Recherche FFJ Research Statement Suzanne PEYRARD


Exploring the Role of
ICTs in Urban Governance

An analysis of the smart cities production in East Asia


Fondation France-Japon de l’EHESS, Post-doctoral fellow



At the turn of the 2000s, the term "smart" began to pervade in daily life, gradually qualifying a multitude of objects and concepts: the smartphone, the smart tablet, the smart watch, the smart glasses, the smart car, the smart home, the smart city1, the smart state2, the smart nation3... Everything seems transformed and influenced by this designation to such an extent that, as this research analyses, it becomes an expression of the socio-economic "metamorphoses"4 linked to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

Background and Context

In developed countries, urban inhabitants are increasingly becoming "connected bodies"5, with their daily actions revolving around the use of smartphones and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This pervasive presence of ICTs, particularly in urban settings, constitutes a significant social phenomenon, giving rise to constraining systems such as online administrative funnels and information overload6.

This transformation is particularly noticeable in East Asia where nearly one-third of smart city projects are developed since 20107. For instance, there have been over 900 experiments in China8, 200 in Japan9 since 2015, and more than 150 in South Korea10 since 2018. The concept of smart city is therefore diverse, yet this urban development exposes some patterns as highlighted by A. Townsend1, A. Picon11, and A. Greenfield12. Indeed, smart cities in East Asia are based on similar urban production systems, with a top-down planning, that are important to contextualize and compare. Through the analysis of smart cities like Shenzhen in China (master's fieldwork), Songdo in South Korea (doctoral fieldwork), and Fukusawa in Japan (postdoctoral analysis), the research aims at understand the multi-scaled production of these technological mega-projects.

First, this research argues that the concept of the smart city represents a geographic expansion13 of a liberal economy in East Asian countries, with legislative frameworks encouraging financial mechanisms that support hyper-connected development. For urban stakeholders, the smart city serves as a testing ground for cutting-edge technologies, where citizens experience firsthand innovations such as smartphone applications, sensors, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Once deemed successful by public and private actors, these innovations are often implemented nationally or even internationally.

Second, in this context of massive technological transformation, South Korea occupies a strategic position at the crossroads between Japan, a long-industrialized nation, and China, a rapidly urbanizing capitalist country14. Subsequently, South Korea's young democracy offers a unique observation field where urban governance is still evolving compared to China and Japan, where institutions are more established. So, to anchor this approach in geography and area studies, Suzanne Peyrard’s doctoral research has focused on a concrete field: the smart city of Songdo in South Korea (see map below). Unlike other smart cities where smart development and practices have been added onto existing ones, Songdo has the particularity of embodying, according to its designers, a "transition city to the future"15. Built from scratch on an artificial island, Songdo is marketed as smart from its planning to the urban governance it will ultimately follow. The concept of governance is here used as defined by I. Lacroix16, referring to the collective rules and processes through which stakeholders participate in decision-making and policy implementation. Through the study case of Songdo, the research suggests that the development of ICTs is reshaping power dynamics, with AI emerging as a new regulatory authority bridging public authorities, private actors, and the population. The technical support influences then decision-making in urban planning and increasingly serves as an interface between residents and urban professionals.

Regional map of Songdo

Research Focus and Objectives

This study aims to investigate the roles and representations of smart ICT in urban governance. By "roles," it means for instance the tasks assigned to AI (calculation, statistics, conversation), while "representations" encompass its physical structure and hierarchical or symbolic position. Who determines smart ICT's roles? Who bears responsibility for its outputs, especially considering that AI is often involved and developed by private actors? Beyond technical considerations, does ICT enable a kind of governance that is more responsive to residents? Does it facilitate mediation between public authorities and residents, or does it obscure the exchange and decision-making process?

By exploring the evolution of smart cities within the broader context of technological innovation and urban development, the goal is to elucidate the underlying socio-economic dynamics shaping the emergence of smart cities to evaluate their impact on urban daily life.

Key objectives include:

  • Investigating the conceptualization of smart cities in different cultural contexts.
  • Analyzing the strategies and technologies employed in the implementation of smart city initiatives.
Assessing the implications of smart cities for urban actors (inhabitants, stakeholders, politics) and urban governance.


