical phenomena, exclusivity, light, and technology. «I feel very safe here. All around is filled with beautiful things. Everywhere is brightly lit. So, it makes feel safe» (Interview 12 Songdo, 20.09.2018).

19Yet, the noticeably and repeatedly drawn causality between safe, convenient, clean, and green may additionally refer to a shift or blurring of responsibilities and governance in everyday life. In Songdo’s apartment complexes, private security companies are evaluated on a rotational basis by residents based on their responsibilities, which include surveillance patrol, entrance and parking control, but also customer service, maintenance of open spaces, waste separation, and weeding (Interview E15, 01.11.2018). Conversely, residents take on surveillance activities when supervising their children over their TV screens. «The playground is a channel we can watch» (Interview 16 Songdo, 16.10.2018). Here the boundaries become porous, between design and control, between supervisors and supervised, and between public and private. In other words, the modern spatiotemporal logic of disciplined and closed territories is continuously renegotiated through the participation in a spatially pervasive network of control, enabled and legitimized by the inhabitants’ desire for security. Through this shift of governance from an external threat to an internalized neo-liberalization of surveillance, control now permeates all spheres of life as a taken for granted and already legitimized social reality. «Privacy? I have not done anything bad, so it is okay. As long as I am safe» (Interview 21 Songdo, 02.11.2018).

9. A Way of Seeing Smart New World

20In the apartment complexes of New Songdo City, the complex interrelations of everyday socio-spatial practices are continuously renegotiated. Seemingly disentangled at first glance in favor of individuated adaptations of legitimized power relations, the discussion of shifting contexts of meaning related to entwined and conflicting spatial figures has ultimately revealed patterns of new constitutive relationships and tensions. These identity-forming and conflict-generating processes of synthesis cannot be explained in the lines of eclectically thrown together ideals or standardizations. Rather their intrinsic entwinement in the refiguration of related spaces seems a critical force in the simultaneous undoing and remaking of life, as well as in providing constraints and opportunities to urban residents. Hence, if aiming at understanding social change in Songdo, Smart New World may not be reduced, on a priori normative grounds, to a mind controlling totalitarian society (Orwell, 1949), whose engineered and consumerist social conformity (Huxley, 1932) is enabled by a prescribed spatial form of discipline and function (Le Corbusier, 1935). Instead, and by means of a conceptual triangulation of ways of seeing, the present abductive approach points to the intertwining of continuously recapping moments echoed in culturally and historically performed urban practices – be it as legacy of modernist urban planning, reactionary postmodernist romanization, progressive global neoliberalism, or a utopian technological fix of digitality. Central to this approach is the fundamental condition that every social process involves inevitably and necessarily spatiotemporal logics that relate to various key actors. The spatiotemporal demarcations of their renegotiated practices thereby blur or overlap to such an extent that they partly perforate the same modern and postmodern value systems by which they are composed of and legitimized. The refiguration of these practices stands for a set of tension-relations inside them as well as between established spatiotemporal logics with consequences for all spheres of everyday life. «There is a kind of sensor at the entrance to the parking lot», a son-in-law of a family in Songdo elaborates. «So if your car gets through the entrance, it gives an alarm to your apartment […] Sometimes I feel, this is convenient, but sometimes you just want to park and maybe go for a drink […] without other family members know that» (Interview 13 Songdo, 09.10.2018).

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1 Our thanks go to our colleagues from the Institute for Urban Humanities at the University of Seoul who supported us in the field research.

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Indice delle illustrazioni

Titolo Fig. 01: The Brightly lit skyline of New Songdo City at night glitters like a set for a future film from Hollywood. Photographic caricature: T. Pape
File image/jpeg, 231k
Titolo Fig. 02: New Songdo City as territorially enclosed island whit rational urban texture structuring an archipelago of tower collectives. Photographic caricature: T. Pape
File image/jpeg, 220k
Titolo Fig. 03: The legibility of Nwe Songdo City’s urban texture. Photographic caricature: T. Pape.
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Titolo Fig, 04: New Songdo City’s desire for internationality. Photographic caricature: T. Pape
File image/jpeg, 177k
Titolo Fig. 05: Semi-gated communities of New Songdo City. Photographic caricature: T. Pape
File image/jpeg, 168k
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Notizia bibliografica

Dominik Bartmanski, Seonju Kim, Martina Löw, Timothy Pape e Jörg Stollmann, «Smart New World»Quaderni di Sociologia, 91 - LXVII | 2023, 13-28.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Dominik Bartmanski, Seonju Kim, Martina Löw, Timothy Pape e Jörg Stollmann, «Smart New World»Quaderni di Sociologia [Online], 91 - LXVII | 2023, online dal 01 avril 2024, consultato il 20 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Dominik Bartmanski

Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” - Technische Universität Berlin

Seonju Kim

Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” - Technische Universität Berlin

Martina Löw

Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” - Technische Universität Berlin

Timothy Pape

Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” - Technische Universität Berlin

Jörg Stollmann

Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figuration of Spaces” - Technische Universität Berlin

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