Place Branding and Public Diplomacy

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 115–124 | Cite as

Place branding strategies in the context of new smart cities: Songdo IBD, Masdar and Skolkovo

  • Olga Kolotouchkina
  • Gildo Seisdedos
Original Article


The expanding networks of information and communication technology (ICT) enabling the connection of places, people and objects shape the reality of urban development nowadays. Although the spread of digitally led urban innovations remains uneven around the world, some places have started a progressive transition towards smart city format. Two dimensions are usually highlighted among the main features of smart urban development. The reliance on the intensive use of ICT to address the most challenging issues of urban planning is emphasised from a technological perspective. On the other hand, a more holistic scenario enhances citizens’ inventiveness, collective intelligence and knowledge-based urban development. The impact of ICT on urban development and representation is particularly remarkable when an entire new city is built following a smart city approach. Three relevant examples would be Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD) City in South Korea, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and Skolkovo City in Russian Federation, built to challenge the status quo of urban dynamics. Through a case study approach, this paper explores the most salient features of the place branding strategy of these new smart cities, focussed on creating an exclusive and technology-led business innovation ecosystem for highly skilled residents.


Place branding Smart city Songdo IBD Masdar Skolkovo 

Introduction: new smart cityscapes

In recent years, the smart city concept has gained increasing relevance among scholars, urban planners and policy-makers. The expanding networks of information and communication technology (ICT) along with the dizzying spread of ubiquitous computing, enabling the connection of places, people and objects, shape the reality of urban development (Castells 1996; Sassen 2011). Digital flows of content and data permeate urban spaces, providing innovative solutions for their sustainable and balanced development as well as unleashing new social dynamics and place narratives (Koeck and Warnaby 2015). Although the spread of digitally led urban innovations remains uneven around the world, a number of cities have started a progressive transition to smart city format (Monitor Deloitte 2015). The traditional concept of urbanism and physical space is moving into a new dimension of virtual and digital representation (Blume and Langenbrick 2004). The significance of this enveloping digital realm for the cityscape is increasingly compared with the impact and consequences produced by the Industrial Revolution (Picon 2015; Townsend 2013; Rifkin 2011).

Among the main features of a smart city, scholars and practitioners highlight two main dimensions. Within the technological perspective, the reliance on the intensive use of ICT to address the most challenging issues of urban planning and development is receiving increasing attention (Picon 2015). The latest developments of ICT in the fields of fibre optics, augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things, sensoring, Big Data and cloud computing are making a key contribution to the new smart cityscape. Taking advantage of these technological innovations, cities use ICT to improve their sustainability, efficiency and the quality of urban services (Monitor Deloitte 2015). The new digital context makes cities into living smart laboratories that handle key urban systems through an extensive network of devices measuring, recording and connecting urban activities (Sassen 2011). Management of urban infrastructures, eco-efficiency, safety and mobility are some of the main areas where radical innovations have been implemented on account of ICT and open data (Hajer and Dassen 2014).

On the other hand, a more holistic scenario of a smart city enhances its collective intelligence as a place of citizens’ inventiveness and creativeness (Capdevila and Zarlenga 2015), a process of continuous learning and inspiration (Premalatha et al. 2013), new mediated experiences of social cooperation and mobilisation (Rheingold 2002) or knowledge spillover and knowledge-based urban development (Carrillo et al. 2008). At the same time, there is increasing awareness of the impact of pervasive computing and mobile technologies on social and communication dynamics emerging within these smart urban spaces. The technology migration worldwide to both higher-speed mobile and broadband networks together with increased penetration of smartphones enables citizens to easily navigate through digital cityscapes and to become its active players and creators. In 2016, the global mobile market is estimated to have grown annually by 4.6 per cent, reaching more than 4.9 billion unique mobile subscribers, almost 65 per cent of global population (GSMA Intelligence 2017). The spread of social virtual networks, easily accessible through smartphones, replaces direct physical interaction by creating new types of personal and collective behaviour as well as new formats and frameworks of interpersonal communication (Picon 2015). The multiplier effect of ICT and social network dynamics makes the citizens into relevant narrators and prescribers of urban reality. The sharing of experiences, feedback, comments and insights about places through an extensive range of social networks is a common practice of digital word of mouth nowadays.

