As part of a series of articles from A Better Way's new book Insights for a Better Way, So Jung Rim, looks at why mass participation is better than centralised power.
I started working in this field known as ‘social innovation’ at the Hope Institute, a think-and-do tank in South Korea, with the motto "I hope, therefore, I am". I was drawn to the Complaint Choir, a participatory project organised by the Hope Institute, which invited people to complain about any issues they want to talk about and then turn them into a song, which everyone sings together at the final concert.
Korea was going through turbulent times in the 1980s. As a child, I remember going into the city with my parents and seeing mass street demonstrations against the authoritarian regime in Seoul – my parents always apprehensive that they would lose me and my brother in the busy streets. I remember the protests and rallies in single file, people with the same colour ribbons around their forehead, shouting the same words – it seemed like a very orderly gathering with a centralised way of working.
The Complaint Choir represented something different and new for me. It showed individual dissent and in a creative way. The complaints were diverse, from women complaining how the standard subway handles were all standardised to average male height, young people complaining about pressures to achieve academic success to mums complaining about lack of green spaces or places to breastfeed.
Turning complaints into real action
In order to turn complaints into real action, we ran more projects at the Hope Institute such as the Social Invention Competition and Social Designer School that enabled citizens to participate and co-create solutions to the challenges they were facing. We saw social innovation as an end as well as means.
The idea of ‘social innovation’ really took off in Korea, especially in Seoul City, when the founder of the Hope Institute, Wonsoon Park, became the Mayor of Seoul in 2011. With a strong mandate from this ‘social innovation mayor’, Seoul City created more funding, spaces, and projects for social innovation.
At the heart of the social innovation movement led by Seoul City was the idea of participatory democracy, opening up different spaces and ways for citizens to contribute to decision-making.
It would seem that the Seoul story is one of success but I think we are at a very critical moment in our social innovation movement. While the general pathways for mass participation have increased, I think one of the unintended oversights has been around the continuous effort to engage with the most vulnerable population in our society who are generally left behind.
Who gets to participate? Generally, people with time and resources. The participatory channels intend to decentralise power, however, we must recognise that this is not a neutral process. The power distributed could be very unequal. The agenda that is discussed through participatory process could be the agenda of a limited section of the society, who are more vocal or has the time and resources to engage.
'Difficult to find a way to engage'
I recently had a call with an activist friend working at a Korean women’s rights organisation, supporting young people who are victims of sexual exploitation – the ‘hard to reach’ groups with complex needs. She told me that she has visited social innovation hub spaces (which offer support and resources for social innovation projects) in Seoul. However, it was difficult for her to find a way to engage. She could not find a way to connect the ‘heaviness’ of her work, filled with stories of abuse and exploitation, with the ‘lightness’ of the space. I imagine that the young people she works with rarely engage with social innovation spaces in Seoul.
Frances Westley notes: "The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to overall social and ecological resilience".
The challenge is to stay open and continue to create ways to bring in people that are excluded -- the most vulnerable in our society. This diversity is not something that is just a ‘nice to have’ or a ‘right thing to do’. If we fail to do so, we risk losing valuable viewpoints and contributions of these excluded people. We risk being less resilient as a society as a whole.
Fast forward a few years and I currently work at the Social Innovation Exchange in the UK and we are taking the Unusual Suspects Festival to Seoul this year. The festival is a platform to bring together diverse voices in society to craft solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges. It’s our job to bring together an unusual mix of voices and collaborators.
We act as translators or mediators to give people the autonomy to talk to each other, build relationships and collaboration, shape the agenda and have new conversations. It’s our job to create safe spaces for people like my friend and the young people she works with to engage and provide different perspectives and find shared meaning and action forward with others.
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This essay is one of a series being produced by A Better Way in Insights for a Better Way: Improving Services and Building Communities which is published by Civil Exchange, in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust. The book will be published on 4 July.