By Stephen Kim and Bill Powell
In the sprawling, densely populated capital city of South Korea, Lee Hye-young and her husband Kim Soon-kyo are nothing if not typical citizens. Which is to say, even the most mundane, everyday aspects of their lives are carried out at technology's leading edge.
Consider their respective commutes to work early one recent morning. Lee clambers onto a city bus, headed to her office job in the southern part of the city. She pays using her radio-frequency-identification (RFID) card — it has a computer chip in it — part of a transit program conceived and implemented by the city government. The card is smart enough to calculate the distance she travels on any form of public transit, which determines the fare. She can then use the same card to pay for the taxi she hails to finish her journey to work. Sometimes her husband, the deputy marketing manager at a small chemical company, drives her to work. But not today. A few months ago, he applied online to join a program offered by the city that promises insurance discounts, reduced-cost parking and a tax break if he leaves his car home one business day a week. The city sent him an RFID tag, which he attaches to the windshield so the city can monitor compliance. It took him just minutes to fill out the application on his home computer, and now, he says, he saves the equivalent of $50 a month. From the city's standpoint, the estimated 10,000 fewer cars on the road each day means less congestion and less air pollution in one of the busiest cities in East Asia.
For a decade, Seoul has had the justifiable reputation of being one of the most wired cities in the world. After the Asian financial crisis devastated the South Korean economy in 1997, the Seoul city government, the national government and the private sector all made a concerted effort to move the country's economy from one reliant on heavy industry to one that included information technology — a shift that by most measures has been a resounding success. Today, according to data compiled by Strategy Analytics, a U.S.-based technology market-research firm, an astonishing 95% of households in South Korea have a broadband connection. (Tiny Singapore is second, at 88%, and the U.S. comes in at No. 20, with just 60% hooked to broadband.) The entire city of Seoul, whose metro-area population is more than 20 million, is already one giant hot spot, with wireless access available from virtually anywhere within city limits for a small fee.
That level of connectedness, either via high-speed cable or through the ether, has not only transformed South Korea's economy; it has changed forever the way this massive city is governed, how individuals receive services and interact with city hall and how prospective contractors solicit business with the city.
Start with clean government. All city contracts are now put out to bid online, and all bids are posted. That transparency, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon tells TIME, has reduced corruption in the city significantly in the past 10 years. "Since all information is disclosed real time over the Internet, influence-peddling over the bargaining of government permits becomes impossible," he says. "The online system tracks the flow of approval routes and leaves behind evidence in real time. If a manager holds on to an application for too long, he becomes a suspect. So administration becomes faster and uncorrupt." And while every big-city mayor may boast that his government is less corrupt than the last guy's — and corporate corruption has been an acknowledged problem in South Korea — Seoul has been named the world's most "advanced and efficient e-government" for several years by a U.N.-sponsored e-government-evaluation agency.
The city services accessible via Internet technology are already vast and growing rapidly. When Lee was returning home from work one day, she needed to pick up a copy of her social-security certificate. She did so at a subway station near her office, using a fingerprint-recognition kiosk: she placed her thumb on the machine, it read her print, and out popped a copy of the document. If she had so desired, she could have also printed real estate and vehicle registrations. It goes without saying that Lee pays her city taxes and utility bills online — or with her mobile phone's browser — and recently she dialed 120 to find out why the electric company had overcharged her. She was calling the Dasan Call Center, a 24/7 government agency that fields all questions regarding city services. A service rep did a quick check, confirmed the error and made sure her bill for the next month would reflect the correction.
Seoul has even greater e-ambitions. It has begun to implement a project called Ubiquitous Seoul — or U-city — which will extend the city's technological reach. Seoul's nearly 4-mile-long (6 km) Cheonggye Stream walkway, which runs through the high-rises of downtown Seoul, is the site of a U-city pilot project. Via their phones and laptops or on touchscreens located in parks and public plazas, citizens can check air-quality or traffic conditions or even reserve a soccer field in a public park. The city also sends out customized text messages. The city's chief information officer, Song Jung-hee, says those with respiratory problems can get ozone and air-pollution alerts, and commuters can get information about which route is the most congested at any given time. The city calls these real-time, location-based services.
Earlier this year, the city rolled out U–safety zones for children, a program using security cameras, a geographic-information-system platform and parents' cell-phone numbers. Participating families equip their kids with a U-tag — an electronic signature applied to a coat or backpack that allows a child to be tracked at all times. If the child leaves a designated ubiquitous-sensor zone near a school or playground, an alarm is automatically triggered alerting parents and the police. The child is then located via his or her mobile phone. The city plans to increase such zones rapidly. To some Americans, the Big Brother–ish qualities of the U-city push can be a tad unnerving. But Seoul officials point out that the U-safety-zone project is entirely voluntary, and the technologically sophisticated citizens seem to have few objections.
Seoul over the past decade has become a hotbed of early adopters, and global powerhouses from Microsoft to Cisco Systems to Nokia use it as a laboratory. The level of connectivity provided by the city's electronic infrastructure means "ubiquitous life" has become an inescapable catchphrase in Seoul. "Almost all new apartment complexes now advertise home networks and ubiquitous-life features," says Lim Jin-hwan, vice president for solution sales at Samsung Electronics. In a nutshell, that means every electronic device in the home can be controlled from a central keypad or a cell phone. Biorecognition lock systems open apartment doors, and soon, Lim says, facial-recognition systems will be introduced.
As megacities continue to grow and become more complex, it's likely that many will have to get wired just to stay manageable. Seoul took the considerable risk of being out front, but it has demonstrated the potential payback when the city government, and not just the citizens, is one of the early adopters.