In addition, increasing attention is being paid to new dynamics of spontaneous social mobilisation referred to as smart mobs (Rheingold 2002), co-creative processes and practices of dynamic representation of places mediated by ICT defined as digital chorographies (Koeck and Warnaby 2015) and bottom-up initiatives linked to citizen-driven innovation and citizens’ technological appropriation (Capdevila and Zarlenga 2015). Townsend (2014) notes that the secret to success of pop-up smart cities spreading around the world is a combination of creativity, the permissiveness of civic hacker culture as well as a new set of rules to promote creativity, scientific infrastructure, talent and entrepreneurship.

City branding strategy within the smart cities context

In addition to the positive impact of ICT both on urban efficiency and on citizens’ activism, the deployment of innovative technologies is becoming a critical element in strengthening a positive urban perception (Gonçalves 2016). Technology led and inspired urbanism is gaining in importance as one of the key competitive values of the place. To look smart and be considered smart becomes a priority for urban spaces (Townsend 2013) as competition for attracting visitors, investors and global talent is getting tough on a global scale (Florida 2002; Anholt 2010). A recent survey by Spanish Telecom Telefónica found 70 per cent of Internet users considering that a technologically advanced city is a more attractive place to live, work and visit (Telefónica 2015).

Gumpert and Drucker (2007) highlight the convergent nature of broadband environment conditioning the transplantation of urban reality by virtual reality and mediated communication. Electronic connection to multiple social communities replaces physical, face-to-face interaction and communication among urban residents, making the process of connection more important than the physical space where they congregate. Citizens become content and information generators through their social networks and online communities. Every day of 2017 saw more than 450 million new tweets, 47 million Instagram uploads and 2 billion active Facebook users (Internet Live Stats 2017).

Urban innovation linked to ICT allows cities to maintain their global relevance as dynamic, visionary and adaptive places. In parallel, smart urbanism becomes an inspiring topic for promotional campaigns, urban story-telling and a catalyst for hosting innovative ICT events. The recent Swedish Number and Curators of Sweden campaigns launched, respectively, by the Swedish Tourist Authority and Swedish Institute and allowing any foreign resident to get in touch with a random Swedish resident, evidence a new approach to facilitating a unique Swedish experience to potential visitors through common ICT such as telephone and Twitter ( 2017; 2017). Barcelona, on the other hand, the host city since 2006 of the World Mobile Congress, a global event on mobile technologies, keeps strengthening its smart urban reputation through a wide range of innovative projects, research initiatives and events linked to the Mobile World Capital Barcelona identity ( 2017).

The traditional approach to designing a place brand stresses the need to formulate a brand purpose, positioning and brand values inspired by place identity and to identify an aspirational vision for the place (Govers 2015). The place brand construct is usually linked to perceptions and associations based on the visual, verbal and behavioural expression of a place (Sevin 2014; Zenker 2011). Florek and Kavaratzis (2014) argue that place brand equity captures diverse and multiple aspects of the place performance for its various stakeholders, indicating at the same time the source of place brand success. Among the key challenges that a city brand should address, Dinnie (2011) points out the need to develop a consistent and coherent umbrella brand across different urban areas focussed on different audiences. Merrilees et al. (2012) underline the ability of a city brand to become an effective tool for ensuring that disparate groups of urban stakeholders, each of them with their specific filter of needs and expectations, can understand, interact with and connect to the city.

The role of ICT is increasingly discussed in the context of place branding strategies. Govers (2015) points towards a need to consider technology not as just another tool of a place media mix facilitating its online presence but as an end in itself, in order to consistently develop a meaningful place substance, to build place reputation and control image formation agents. Hanna and Rowley (2015) suggest that the experiential nature of place brands makes their digital presence increasingly relevant. The dynamics of place research and exploration by potential and existing stakeholders, their decision-making process about the place as well as their interaction with the place happen increasingly within the new digital urban environments. A model of seven characteristics of digital strategic place brand management identifies the key elements of urban digital presence: channels, clutter, community, chatter, communication, co-creation and co-branding (Hanna and Rowley 2015). Hartmann (2009) addresses the mediatisation of urban spaces and new patterns of media production and consumption through a study of WiFi cafe environments in Berlin. Tham et al. (2013) assess the role of social media in destination decision-making, identifying key aspects of the electronic word of mouth and its impact on destination choice. Oliveira and Panyik (2015) highlight the value of content generated by tourists and travellers for destination branding strategies, using the example of Portugal.

