In the past year, Incheon National University and the Yeonsu-gu municipality took part in a “living laboratory.” This user-centric approach to providing “smart” technological innovations for traditional problems was applied to a multicultural, lower-income area named Hambak Village. It was part of a larger government initiative that pushed for rapid urban renewal and revitalization for underdeveloped areas in large South Korean metropolitan areas such as Seoul, Busan, and Incheon.
Over the course of six months, the South Korean residents of Hambak Village, municipal officers, and university students, professors, and researchers were brought together to discuss innovative solutions to the village’s decade-long illegal littering issue. However, attempts to incorporate what can best be described as an extension of a smart city to a lower-income area led to sub-par results. South Korea’s need to adhere science and technology as a metaphorical band-aid onto the festering wounds of established issues has been a point of contention between the government and the public since the late 1980s.
With the country approaching its next presidential election in less than three months, it is salient to observe the effects of the current administration’s approach to science and technology as a point of local, national and global comparisons.
Hambak Village is a rather interesting site. Situated beneath the Munhak mountain, it is about six kilometers away from Songdo, South Korea’s first smart city. While Songdo failed to garner enough international interest necessary to draw in enough foreign residents for its vision as a “multicultural city,” Hambak Village is comprised of 80 percent foreigners who primarily hail from Vietnam, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The comparatively low housing costs in Hambak Village as opposed to the expensive high-rises of Songdo, and the neighborhood’s proximity to Incheon International Airport made it an attractive multiethnic hub. The Yeonsu-gu municipality, which is one of many municipalities within the city of Incheon, capitalized on this by nicknaming Hambak Village “Russia Town,” akin to Seoul’s “French Village” in Bangbae-dong, or “China Town” in Daerim-dong.
This was also partly done to improve the neighborhood’s perception to outsiders. For about a decade, Hambak Village has had a steady increase of illegal littering that had become a source of tension between its South Korean and foreign residents.
In large cities throughout the peninsula, each municipality has its own waste removal system, with every day of the week designated for specific waste, and different plastic bags assigned to individual types of waste; it is considered finable if citizens do not adhere to these rules.
However, it had become common to see discarded household items, food waste, and overfilled trash bags littered all over Hambak Village. With the increase of CCTV installments as of five years ago, the perpetrators have expertly learned how to avoid being seen in the camera’s eye and often engaged in this unlawful habit during the evening.
South Korean residents lamented that the influx of migrant workers and immigrant families were ruining the neighborhood with their unwillingness to respect and follow the country’s laws.
“They have no sense of pride in the neighborhood” was a common theme spoken about “the others” among the South Korean residents, with the latter believing the former felt no connection to Hambak Village due to their temporary residential status.
The littering had not only brought social problems to light, but also the neighborhood’s environmental problems as well. The surrounding wildlife that contributed to the community’s beautification efforts were starting to be affected by the littering, and the “fresh mountain air” that the South Korean residents had purposefully moved to this neighborhood for was overpowered by foul odors.
Because of its persistent and widespread prevalence, the Yeonsu-gu municipal office chose Hambak Village for its experimental “living lab,” a concept that originated in Finland in 2006 as part of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL). This open innovation approach brought together citizens and experts under the democratic rhetoric of solving everyday problems, which was particularly attractive to the Moon Jae-in administration. The administration had pushed for a citizen-centric narrative in support of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, such as AI, the Internet of Things, and the cloud, regarding their contributions to the advancement of smart cities.
Hambak Village’s proximity to Songdo made it the perfect site to naturally incorporate a smart technology approach through a living lab; the illegal littering around the neighborhood was a clear contrast to nearby Songdo’s efficient underground waste management system, prompting the municipality to assume that Hambak Village residents would be more welcoming of a technological solution.
The students, professors, and researchers of Incheon National University’s ES Smart City Lab facilitated the project as mediators between the Hambak Village participants and the Yeonsu-gu municipal officers. At the end of six months, after discussion forums, surveys, and prototypes, the university presented the neighborhood with a “smart” trash system. It was equipped with a large monitor that flashed a slideshow in Russian, Korean, and English on how to properly dispose different types of refuse and the legal implications of littering. The monitor was also endowed with a camera that would capture images of individuals to prevent future littering. Beneath the monitor were four motion-sensitive “smart bins” allocated for recyclables, metals, food waste, and other types of waste.
To the Hambak Village residents, this was a massive disappointment. To the municipal officers, this was an acceptable compromise. To the Incheon National University partakers, this was a testbed solution.
The residents had stated from the beginning that the best possible solution to the problem was to form a cultural and linguistic assimilation program at the newly constructed community center that would educate foreigners on how to properly dispose different waste materials. They also suggested that a flashy new piece of technology would be too ambitious for the neighborhood, given its being a comparatively underdeveloped status. The failure of CCTVs to improve littering habits was also cause for doubt in the effectiveness of technologies.
The municipal officers believed the “smart” trash system was the best possible solution given the circumstances. It answered the state’s desire to see an increase in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies used in various regions. The “living lab” also accomplished the goal of providing a democratic narrative to a traditionally top-down approach to science and technology.
Incheon National University’s ES Smart City Lab perceived the living lab as an opportunity for a “testbed” project. They had already anticipated that the result that they provided could fail to live up to the expectations of the residents, but it had to be a successful enough prototype to inspire similar innovations in other neighborhoods facing the same problem.
These distinct responses are indicative of South Korea’s emphasis on top-down growth that has prioritized technological and scientific advancement over sustainability since the 1960s. The social risks of such an approach had been challenged with the rise of the democratic movement in the late 1980s by a powerful minority of citizens. However, this opposition was, and continues to be, drowned out due to a particular fear embedded into the national identity: the fear of falling behind other leading nations and being overtaken by developing nations in a highly competitive global economy. A vision of perpetual growth with the use of nation’s globally leading ICT infrastructure has thus been accepted by South Korean citizens as necessary and beneficial for the “common good” of national development.
The Hambak Village living lab has shown that the domineering presence of science and technology in social and economic progress has not changed. The ICT sector is of immense interest and importance to the South Korean public, particularly during presidential elections, and it seems likely that this technology-first perspective will be perpetuated by the candidates in the upcoming election.
The marginalization of those on the lower rungs of society who do not benefit from technological advancements presumably will continue within the parameters of the ideology behind national development which prioritizes technology over solutions, technological advancements over sustainable solutions to local concerns.
This perspective toward science and technology is not necessarily South Korea-specific. Yeonsu-gu’s Hambak Village living lab speaks to a larger, global phenomenon of nation-states using political rationalities to justify technological projects that fail to solve local problems and may serve instead to exacerbate inequalities.