SIX’s Memory of Mayor Won Soon Park of Seoul

13 July 2020

On 10 July 2020, the SIX community lost both an inspiration, but also a friend. Mayor Park Won-soon’s body was found on Bukak mountain in Seoul’s Seongbuk-gu neighbourhood, just after midnight on Friday local time.

Mayor Park has been a key part in SIX and the global social innovation movement for over a decade – he was a shining light of what is possible. In recent years, we have collaborated with Seoul Metropolitan Government, and other organisations the Mayor is connected to, including the 2013 SIX Summer School and the more recent Unusual Suspects Festival. Sojung and I have spent a lot of time in Seoul and I was honoured to sit on the Mayor’s Global Social Innovation Advisory committee.

A true social innovator

One similarity I notice in many people in social innovation is that it is impossible to introduce them at a conference as they have all had multiple different careers, across completely different industries. Mr Park’s colourful career was no different. 

As a young man, he was an activist and was arrested for rallying against the military dictator, President Park Chung-hee. He went on to be a human rights lawyer. He then founded a number of organizations, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which promotes democracy and human rights in South Korea and the Beautiful Foundation, based on the concept of reciprocity and giving. The Beautiful Store was inspired by the UK concept of a charity shop (not common in South Korea) where people could bring things to recycle.

Mr. Park then went on to establish the Hope Institute in 2006. With the organisational motto, ‘I hope, therefore, I am’, the Hope Institute was a think tank which sought alternatives for the society based on practice.It was funded entirely by citizens, whose photos were proudly posted on the wall as you went up to the stairs to the office. He was also proud to show you into his office, full of paper files and coloured post-it notes everywhere. It was in his office that guests were invited to open a door in the corner of the room. He would ask: ’Where can you find hope?’, only to reveal a mirror behind the door. This invitation was indiscriminate – I am sure funders, politicians, interns were all invited to open the door. Mr Park never got tired of reminding people they would find hope in themselves. 

I was lucky to get to know Park Won Soon in 2009, when he was running the Hope Institute. Sojung was working there at the time. I was working at the Young Foundation in the UK, coordinating SIX. After meeting Geoff Mulgan (then CEO of Young Foundation), Mr Park came to visit the UK several times. He always remarked that the Young Foundation and the Hope Institute were sister organisations (although there was no hope door in the Young Foundation!). 

As can be seen from the global tributes below, several words are repeated from his global friends — humility, energy, generosity, dedication and joy. These are values that drive the social innovation movement. 

Mr Park was always learning (and always working!). An incredible listener, he was always seeking new ideas to take back and try in Seoul. He had an international outlook, and there was no project that he would not try and replicate in Seoul. One of my favourites was ‘Seoul in Bloom’ and trying to sell in ‘guerilla gardening’, which he had learnt about during a trip in the UK which I organised for him. As well as being a deep listener, he always had a lot to share and so many new ideas, including Complaints Choirs, Social Invention competition, SI camps, 1000 Imaginations for Work and the Social Designer School. Thanks to his determination and dedication, many of these ideas of ordinary citizens turned into actions.

The hope door at the Hope Institute, image provided by Carmel O’Sullivan

A new kind of Mayor

As a Mayor, Mr Park became a political star, globally and among Seoul’s citizens. Three times elected to one of the largest, most complex cities in the world, he continued to act in the same vein as he did in his previous roles – creative, unpredictable, and decisive. He told me early on in his Mayorship, that going into politics was like going to prison, but that everyone needed to serve their time! 

He was a different kind of Mayor – he didn’t build a big bridge or a new stadium. Rather, he changed the way citizens engaged with the city. It is only through looking at all the hundreds of initiatives, and the way he implemented them, always driven by co-creation and empathy, that we can tell this extraordinary story. There are too many to mention, but to name a few: opening up city hall to make it a citizens hall, where people of all generations could spend time; putting a huge ear outside city hall where citizens can make suggestions to show he is listening to citizens (and then implementing the suggestions the citizens made), participatory budgeting, community energy co-ops, the establishment of the social innovation park and the mobile Mayor’s Office because, in his own words “changing the lives of Seoul citizens is only possible not in front of a desk, but within the lives of the citizens”.  In fact, there are 100 plus new initiatives in the city which Mayor Park is responsible for initiating, and all of them enable citizens to have more of a say and agency in how their city is run.