Acknowledging the transformational power of ICT to reimagine urban processes and dynamics from a new smart perspective, the question regarding the city branding approach arises when new cities built entirely with a smart approach emerge in different parts of the world. The cases of Songdo IBD (South Korea), Masdar City (Abu Dhabi) and Skolkovo (Russian Federation) are prominent examples of these instant cities (Sassen 2011) built to challenge the status quo of current urban dynamics and functions. The leading role of ICT in the process of urban planning and management of these cities makes them a new model of a smart city approach and a reference for technology-led place branding strategies put in place by their developers. Nevertheless, the artificial nature and mechanical character of these three urban projects has also been the subject of criticism among supporters of the very concept of the city as a place with memory, history, conflict and creative spontaneity (Greenfield 2013; Fernandez 2013). While the cities are operated under a model of high-function and low-consumption performance, the utopian purity of each city and its exclusive environment, created first and foremost for accommodating the best scientific and academic talent, has caused polemic among scholars and practitioners. Ouroussoff (2010) questions the gated-community mentality of Masdar, its isolation from real life and the lack of richness and texture of a real city. The process of green techno-apartheid is identified by Nguyen and Davidson (2017) when reviewing the green technology innovations in Songdo and Masdar Cities. The authors criticise the lack of appropriate tools that could provide equitable access to those innovative green technologies, enjoyed at present by only the wealthy residents, and enhance both social equity and long-term social sustainability. Cugurullo (2013) points out a sandcastle nature of Masdar City, efficiently fuelled by technology-driven capital flows but without any social dimension of a real city.


This research is guided by a comparative case study approach to assess the place branding strategies under implementation in three newly built smart cities. The case study research is an empirical inquiry in order to investigate in-depth a specific contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context (Yin 2009). The inclusion of three cases in the analysis enables a more comprehensive assessment of the elements and milestones of the place branding strategies being implemented by these cities, providing an opportunity to identify possible patterns of repetition in the assessed cases (Zartman 2005).

The main research questions for assessment in each case are aimed at identifying key resources and tools used by urban managers of these smart places to leverage their visibility and competitive advantage. On the other hand, the exploration of the convergence of top-down and bottom-up initiatives within these new smart environments can provide relevant insights on the level of citizens’ engagement and participation in these new smart contexts. The unit of analysis is the place branding strategy developed by each city, with a particular focus on:
  • Identification of key urban stakeholders involved in place branding efforts

  • Key urban dynamics supporting each place branding strategy

  • Citizen engagement initiatives within the place-branding process

  • The impact of ICT and smart urban practices on place branding strategies

Two cities included in this research were identified in the United Nations Environment Programme Report on City-Level Decoupling, showcasing the best practices of visionary urbanism to address social and environmental issues through innovation (UNEP 2013). Masdar and Songdo IBD were featured as two relevant cases of innovative urban planning when an entire new city is developed following smart principles. The third case of Skolkovo City was included in the sample due to its profile similarity to Songdo IBD and Masdar as the most recent example of a highly planned, research-focussed and technology-led city, combining both scientific and production facilities with residential areas.

This paper follows a line of urban ICT studies (Graham 2004; Townsend 2013; Picon 2015; Calzada and Cobo 2015), place branding studies (Go and Govers 2011; Anholt 2010; Dinnie 2011; Kavaratzis et al. 2015) and urban communication studies (Burd et al. 2007; Hanna and Rowley 2015).

This research gathered the most relevant evidence available on the three cities from multiple sources such as literature review, content analysis of their digital resources and monitoring of the main social media of the three urban projects.

Songdo IBD, Skolkovo and Masdar: design- and technology-led exclusive urban places for highly skilled and talented residents

Each case features a brief introduction on the most salient characteristics of the city, followed by an assessment of key agents and specific dynamics of its place branding process.

Songdo IBD

Urban profile

Songdo IBD aims to become the place setting the benchmarks of smart and sustainable urban development and shaping the future of cities, where a new urban ecosystem is being built by residents, businesses and visitors (Songdo IBD 2017). The city has been developed since 2001 by a long-term public–private partnership involving Incheon Metropolitan City, Gale International property developer and POSCO Engineering and Construction. Technological partners such as Cisco, 3M and Arup provide innovative ICT solutions for Songdo’s operation systems. The city is located 56 km from Seoul in close travel proximity to mayor Asian global hubs and is expected to become home to 65,000 people and provide employment to 300,000 people. Business, housing, recreational and commercial facilities are under construction (UNEP 2013). The United Nations Green Climate Fund selected Songdo IBD as the location of its global headquarters in 2012.

