Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Seoul Searching for Democracy: Creating a Culture Where Voices are Listened To

As part of our ‘A New Collaboration: Putting Democracy Back into Urbanism’ week - the first clause of the declaration - Julian Buckle has written an article about the rather unusual approach that Seoul has taken to urban development and citizen engagement. 

Yobosayo? Yobosayo? … 여보세요? 여보세요?. ‘Hello? Hello?’, is what you would be saying if you ever found yourself answering a phone call in South Korea. 
It also happens to be the name of a giant ear sculpture sitting outside of Seoul’s city hall. So important is dialogue in Seoul’s approach to urban development that they decided to place a physical symbol in front of their office saying ‘we’re listening’. Although this was not always the case. 
Only since the election of Park Won-soon as mayor in 2011 has the city taken a very different approach to governance: enacting policies which focus on social innovation and citizen engagement as part of a wider goal to shift the culture of urban development.

On a practical level the ear sculpture allows sound to be projected from the street into the city hall, whilst also acting as a speaker playing sound from the city hall back into the street. Although more symbolic than functional it highlights the constant two-way flow of communication underpinning how the city manages urban change.

For Koreans, participating in the development of their city takes place through a myriad of digital and offline mediums; the giant ear sits somewhere in-between the two.

So why don’t other cities build their own ear? They could, but beyond the ear we need to understand the deeper cultural shift that has taken place in Seoul, and see how it can be applied elsewhere. The city doesn’t just listen, it actively absorbs feedback in a constant loop, listening and acting through multiple channels at the same time.

Between November 2012 and March 2013 the government processed 18,807 suggestions through its Social Media Centre (SMC). The SMC collates suggestions from over 45 different sources including Twitter, Facebook, government blogs and government websites. Suggestions range from more trivial matters to long-standing issues which require a more strategic response. With all the information centralised departments are given the relevant pieces and can respond quickly, in some cases in real-time.

The two main city government bodies known as the Social innovation Bureau (SIB) and the Public Communication Bureau (PCB) both play a key role in social innovation within the city. The SIB is a strategic body which plans and supports social innovation, whereas the PCB is concerned with how citizens can better engage within the decision-making process.

The range of initiatives under both bodies are vast. The online platforms fulfill multiple roles; processing citizen feedback in real-time, disseminating information, showing live video feeds of meetings and other functions, all in addition to the conventional social media channels.

However, online systems alone will not generate meaningful participation; there is a need for something more. Governments must seek to have a deep and nuanced understanding of the places they are dealing with, and engage with people on their terms.

So what better way than to move your office to the area?

Seoul Metropolitan Government has set up a combination of initiatives to get a more detailed understanding of the local area. Mobile Mayor Offices (MMO) requires officials to physically move their office into the area under discussion, and Cheong-Chek Forums (CCF) is a town-hall style meeting which typically lasts two or three days requiring officials to work long days reviewing and incorporating citizen feedback into the plans.

EunPyeong Newtown - an area of Seoul - used both of the initiatives to resolve an issue surrounding a large residential block. Erected with little to no local consultation it remained unoccupied for 3 years and with limited surrounding infrastructure or amenities it’s not hard to see why. However through both the MMO and CCF initiatives they were able to reconcile the local communities’ concerns.

By processing 146 suggestions made in meetings from residents and other local parties, in conjunction with those made on social media, they were able to create a roadmap for solving the problem. Within 70 days all of the 618 apartments were sold and the problem of no occupiers was solved.

Both the MMO and CCF initiatives foster real partnership and a culture of co-creation, and the entire evolutionary process is communicated across multiple social media channels. Such transparency builds trust, and with that a more meaningful relationship can be formed between city authorities and people.

Too often we see hostility as the dominant emotion in this relationship - the issues facing a favela in Rio or a suburb in Los Angeles are no doubt different, but the power struggles are in many ways the same. The top-down government approach robs citizens of their agency and the belief that their voice will be heard. Therefore the relationship becomes far more subversive because there is no trust left in the system.

Seoul has come a long way in a relatively short time but its systems are by no means perfect. Questions have been asked of how inclusive the online systems are, especially in reference to the older generations.

In addition more complex issues that require face-to-face meetings bring with them well documented issues. Mobile offices are expensive and in other settings under greater financial constraints might not be possible.

The rapid socioeconomic change undertaken since the 1990’s has raised issues beyond Seoul’s urban development about the well-being of its citizens. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD and Seoul could be doing more to tackle the issue, especially as societal pressures seem more pronounced in the city.

Nonetheless, Seoul is a great example of a city changing the dynamic of the relationship between its people and their government. The systems and structures of course need further development; but with the help of its citizens they have succeeded in creating a culture where engagement is valued. There is a great opportunity for others to learn from their journey.

Massive Small sees an equitable relationship between government and citizens as fundamental in addressing the challenges facing our urban environments. Technology has great potential in supporting this relationship but can never replace it.  Participation and engagement is fundamental to the vitality of democracy and as the world continues to migrate to cities new questions will be raised of their democratic accountability.

Every city needs to fine tune its own ear, listen to it’s people, and build the structures and systems suitable to it’s cultural and technological setting. If we don’t find our own ‘yobosayo’, cities will suffer from a democratic deficiency, and our deafness will be our downfall.

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