Mayor Park at SIX Summer School 2013 in Seoul City

A global inspiration

Mayor Park became a global figure. His approach was admired by people in every continent. I am proud that SIX could play a small part in sharing his approach, and he supported us to do so through several global projects including the SIX Summer School in 2013 and the Unusual Suspects Festival in Seoul in 2018

In 2016, Mayor Park established a global advisory committee on social innovation, inviting  Geoff Mulgan to be chair. As Geoff said in his tribute below, we always gained more than we gave. Now it’s our turn to give back. In 2019, the Advisors produced Future Trends for Innovative Cities, an inspiration for the Mayor with new ideas from other cities around the world. At our meeting last year, we presented the Mayor with a new idea – a legacy project to tell the world the story of how Seoul City turned into the world’s first truly people-powered city. Mayor Park’s tragic death makes this work even more important and we will do our very best to honour his memory and make sure that his work continues.

A friend

Despite being in such a powerful position, Mayor Park always made time for me, even if that mean going to his house at 10pm at night to see him in his official residence, or going to visit him in a shack in a deprived area (again late at night) where he was living in 40+ degrees with no air conditioning, to understand the needs of the local citizens. He was always personable, so much so that in the middle of an official meeting in his office, he asked me when I was going to marry a Korean man so I could move to Seoul and work with him, A visit didn’t go by, and I have been lucky enough to visit several times each year,  when he didn’t ask when I was going to open a SIX office in Seoul (which we kind of did temporarily)

Mr Park, I miss you. Thank you for everything you did for global citizens.

Louise Pulford, UK

Global Tributes

Members of the Social Innovation International Advisory group are:
Geoff Mulgan (chair, UK)
Ada Wong, Make a Difference Institute (Hong Kong)
Anil Gupta, Honeybee Network (India)
Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network (Italy)
Gabriella Gomez-Mont, founder of Laboratorio Para la Ciudad (Mexico)
Louise Pulford, SIX (UK)
Peter Ramsden, URBACT (UK)
Tim Draimin, McConnell Foundation (Canada)
Sunit Shrestha, ChangeFusion (Thailand)

Some tributes from the global advisors and some of Mayor Park’s friends around the world:

‘Mayor Park inspired thousands of people around the world in a way that no recent Mayor anywhere has done. His gentle intelligence showed what a truly compassionate and creative city could look like in the 21st century.    I knew Mr Park for 15 years and was honoured to chair a social innovation International Advisory Group for him as Mayor.  Although we were called advisers we always gained much more than we gave.  His death leaves a great gap.   He was unique both in what he did and how he did it, showing that leaders could be decent, kind and humble as well as decisive and effective.  As a result he will be remembered across the world long after other political leaders have been forgotten.   A bright light has gone out.  But we will all work hard to ensure his legacy survives, not just in Seoul but right across the globe.

Geoff Mulgan, UCL, UK

Mayor Park’s commitment to participation led to practical improvements in every day life for Seoul citizens. He took on the big issues of climate change, inequality and air pollution while encouraging bottom-up initiatives. His policies were an inspiration for European cities.

Peter Ramsden, UK

Mayor Park was a rare civic leader who fought all his life for probity and defending the rights of the disadvantaged. I recall the visit to the apartment where he stayed whole of summer without air conditioner to experience first hand the pain experienced by less privileged in Seoul. This was akin to Gandhian experiments with truth. Similarly, the experimental sites hitherto used for dumping waste and abandoned oil depots converted into co-creation sites for people from the neighbourhood children and others. 