The city has been developed on 6 km2 around the Central Park, a green area of 40 ha. Environmental sustainability is a key priority of Songdo and is addressed through a smart public transport system integrating subway and urban bus networks. All key urban facilities are located within no more than 12.5 min walking distance from each other (UNEP 2013). Residential and office buildings are equipped with electric-vehicle charging stations, and there is a pool of cars for rent in underground car parks. The city is covered by 25 km of priority cycle lanes. All buildings are provided with an automatic vacuum system for garbage collection and green roofs for collecting rainwater.

Technology plays a key role in urban connectivity and operations. The city is conceived as a machine with an urban operating system along with spatial, physical, digital and human gears (Aurigi 2016). The telematics network ensures domotic management of all residential services, allowing regulation of consumption and operating costs of water, energy and electricity supplies. Telepresence technology connects the city’s offices, schools and residential buildings through a closed network. A network of smart sensors deployed around the city enables permanent control of temperature, energy consumption and urban traffic. The city is the first in Korea to receive the leadership in energy and environment design (LEED) accreditation, adhering to the strictest environmental standards for energy consumption and waste (Lobo 2014).

Place branding approach

The place branding strategy of Songdo IBD is strongly supported by its official promoters Gale International, POSCO and IFEZ and its key IT partners and suppliers Cisco, Arup, KPF, 3M and Nicklaus Design. All companies involved in the development of Songdo IBD actively promote and showcase facilities and benefits of a new urban project on their corporate websites through extensive audio-visual content and interviews, assuming the role of prescribers of the city through their corporate endorsement. Cisco has developed an extensive video series “Cities of the Future: Songdo IBD, South Korea,” showcasing the state-of-the-art technological solutions put in practice in Songdo (Cisco 2017). The architectural company KPF involved in the project features a detailed description of the urban master plan (KPF 2017). The same advocacy role is provided by the multinational companies that have already relocated to their new premises in Songdo. The list of all companies is featured on Songdo’s main portal as proof of the business framework quality and their commitment to Songdo’s future development. IBM, Daewoo International, Samsung Biologics, E-Land, SparkLabs, Lotte or Celltrion are some of the business residents of the new smart city (Songdo IBD 2017). The promotion of an attractive social environment and global life-style in Songdo IBD is supported by the Jack Nicklaus urban business golf club, hosting the Presidents Cup in 2015 and Asia Pacific Amateur golf championship in 2016, among other events (Jack Nicklaus Golf Club 2017).

The attraction of a specific citizen profile is another salient feature of Songdo IBD’s approach to place branding. Benedikt (2016) underlines the exclusive focus of Songdo on the world-class international community to join its select industrial sectors of biomedicine, high-tech industries, finance or international trade, among others. In order to speed up the attraction of highly skilled residents to the technology-driven smart city, developers invested in inviting top international universities and education centres to open branches in Songdo (Lobo 2014). The focus on fostering a diverse international and well-educated community is one of the purposes of this strategic approach. By the end of 2016, four international universities (State University of New York, George Mason University, Ghent University and the University of Utah) inaugurated campus branches in Songdo. In addition, a branch of Chadwick International School provides academic excellence from kindergarten to high-school students, focussed on development of global citizens with keen minds and the ability to lead (Chadwick International 2017). The attraction of the business community and their highly skilled employees is planned, on the other hand, considering a wide range of specific financial incentives offered to companies relocating to Songdo IBD. Such incentives include, among others, tax reductions, estate support, subsidies, and property tax exemption for 10 years, followed by 3 years of 50 per cent reduction (Lobo 2014). More than 36,000 people have already established their new residence in Songdo IBD (Songdo IBD 2017).

City developers, on the other hand, are actively present in main global social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the popular Korean blog of the Tister and Kakao Story app, uploading specific content focussed on Songdo’s life-style and main social events, although the largest volume of content is in Korean only.

Ad hoc media tours are arranged for international press and urban experts to witness the impact of ICT on Songdo IBD’s cityscape. International media frequently covers Songdo’s milestones in smart and sustainable development. Furthermore, since 2010, the city has hosted large international events and global conferences in the field of education, science and culture. Construction of the largest Korean arts centre is to be completed in 2017 and is expected to enrich the cultural and artistic experience of this smart city.


