Future Cities Summit 2018 - Our trip with the Koreans

Earlier in August, Choson Exchange was invited to participate in the 2018 Future City Summit held in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. An annual convention that sees government leaders, entrepreneurs,  investors and top talents from around the world create new ideas for smarter and better cities, the event was an opportunity fo us to tap on the groundswell of interest in urban development, particularly in emerging economies.

Together with our associate, Calvin, 3 participants from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) took part in the summit. Calvin provides the following summary of the delegation’s experience.


Advocates of Smarter, Better Cities

As experts in urban planning and architecture, all 3 of us were honoured to not be able to present alongside distinguished speakers such as the former Counsellor of Hong Kong’s Wan Chai District and the Managing Director of Warner Music Thailand, but also provide new insight into urban transformation not only in North Korea, but emerging economies as a whole.

One of Pyongyang’s chief urban planners, delivered a keynote presentation on Pyongyang’s recent urban transformation at a panel on designing human-centred cities. Another female planner highlighted the Mirae Scientist Street as a good example of urban regeneration in Pyongyang. Cognisant of issues urban planners face in emerging cities, I discussed some of the urban challenges emerging cities face during a roundtable discussion.

In addition to the conference sessions, there were a series of site visits to historical, cultural and industrial sites that have been converted to tourism villages and co-working start-up spaces. The site visits gave our DPRK participants a clear idea on what to do with old buildings and sites that seemingly no longer have value.

Bruce Lee sparks inspiration once more: The Yong Qing Fang Regeneration Project

One project, in particular, caught our attention. The Yong Qing Fang regeneration project was particularly impressive not only because the place was the hometown of martial arts legend Bruce Lee (whom our North Korean participants really adore) , but also because the sensitive approach to adaptive re-use of old structures was noticeably well-executed. Case in point — the injection of tourism and commercial elements which form a symbiotic relationship with existing residents had a novel quality about it that really inspired us. For the North Korean participants, it was peculiarly inspirational, given that the concept of conservation and adaptive reuse is relatively absent in the DPRK, particularly in Pyongyang. To quote directly from one of our participants, “What is the point of keeping a building when its function is no longer relevant?”

That view was quickly challenged, rendered obsolete even, by what our participants saw at Yong Qing Fang. Buildings may lose their economic utility, but there is cultural and historical value to be cherished and preserved. Both developers and the local government play indispensable roles in providing the necessary funding and vision to preserve and transform an old cultural site. In the case of the DPRK, the conservation and regeneration of a culturally important historical site can be facilitated by establishing Special Development Zones (SDZs).

A specialised variant of the more familiar Special Economic Zone (SEZ), SDZs allow joint ventures between local government and foreign developers with the specific aim of regenerating a selected site. The key difference between SEZs and SDZs lies in the scope — at the scale of cities or whole regions, the scope of SEZs is simply too large for the regeneration of a specific cultural project to be feasible; conversely, SDZs are capable of narrowing the focus down to a specific neighbourhood or building, allowing for a high level of flexibility that is necessary for cultural regeneration projects.

Future considerations

Apart from Yong Qing Fang, our delegation also visited Remix Lab, a co-working space for startups that had been repurposed from an old industrial factory. While our DPRK participants were intrigued by the concept of injecting new purpose into disused industrial spaces, they felt that the idea was incompatible with urban and social conditions in North Korea at the moment. Startup culture and entrepreneurship remains at the fringes of North Korean society, and there remains a need to reach certain critical mass in order for the insights gained from the Remix Lab model to make sense. Nonetheless, in our discussion, we floated the notion of a pilot project  that can be tested at the scale of a small industrial building in Pyongyang.

The Future City Summit was a great event to expose the leading planners and architects in the DPRK to issues of planning, design and development in emerging countries.