His vision was cities world over have spaces for open art, culture and engagement with each other to enrich inclusive culture.

It was not just a desire to improve the civic space for creativity and inclusive innovation that he personified, it was equally a desire to learn from expert minds world over to improve what he was doing and how lessons of his experiments could be diffused world over. 

He fought against the corruption and lack of accountability in public services. Maybe that struggle did him in. 

May be, an award is Instituted in his memory for Most Inclusive Mayor in the world. When one walks through muddly water of social politics, some stains on clothes due to splashes of fast-moving cars of ambitious, indifferent drivers do get put!! I will leave them as a price paid for being bold and upright. Even Gandhi was not spared.

May his Soul rest on peace. In solidarity and prayers.

Anil KGupta, Honeybee Network, India

Mayor Park was a visionary, an inspiration to many of us, and an inspiration for many city leaders across the world. He had such a great love for Seoul and such deep faith in its citizens. And so he believed in a shared city, a just city, a city where innovation was not only technological, but also profoundly social. 

I am grateful we were able to share ideas over the years: across languages and cultures and borders, from one megalopolis to another.

I keep wishing we had time for more. He will be sorely missed, in South Korea and beyond, personally and professionally.

But I am sure his legacy will live on in the way his family, team and the people of Seoul will carry forward, towards the future; armed with courage, creativity, generosity. Full of a sense of what is possible, together. 

Gabriella Gómez-Mont, Mexico

Mayor Park was a friend, and his death leaves me speechlessly sad. But he was also a great change maker. And, of this, it is necessary to speak in the loudest possible voice. Honouring his memory means saying what he has done, and moving forward in the direction he has shown us with so much strength and clarity. For his city, his country and the whole planet.

Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network, Italy

A pioneering soul, your kind heart …opened a whole city to its own voices, 

letting citizens lead their changes.

Now.. your spirit encircles the world. 

Sunit Shrestha, ChangeFusion, Thailand

With very great sadness I pay tribute to Mayor Park Wan soon who was a pioneering innovator for the social good. He stood as a beacon to the world for human rights and people-centred development.

Tim Draimin, McConnell Foundation, Canada

Additional tributes from Mayor Park’s global friends

“Mayor Park turned his long and genuine interest in social innovation into a way of governing in one of the world’s great, complex cities. That is no small achievement. Tackling complex social challenges with a sense of determination matched by humility and inclusion is a pattern of policy and service design that, especially in these strange and difficult times, needs to be matched and extended across the world.”

Martin Stewart-Weeks, Public Purpose Pty Ltd, Australia

The sudden loss of Mayor Park has shocked the entire global social innovation field. Mayor Park was one of the greatest social innovators I had the honour to meet. I remember fondly our conversations years ago at the Social Innovation Exchange summits where he showed me that kindness and modesty can be powerful tools to create social change. He has inspired me with his wisdom and drives to make the world a better place. He will be dearly missed.

Joeri van den Steenhoven, The Netherlands

Mayor Park was the first global leader to understand his role as a social innovator. He taught us that complex challenges can only be addressed by listening to the citizens and communities in a deeper way. His experimental approach has inspired a new movement of public sector innovators globally.

Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, Agirre Lehendakaria Center University of the Basque Country, Spain

We will remember Mayor Park as the man who invited us to work in Seoul because he believed, like us, that people should be at the heart of city planning. We remember meeting him many times and having lunch in London, and his enthusiasm, determination and commitment to make the world a better place. Thanks to him we visited Seoul and learnt so much about what can be done in complicated cities, there is a lot  that London can learn from Seoul and the policies and projects that Mayor Park supported, from his time at the Hope Institute to his years as Mayor of Seoul. It is a terrible loss that he is no longer with us.

Nicola Bacon, Social Life, UK

Mr Park made a big impression on my work. His humility, emphasis on listening and his willingness to work across boundaries made him a special kind of Mayor. I hope that the impact of his work will continue.

Eddy Adams, URBACT Expert, UK