Urban profile

Masdar is a new smart city built by the Government of Abu Dhabi in the desert of UAE. The project is considered an intriguing model for a sustainable community and lived-in urban laboratory (Sassen 2011), blending high-tech design with ancient construction practices. The fundamentals of old Arab settlements become a strong reference for energy saving, air flow circulation and shade-maximising solutions in Masdar, while technological state-of-the-art innovations are materialised in a personal rapid transit station with compact self-driven cars and solar plants (Ouroussoff 2010).

The tag of an ambitious eco-city project is also commonly associated with the Masdar development, as it is expected to be powered mainly by solar and other renewable energy sources with a sustainable carbon-neutral urban metabolism (Cugurullo 2013). The main developer of the project is Masdar, a renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi whose mission is the investment, incubation and development of clean energy industry in Abu Dhabi and worldwide (Masdar City 2017). Foster + Partners architects were commissioned by Masdar to design Masdar City.

Built on 700 ha, Masdar City is located 17 km from the capital of Abu Dhabi and in close proximity to its international airport. The city is expected to become home to up to 40,000 residents and provide 50,000 employment opportunities in its business and services network. The master plan of Masdar seeks to establish a mixed urban environment with high-density and low-rise buildings integrating ancient Arabic architecture with smart building technologies (Masdar City 2017). The city is partially powered by clean energy generated onsite from a photovoltaic power plant. The 100 per cent of grey water is recycled for use in urban parks and green areas designed with native plants and micro-irrigation systems, reducing water consumption and minimising evaporation. The city is designed as a walkable and pedestrian-friendly environment, integrating smart and low-carbon transportation options with innovative solutions for group and personal rapid transport. Masdar’s sustainable development as a zero-carbon zero-waste city received the endorsement as an official One Planet Living Community from the World Wide Fund for Nature and the strategic consultancy BioRegional (UNEP 2013).

Place branding approach

Masdar City presents itself as a living urban laboratory for research, testing and implementation of the most innovative green technologies and urban solutions. The city growth is intertwined with the development of new technologies within its boundaries. Companies become the citizens of Masdar, contributing to its shape and metabolism by using urban space as a showroom for their products and innovations (Cugurullo 2013).

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, dedicated to the research of knowledge-based economy and cutting-edge solutions in the fields of energy and sustainability, is the core element of the city’s master plan and its leading stakeholder. The institute’s partners, other scientific institutions and business companies, are located in close proximity to this key landmark. The campus of the institute is expected to accommodate four research centres of academic excellence and a specific centre dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship, attracting a highly skilled international community of scientists and academia. Other relevant landmarks of Masdar are the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Incubator Building, which hosts more than 360 companies ranging from start-ups to SMEs and multinational businesses. Large multinational companies that have already relocated to Masdar include, among others, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Schneider Electric, General Electric and Siemens (Masdar City 2017).

One of the commercial and communication tools used by Masdar to facilitate business presence and market exchange is The Future Build online market place of sustainable materials and green technology providers. The portal features a visual endorsement: an initiative of Masdar City (The Future Build 2017). In addition to the The Future Build portal, Masdar chairs each year the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) and European Future Energy Forum (EFEF), intended to become leading platforms of debate on global energy issues and real solutions, and actually functioning as global trade fairs for capitalising green technologies of Masdar (Cugurullo 2013).

The attraction of highly skilled residents to the place is a key strategy for the city to become a truly scientific and smart community. More than 500 students follow post-graduate and master courses at the Institute of Science and Technology with their accommodation at the premises of the institute. Rental apartments are available in a residential complex built according to sustainability criteria with access to a gym and retail facilities for employees of relocated companies. In addition, chic residence serviced apartments are planned for temporary visitors to the city (Masdar City 2017). While the residential development is underway, Masdar residents are not allowed property ownership in the city.

All the promotional and communication activities of Masdar City are guided and conveyed by the Masdar Mubadala Company, the leading developer of the project. The corporate press office actively provides news feeds on the latest milestones and new business partnerships of the city on the website and its social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. However, the social profiles in these networks are always of a global Masdar brand, not specifically of Masdar City.

