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How South Korea’s smart city startups curbed the spread of COVID-19

And why startups are cashing in big time on this trend

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As of March 18, daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Korea have dropped from highs of over 900 to manageable levels of around 90.

More encouraging is that the death rate has dropped to less than a per cent. Korea is winning the battle and it is largely thanks to fast action and the use of technology, including smart city technologies that have been in development for years.

Smart city technology is not just a way to realise the gleaming metropolises of science fiction dreams. It can also be mustered in the fight against new and dynamic threats to urban society.

Smart City curbs COVID-19

Last week two Korean government ministries announced that they would use smart city technology to support epidemiological investigations in a bid to contain South Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Though the KCDC (Korea Center for Disease Control & Prevention) has been trying to track outbreaks and trace transmission paths, its agents find themselves overwhelmed in areas with mass outbreaks such as the southwestern city of Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province, the epicentre of the disease in South Korea.

To help, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport developed a system to support epidemiological investigations using the “Smart City Data Hub,” a tool to analyse urban data the ministry has been co-developing with the Ministry of Science and ICT since 2018. 

Using the data hub, epidemiological investigators can request, obtain and confirm data about coronavirus cases and people they have come into contact with, through a single platform. This has greatly simplified what had been a tedious and time-consuming process.

The new system went into operation on a trial basis from Monday, March 16. 

In the last week, daily confirmed cases of coronavirus have dropped from highs of more than 900 to manageable levels of around 90 per day in Korea. That was without the need for city-wide lockdowns, blanket travel bans or widespread self-isolation tactics that are now being implemented elsewhere in the world to curb the spread of COVID-19.

‘Smart City Data Hub’  is a dramatic example of how the so-called “smart city” technology is improving the lives of South Koreans.

Promoted by the South Korean government as a key sector of the brewing Fourth Industrial Revolution, smart cities use cutting-edge information technology such as artificial intelligence and IoT to make urban administration more efficient and give residents more fine-tuned control over their lives.

Smart cities are also providing government entities, big corporations, and startups alike a new space in which to innovate. They may even offer a path for inter-Korean reconciliation.

Government fosters innovation

In 2017, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in organised a special committee to develop a set of recommendations to help propel the nation forward in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Spanning multiple ministries and 13 sectors of industry, the initiative largely focuses on how technological progress and innovation can be fostered in different industries.

One of the key projects is a “smart city growth engine” which will kickstart the process of incorporating a variety of technological enhancements across multiple Korean cities, including (among others) Seoul and Busan, turning them into smart cities.

The project identifies a ‘smart city’ as one that is deeply connected via a wide range of telecommunications and information technology working in synergy, bringing many benefits to all citizens who live, work or travel there.

This is not Korea’s first attempt to build a smart city. The nation is credited with the construction of the world’s first smart city, Songdo, south of Incheon. The new city was built to be energy-smart with a lower cost of living and ICT connectivity throughout. Construction completed in 2015, and while the city’s population is still only 100,000 — a small town by Korean standards — it is growing.

Nearly US$93 million will be invested to build a 4,237 km ‘self-communication network’ that will provide free public wifi to 300 terminals in public facilities, a huge wifi network in 24 large parks comprising over 100,000 square meters, as well as supplying Wi-Fi to all 7,400 city buses and 1,499 village buses operating in and from the city.

“It is the first project in the world to establish a public telecommunications network in a big city like Seoul without having to borrow from its previously established network or the commercial telecommunications network of a mobile carrier,” said Seoul Information and Communication Officer Wan-Gip Kim. “Through this, we will provide public Wi-Fi service throughout Seoul, and further expand to various services by applying real-time data.”

Startups bringing in innovation

While the Korean government is doing a good job organising public projects, it is the startups that are cashing in by bringing their technological innovations to bear.

With one of the biggest benefits of living in a smart city is the connected home environment, IoT companies are in a prime position to reach a wider audience with President Moon’s four-year initiative.

One such company is N.thing, which brings internet connection to your home garden with sensors for plant monitoring. Another example is Luple, who uses AI to identify the link between lighting and human behaviour for better control of reactive lighting.

They are by no means alone.

Founded in 2016 by former employees of the local software firm ToBeSoft, Gractor specialises in AIoT platforms, that is to say, IoT platforms that integrate artificial intelligence.

Its smart city platform collects, analyses, applies and shares all sorts of city-data. Its platform also links the police, fire department and other government agencies with one another and existing devices to provide better, more stable services.

A startup that operates the on-demand valet service Itcha, is taking part in the Seoul suburb of Bucheon’s smart city project to resolve a parking shortage in the city’s old downtown.

Many smart city projects entrust startups to handle the management of residential spaces. One such startup is APTNER, which automates tasks between apartment residents and managers and offers digital services related to apartment management, including payments, community reservations, repair applications, electronic voting, vehicle entry control, and real-time notifications.

South Korean startups have been especially active in developing technology for self-driving automobiles, a key smart city project. Bitsensing, a radar technology startup for smart city and autonomous driving, can not only replace the traditional method for speed and red-light enforcement but also through its ability to collect real-time traffic data to resolve urban congestion issues.

Another startup, SOS Lab, is one of the world’s leading developers of LiDAR sensors that function as the eyes of autonomous vehicles. It recently signed an MoU with US-based semiconductor supplier ON Semiconductor to develop and commercialise LiDAR technology for automobiles and smart factories.

Smart city technology might even open a path to permanent peace on the divided Korean Peninsula. KAIST professor Jeong Jae-seung, the master planner of the Sejong City smart city project, said smart city projects could be a win-win for the two Koreas. He said, “We will be able to achieve great synergy if we cooperate.

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Source: e27
Image credit: Sunyu Kim on Unsplash