Conversation with Social Innovation Task Force from the Government of South Korea

In conversation with Nowon Park, Jun Hyung Shim, Sooyeon Lee. 

Interviewed by So Jung Rim
Photographs by Kwansoo Ahn

This month, we connected with a delegation from the Social Innovation Taskforce from the South Korean government, representing four different departments, Ministry of Interior and Safety, Ministry of Strategy and Finance, Ministry of Science and ICT, and Ministry of Labour and Employment. They visited Amsterdam and London to learn about social innovation in other countries. They connected with KennislandPakhuis de ZwijgerDe Ceuvel in Amsterdam and SIXNestaA Better Way network and SPREAD-i in London. 

From left to right: Nowon Park, Jun Hyung Shim, Sooyeon Lee

Why social innovation? Why now?

Last year, the Candlelight Revolution swept the country and we now have a new national in South Korea. The new president is emphasising social value in our country, and whilst trust for the government has been lost, there is a desire amongst citizens to restore their faith in elected officials. Under the trend and direction of social value, we are trying to innovate our government and we are focusing specifically on social innovation.

However, we remain at a crisis point – we need to rethink our government system and our social system. Currently, the economy is getting worse, youth employment is non-existent and more people are becoming marginalised, both economically and socially. There is a consensus that a big shift in our society is needed.

Also, there is recognition that the government does not hold the best solutions for social challenges. People, who have lived experience and know the local problems, hold valuable information and ideas. They can be part of the solution. One of the key purposes of the current government is to support these citizen-led initiatives.

What is the national government’s social innovation strategy? What is the main focus?

There are three main focus areas in the national government social innovation strategy.

First of all, we are focusing on creating and enabling ecosystems for social innovation, which consists of creating new collaboration spaces, new funding revenues, online digital platforms and building learning networks.

Second, we are selecting key issue areas and carrying out initiatives with high impact potential, through open application calls. There are three main areas we are focusing on:

  • How do you create a culture where people are not afraid to fail and try new things? 
  • How do we foster a network approach for community care? How can we view welfare as something more relational?
  • How do we utilise unused/empty spaces? How do we shift from the focus on buildings (the hardware) to focus on the content (the software)?

Third, we are supporting ways to internalise social values and make sharing easier, especially in the public sector.

What do you think is the role of government in growing social innovation?

We think that our role is to have a bird eye view and identify and evaluate big social challenges faced our society. Our role is also as a connector, who can convene and unite the stakeholders who are part of the solution. Additionally, we are a supporter – we encourage and help people to come up and experiment with new ideas and new directions for our society.

What are the biggest challenges you face in enabling social innovation in South Korea?

We have political, cultural, and institutional challenges.

Social innovation, as a concept, is seen as something from the political left. This is largely because Wonsoon Park has brought the agenda forward in Korean society and is the biggest advocate of social innovation as Mayor of Seoul City.

Social innovation is seen as a partisan word. The main point of criticism is that a social innovation budget will be used to support many activists and practitioners, mainly from civil society. Civil society organisations are seen as more progressive and often in opposition to those with conservative perspectives.

Furthermore, the political challenge is exacerbated, as culturally, the understanding of what is social is very weak in Korea. Traditionally, South Korea is and has been a government and corporation driven society. When we first talked about social economy, we found ourselves in a similar situation. People were uncomfortable with the word ‘social’ and asked if it meant socialist. We need more discussion on what ‘social’ is and the concept should be broadened.

We even considered not using the phrase ‘social innovation’ as it can be distracting.

Thirdly, we face institutional challenges. Unlike traditional public sector projects, social innovation focuses on citizens leading the ideation, planning as well as implementation of projects. Currently, Korean institutional frameworks separate strictly the planning and implementation stage. So it is very hard to provide financial support for people and organisations who have ideas and proposals.

All projects have to go through a very strict bidding process. Financial support does not include staff time cost and only provide for project cost. At the core of social innovation are human beings, yet we are unable to provide financial support for efforts of these people.

The most effective way to address these challenges is to create a public consensus, and influence policy. The reason we are working on the high impact projects is to collect successful cases and stories and spread them nationally, so that more people recognise the need for, and value of, social innovation. Then we can create systems change. However, this takes a long time. And unfortunately in South Korea, there is a ‘pali pali’ [Hurry Up] culture, so as a result there is little time to build up the momentum needed for systems change.

So we need to lay the right groundwork quickly, so that the social innovation agenda can be continued and embedded. Geoff Mulgan highlighted that we are in a good moment for social innovation in South Korea. There is both political commitment from the president, a strong mandate form the people and alignment with the capital city government. We recognise that we have to make the most of this current moment so that innovation continues 20-30 years.

What are some ways the global social innovation community can work with South Korean government in their social innovation journey?

As we are in the beginning of our journey, we need to have evidence and research that shows us what works and what doesn’t, through global case studies. Many governments around the world have been thinking about the role of government and have experimented different strategies. We would like to collaborate on research and experimentation projects.

We want to build on global collaboration, beyond getting information. How can we get continue exchanging best practices and solutions and get connected to other organisations that have know-how?

In order for Korean society to be more open, we also need to learn about how social innovation applies to existing systems. What is the perspective of other national governments and institutions such as the EU?

Also, even though the idea of social innovation is new, South Korea has many initiatives in the local government level that are working. We hope that these cases can be shared with other countries, and to perhaps conduct comparative studies with other countries. We hope that these cases and place-based innovations can exchange and connect with other places around the world on a local level.