Until 2012, Masdar City had its own social profile on Twitter, however since that time all activity has concentrated on the Masdar corporate account. The other relevant owned media is Masdar Digest, published online quarterly by the Marketing and Corporate Communications Unit of Masdar, with a broad range of content on corporate agenda and clean energy topics. Additionally, the development company launched the Masdar City tourist guide, which features a range of restaurants and convenient banking, medical and laundry services on site (Masdar City 2017).

The blending of the Masdar City brand with the corporate brand of the Masdar company provides an interesting case of a monolithic brand architecture when all business units feature the same visual identity and contribute synergistically to enhancing the visibility and leadership of the main corporate brand (Olins 2008). Within this monolithic brand architecture, Masdar City is an effective showcase platform for the technological achievements and strategic partnerships of the Masdar company.


Urban profile

Skolkovo is a brand-new scientific and innovation project launched by the Russian Government through the not-for-profit Skolkovo Foundation in 2010. Skolkovo aims to foster a sustainable ecosystem of business innovation and entrepreneurship in key strategic clusters of energy efficiency, strategic computer technologies, biomedicine, nuclear and space technologies. The implementation is structured around the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, an accelerator of technological companies and start-ups; the Technopark and the Skolkovo Institute of Technology, a graduate research University co-established with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More than 30 world technological companies have become Skolkovo business and research partners, among them Boeing, Cisco Systems, EADS, GE, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, Nokia and Samsung (Skolkovo 2017). Specific legislation including relevant benefits in taxation, accounting and immigration procedures is applied to business partners of the Skolkovo Project, facilitating a dynamic and flexible environment to foreign capital (Kangas 2013).

The project is developed on the 400 ha of Skolkovo City, in close proximity to Moscow. The city is expected to accommodate 20,000 people with a total number of 30,000 employees.

The city defines itself as a full-fledged and open city ruled by creativity and intends to become a model of sustainable and technology-led urbanism. Some of the environmental objectives point to 50 per cent of energy consumption provided by renewable sources, total recycling of waste, rooftop solar panels, a smart electrical grid system and pedestrian- and cycling-friendly place (Skolkovo 2017).

Place branding approach

Skolkovo was envisioned as a creative cluster city, aimed at fostering a stimulating innovation environment and built on the ideas generated by its residents and affiliated companies. The tag of Russia’s Silicon Valley was quite common after the official launch of the project in 2009 (Forsberg and Smith 2016; Schlögel 2015).

The development of a creative urban ecosystem and an innovative local community is based on the intertwining of a unique technological innovation environment with a stable social infrastructure for its residents. Attraction of talented individuals and ideas is the fundamental assumption of this strategy (Sharafutdinova 2012).

Key social pillars of Skolkovo are education, healthcare, leisure and entertainment facilities. The flagship educational institution is the International Gymnasium, focussed on innovative teaching methods and IB programmes from kindergarden to high-school level with priority admission for children of members of the Skolkovo Ecosystem. Entertainment and cultural facilities range from various interest clubs to thematic exhibitions, design festivals and family activities. Most of the activities feature a scientific or technological concept: Art & Science Day, Food Science Day, Industrial Design etc. (Skolkovo 2017).

Housing facilities built and under construction in Skolkovo include only rental options, as all housing properties belong to the Skolkovo Foundation. The options range from rental town-houses and apartments for long-term residents to serviced apartments for temporary visitors and clients of local companies or facilities. The reason behind this, as observed by Kangas (2013), seems to arise from the experience of former Soviet scientific cities becoming places of residence for ageing and inactive scientists. The first Skolkovo residents moved to the city at the beginning of 2017 and received, together with the keys of their rented apartments, a robot kitten, a symbolic technological reference of the new smart environment as the cat is a symbol of good luck for a new house in Russia (Skolkovo 2017).

The Skolkovo Foundation actively feeds all news on key innovation milestones, business and start-up activities, smart contributions of Skolkovo residents and their social and cultural life. All social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter or VK (Russian version of LinkedIn) are managed by the Skolkovo Foundation. Similarly to the Masdar case, the city brand operates within a monolithic brand architecture model (Olins 2008), capitalising on the shared visual identity for all stakeholders, innovation clusters and key facilities. Skolkovo City is a brand within the global corporate Skolkovo umbrella.

