7 tips for building a social innovation city

– from Seoul City’s Global Advisory Committee on Social Innovation

SIX’s Director Louise Pulford is part of the Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee Group of Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Last month, we travelled to Seoul to join the Future Innovation Forum 2016 and to also be part of the Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee Group Meeting hosted by the Mayor of Seoul, Wonsoon Park.

Every year when we return to visit our friends and colleagues in Seoul, we have wonderful opportunities to visit new projects and initiatives that are happening across the city. We are always in awe of the pace of change in Seoul.

This time, the members of the Global Advisory Committee had the opportunity to visit different projects (below) in Seoul City, that reflect the City Mayor’s mission of actively engaging citizens and making the most of unused spaces in Seoul city. Throughout his term, instead of demolishing old buildings and building something completely new, the focus has been placed on how old and idle city spaces and buildings can be preserved, renewed and transformed into spaces where people, culture, stories and social interactions thrive.

Bibil Base

Bibil Base is an urban citizen space, located at the site of a derelict industrial structure, Mapo Oil Reserve Base. In 2010, a group called “Culture through play” started occupying the empty space to create a “co-production space” for citizens, managing the space, running activities and programmes that promote maker culture and sustainable everyday life. Currently, Seoul City is regenerating this large industrial site into a public park. The activists, citizens, architects are working with Seoul City in partnership, to define the long-term management of the site and to find shared meaning of this space.

Dongdaemun Rooftop Paradise

Dongdaemun Rooftop Paradise (DRP) is an urban community art project that uses abandoned urban space and objects and revives local resources in Dongdaemun, a district that has been the heart of garment industry in the city. DRP is creating a rooftop community that is different from its counterpart on the ground, Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a clothing retail zone that represents predatory capitalistic forces. For example, DRP works to create new spaces for the distributed network of garment producers who have been in the area for decades and young people to come together to create a different kind of urban relationships, economic activities and value.

Sewoon Arcarde

Sewoon Arcade is a long arcade that extends widely through Seoul City. It is a large structure that is 50m wide and 1km long. The building was built in the 1960s and captures the search for ideal of modernity. This old structure is being converted into an open and creative space run by makers and artist.

Seoul Station 7017 Project

The Seoul Station Overpass was designed to connect the east and west side of Seoul Station in the 1970s to cope with the increasing population and traffic congestion. In 2006, the elevated road was rated to have serious safety issues and was closed down. The immediate proposal was to tear down the deteriorated architecture but Seoul City chose to stop and think about other options. The safety issue was created mainly due to the heavy load of vehicles and the idea of making the overpass into a pedestrian road came into life. Since then, Seoul City has used this project as a way to work with citizens to invigorate the Seoul Station area.

Bukchon Village

We also visited Seoul’s Bukchon village, an experimental test bed for Internet of Things (IoT) in the city, where the trash bin can track the amount of waste in it and send it as data, and IoT allows drivers to share parking spaces in this region. 

After a day of visiting projects around the city and speaking with the people there, the members of Global Advisory Committee gathered at the City Hall the next day to meet with the Mayor.

The following highlights some of what the Advisory Committee shared with the Mayor on how to build a social innovation city, drawing inspiration from what’s happening on the ground.

1) Encourage randomness – don’t over plan things

In many of the urban projects we visited, there was imbalance between top-down and complete city-level plans and how communities interact with their spaces.

Ezio Manzini, of the DESIS Network, and others reiterated how innovation isn’t something that gets ‘finished’. Developing parts of the city that involve the community should be an on-going and open process.

How can city be a space that allows spontaneity and diversity?

Idea! Young and older people should regularly audit their cities and make suggestions for how things might change

2) Involve young people in shaping the future of the city

It is crucial to involve young people in the process of building future urban spaces. How do young people understand city spaces? How do they co-create the city spaces they live in? How can we ensure that young people have the right skills to engage in the process?

Professor Anil Gupta, of the Honeybee Network in India, said that young people, with their creativity and mischievousness, should be able to play with the city. They should not be passive beneficiaries, but rather be part of giving ideas and designing the city, and have a role in shaping the future of the city.

3) Foster cooperation in the city

Cities are not just spaces and buildings, they are made up of people. Peter Ramsden, of URBACT, highlighted the power of communities working together. Some of the biggest changes in societies in history have happened through community organising, from the election of President Obama, to efforts carried out by communities on behalf of their neighbourhood. Communities can also work together to raise alternative forms of finance, through crowdfunding, for example, and alternative models of ownerships though cooperative models. As cities develop, and technology and government play bigger roles, we should not lose sight of people power.

4) Convert space into time

Change power dynamics by sharing responsibility for city ownership.

Cities belong to everyone, so we should give everyone responsibility for looking after different parts of the city at different times.

Bibil Base prompted this point. The space is not only for activists, or for the residents in the immediate area, but it needs to be a public space where a wide range of people participate and engage, and feel ownership.

Idea! Create time share cities: Each ward could take care of the space for a month and we could rotate ownership.

5) Don’t get sucked into hype

The Internet of Things (IoT) gives everyday objects network connectivity and allowing them to send and receive data. The potential of this new phenomenon is only just being realised, and Seoul’s Bukchon village, which the advisory group visited is one of the most advanced examples globally.

Whilst Bukchon demonstrates an exciting window to the future, the advisory group warned that people should not be forgotten in this new space. The group raised concern that IoT could potentially increase isolation and destroy human relationships.

Idea! Create the Internet of Living Things

6) Prepare for changing needs of the city

The group had a chance to discuss the role of the city in this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.

Many of our public spaces in cities are built around “shopping” and “work”. With the new technologies, more and more shopping is done online and more people work remotely. What does this mean for city? How can we think about repurposing our cities to meet the needs of the changing future?

7) Consider long-term stewardship

Ada Wong, of Mad Institute, visited Seoul Station 7017 Project, a regeneration project that is turning the Seoul Station Overpass into a pedestrian path, pondered on the issue of long-term management of this project.

In NYC, Friends of the High Line, are the non-profit caretakers of the High Line, public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Seoul City needs to consider who can take on the role of managing these new spaces and initiatives, even after the current Mayor’s term is over.

We’re excited to continue to work with Seoul City and other cities across the world to make them more accessible, co-owned, and people-focused.