Seoul: World's Most Wired Megacity Gets More So

The world's most wired metro area is extending city services with its U-city project. The U stands for ubiquitous

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Woohae Cho for TIME

Bus arrivals are displayed on an LED screen along Gangnam Avenue, a major artery

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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.

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