Place branding logic of newly built smart cities: conclusions and future research

This analysis of the Songdo IBD, Masdar and Skolkovo City cases raises some relevant issues for scholars and practitioners of place branding in the context of the new digital mediascape and smart city strategies. Common similarities in the approach to the place branding strategy were identified in the assessment of three cases, suggesting some particular patterns of place making of these new smart territories.

Among these similarities, the first one to point out is the common profile of Songdo IBD, Masdar and Skolkovo Cities as creative clusters, research and innovation labs and living urban showrooms, built by and for leading technological companies. The mixed public–private ownership of the three cities leads to a top-down urban planning and management style of urban facilities, properties and media channels. Partner IT companies involved in the urban development and companies relocated to these smart cities become the key urban ambassadors of the new digital realm, amplifying with their particular business experience the visibility and competitive advantage of each urban project. This co-branding approach between a city and its resident business companies is a remarkable feature of the three projects, evidencing a clear commercial and business logic as a key driver of these smart city projects. Another aspect worth considering in this context is the monolithic visual identity developed in the cases of Skolkovo and Masdar Cities under the corporate umbrella of their developers, large public and private companies. The boundaries between business and urban projects are blurred, and the city is perceived more as a sub-brand of a large holding than a unique and authentic city that they claim they are.

The second salient feature of the three cities is their exclusive focus on the attraction of only highly skilled and talented residents. This target includes mainly employees of multinational companies, technological start-up owners, researchers and graduate students, who are offered a wide range of taxation facilities and subsidies to facilitate their transfer to the newly built smart environments. In addition to administrative and legal advantages, a wide range of top educational, cultural, commercial and entertainment options are included in the presentations of all the cities. The establishment of international universities and schools is increasingly common in these places, highlighting the unique social atmosphere and stimulating academic environment of the city. All three cities position themselves as unique and vibrant communities with global, healthy and aspirational life-style options. This perfect picture nevertheless looks artificial and exclusive at this moment, as it lacks the richness of a vibrant city life based on contrasts of different backgrounds, experiences and profiles of urban characters. At the initial stage of the development of Skolkovo, Songdo IBD and Masdar, the residents’ profile is not highly visible in the promotional and communication activities developed by the cities. All key content features mainly technological innovations and achievements in sustainable urban planning. Residents remain at the background of this content, as mere users of smart environments. However, one can assume that, after the initial adaptation process is over, and considering the prominence of digital media and social networks in interpersonal communication, citizens will very soon adopt a more active role in the place making process of both cities, adding more authenticity and human value to the smart environments they live in. Another issue that should also be considered regarding the priority attraction of highly skilled residents to these smart places is the need to bridge the digital divide barrier and to avoid social inequality arising on account of unequal access to technology worldwide.

Closely related to the residents’ profile issue, it is also worth mentioning the situation with housing and accommodation options available at these smart places. Smart housing facilities with the most innovative solutions are provided in the three cities, however only Songdo IBD offers both property ownership and rental options. In the cases of Skolkovo and Masdar, only rental options for its residents are available. This fact is striking, as the status of the residents in those places will be always of temporary visitors without any option to develop a strong emotional connection with the place and to consider it from a medium/long-term perspective. Smart cities are therefore built as attractive exclusive environments for highly skilled residents on a temporary basis, but who will not be allowed to assume their role as true citizens of the place. Their engagement with the place will always be subject to their employment period at one of the business partner companies located in the city.

While smart urban initiatives are spreading around the world in different kinds and shapes, this review of three newly built smart cities in South Korea, UAE and Russian Federation has raised many questions regarding the true essence and key drivers of these exclusive and technology-led places and their residents. The nature of new smart cities emerging around the world makes them extraordinary laboratories for close observation of place branding dynamics among key urban stakeholders involved in the process. The role of citizens of these places, on account of the technological empowerment by ICT-led urbanism, becomes particularly relevant. The optimum combination of technology and human capital dimensions is a key challenge for these places if they really aim to become truly authentic and vibrant places, stimulating knowledge spillover and sharing their best urban practices to address the challenges of the digital divide and social inequality. Further research specifically focussed on assessment of the citizens’ profile evolution, identifying the level of their social activism and their capacity to become true place makers could provide relevant insights into the holistic dimension and potential human-scale essence of the new smart urban era.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Humanities and Communication SciencesUniversidad San Pablo-CEU, CEU UniversitiesMadridSpain
  2. 2.IE Business SchoolMadridSpain

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