The research adopts a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on insights from geography, urban studies, and cultural analysis. Methodological tools include corpus analysis, spatial analysis (cartography), qualitative interviews and ethnographic observation. This multi-level approach allows to establish correspondences between urban planning and inhabitants’ daily practices. By placing the inhabitants at the starting point of the research, the study considers not only the living spaces of the residents but also the interconnections that are woven within a smart city. From their daily experiences and their interactions with smart technologies, the study shows how residents adapt to smart urban management, how they conceive the smart city, and how they use its technologies. This cross-sectional approach brings to light the various facets of the urban experience, carefully examining the interactions between residents, urban spaces, infrastructures, and mobility flows. Moreover, this approach provides material to reflect on how residents perceive, use, and make their habitat their own.

Next, to understand the process of building a smart city, it appears essential to revisit, in the case of Songdo, the political history of South Korea since the 1970s. This historical-economic approach provides access to the first strategic discourse of the developers. Their promotional discourse is then compared with the city as developed and lived in 2020. By studying the implementation of communication strategies for the spatial production of Songdo, the research seeks how urban construction goes through a verbalization involving various urban models.

Lastly, the research relies on an ethnographic approach which becomes a gateway to examine the place of AI in the city's management as well as in the exchanges between public authorities and residents. By combining quantitative data with qualitative insights, the study seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between technology, society, and space in smart cities.

Key Findings

Findings suggest that the development of smart cities reflects broader trends in urbanization and globalization, with significant implications for spatial organization, social stratification, and governance structures. While smart technologies offer potential benefits in terms of efficiency and sustainability, their implementation raises questions regarding equity, privacy, and citizenship rights17. Moreover, the translation of smart city concepts across cultures highlights the need for context-specific approaches to urban development. Through the doctoral fieldwork of Songdo, the observations expose discrepancies with the existing international marketing discourse about smart city. Despite the scattered presence of connected modern skyscrapers comparable to the One World Trade Center in New York, the buildings in Songdo are mostly residential complexes (apateu danji) that can be seen everywhere in urban South Korea. Indeed, the smart city incorporates the expected equipment of a new city, namely new housing connected to various distribution and communication networks, protection through video surveillance, and leisure spaces with Wi-Fi hotspots. From that point on, the technologies of Songdo are experienced in a way that is comparable to other South Korean cities. In 2023, Songdo smart city seems just like an ordinary city for its inhabitants. To what extent and for which stakeholders is therefore Songdo a smart city?

While residents perceive Songdo as an ordinary city, engineers envision a city where connectivity is optimal and data collection meets the standards of major metropolises such as Seoul and London. Songdo emerges then as an exemplary case study of the challenges and contradictions inherent in the development of smart cities.

The disconnection between residents' experiences and policymakers' discourse is caused by the fact that the smart city is primarily a collusion of private interests and political power. As Songdo is a city built on an artificial island, citizens were absent from its conceptualization. The integration of technologies allows afterward the establishment of online platforms for citizen engagement. However, these virtual spaces hinder direct dialogue and ultimately operate on top-down notifications. Consequently, the smart city lacks of citizen participation in decision-making processes and leads to a rigid governance. This statement might appear as a strong critic of this urban deployment (and it is partially the case) but, inhabitants’ inquiry in Songdo also reveals that the city is a nice place to live. It might not be the smartest as the developers imagined it, but it is a livable city according to South Korean standards.

Finally, this study investigates the widespread presence of AI and other programs, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, to analyze the impact of smart development on crisis management and daily life for residents. It sheds light on the concrete implications of using smart technologies in a bustling urban environment, where residents, technical experts, political figures, and economic stakeholders are all stressing about information overload.

Conclusion & perspectives

In summary, this research contributes to our understanding of the interrelations between technology, society, and space through an analysis of smart cities at a global scale. Smart cities are widely copied and marketed as replicable models, facilitating comparisons across different regions and cultures. Nonetheless, these urban initiatives are deeply rooted in the local reality, meaning they are influenced by the cultural, political, economic, and social specificities of their environment. Indeed, their achievement heavily depends on the proactivity of local actors, including governmental authorities, private enterprises and, when taken into account, citizens.

Looking ahead, smart cities provide fertile ground for international comparison due to their replicable nature, local anchorage, and reliance on local actors. By comparing these initiatives, we can better understand the complex dynamics underlying contemporary urban development and identify alternative ICTs models of urban development, prioritizing sustainability, inhabitants’ care and inclusivity.


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