Model Cities Across the South Challenge Old Ways

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Pioneering thinking about how resources are used and how people live their lives is taking place in the dynamic economies of the global South. Facing a vast population surge to urban areas, these include attempts to build “green” cities and low-waste, smart and digital communities.

These model cities are clever solutions for the world’s growing – and urbanizing – populations coping with a stressed and damaged environment. Unlike one-off technologies and ideas developed in isolation, the model cities approach starts from scratch. They become living laboratories on which research and development take place at the heart of the community, not just the preserve of aloof academics hidden away in labs.

This is critical work because the world is rapidly urbanizing and needs solutions to ensure this process does not lead to chaos and misery. How these cities turn out could hold the fate of humanity and much is at stake. According to a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Africa now has a larger urban population than North America and 25 of the world’s fastest growing big cities. Getting to grips with urban development will be critical for the future of the continent and the wellbeing of its people.

By 2025, Asia could have 10 or more cities with populations larger than 20 million (Far Eastern Economic Review). People will be living in densely populated cities and they will need to be smart cities if they are to work.

In the United Arab Emirates (, Masdar City (, is a model city not only being built, but being used as way to develop commercially successful environment technologies – renewable energy solutions and clean technologies – that will turn into future income for the city and Abu Dhabi.

The traditional approach in other countries has been to keep scientists and innovators disconnected from the living, breathing city. They toil away in labs or universities and only really get to test their technologies and theories after going through lengthy testing and approval by a city’s government. As Masdar’s website says, this city will develop “from research to commercial deployment – with the aim of creating scalable clean energy solutions.”

The planned community will be 6 square kilometres in size and wants to be “one of the most sustainable cities in the world”. Located 17 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, it hopes to be a pedestrian-friendly town home to 40,000 residents. At the heart of Masdar City is the Masdar Institute: a research university developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The students are the city’s first residents and a range of top international companies are planning to locate in there as well. German technology company Siemens will place its Middle East headquarters in Masdar and its Center of Excellence in Building Technologies R&D centre. Others joining them include GE, BASF, Schneider and the Korea Technopark Association.

The Surbana Urban Planning Group ( spent five decades developing its experience with the rapid growth of Singapore ( a city-state boasting the highest quality of life in Asia (Economist Intelligence Unit) which took itself from an impoverished city to one of the world’s leading export and manufacturing economies. Surbana built 26 planned townships in Singapore that now house 85 percent of the city’s 4.5 million residents. It specializes in designing, implementing and maintaining complex urban areas.

Singapore has pioneered a number of ways to house a large population within a small territory. This experience is now being put to work in China at the Tianjin Eco-City development ( Known for high pollution levels due to heavy industry Tianjin will undergo a big change. The project aims to develop a template that can be used for other cities throughout China and around the world.

The 30-square-kilometre Tianjin Eco-City is being built around a wetland and river. The idea is to offer its residents an environment with easy access to recreational spaces and the natural environment. The transport system will avoid cars and instead use a light rail system as the main mode of transport. It should be home to 350,000 people.

Cleverly, each suburban area will have commercial sub-centres to enable as many people as possible to work locally and avoid the need to commute long distances. The Eco-City will be built by assembling “eco-cell” – like a bee’s honeycomb – neighbourhoods self-contained with schools, child care, commercial and work areas, and parks. This set up is geared to collecting a common mistake in other new developments that only consider housing, forgeting about how people work, shop and recreate.

There will be seven distinct neighbourhoods: Lifescape, Eco-Valley, Solarscape, Urbanscape, Windscape, Earthscape and Eco-Corridors ( An “Eco-Valley” will run through the city as a green spine connecting north and south.

It is hoped the city will be completed by 2020. Just 10 minutes’ drive from the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area ( business parks, the residents should be well served for jobs.

In South Korea, the Digital Media City in Seoul ( bills itself as a “harmony of nature, high-tech, and culture”. The Seoul municipal government devised the DMC in the 1990s to capitalize on the economic and social benefits of being the world’s most digitally wired nation.

The DMC project serves the nation’s larger goals of transitioning from a manufacturing to an innovation economy and promoting Seoul as an east-Asian hub for commerce. The DMC is about creating new business opportunities.

But this isn’t just about business and research and development: it is a comprehensive digital economy experience, with schools, housing for the affiliates of international firms, moderate and lower-income housing, commercial and convention facilities, entertainment zones, and the city’s central rail station are all located in or near the Digital Media City.

Published: February 2011


1) More Urban, Less Poor: The first textbook to explore urban development and management and challenge the notion unplanned shanty towns without basic services are the inevitable consequence of urbanization. Website:

* Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World by Doug Saunders. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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© David South Consulting 2023

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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