The Citizen as Mayor. Citizen participation in social innovation

Peter Ramsden

By Peter Ramsden, on April 25th, 2016

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The subject of the Eurocities Social Forum in Nantes on March 16th was citizen involvement in social innovation.  Cities are now leading Europe on social innovation across a range of fields from health and care to integrating migrants.  The message of the conference was that for the city to engage with citizens it is going to have to change itself and particularly the internal culture.  

The meeting heard of many examples from Europe including the URBACT case study on Amersfoort and beyond but perhaps the most inspiring was not from Europe at all.  Seoul is widely recognised to be the most socially innovative city in the world through the leadership of former citizen activist Wonsoon Park, now in his second term (see also our previous post here).  After making his name as a human rights lawyer in the 1980s Mr Park set up the Hope Institute as a social enterprise to work to improve conditions in the city in 2002.  In 2011 he was elected as an independent after a campaign that combined social media and town hall meetings at which citizens made their own proposals.

His mantra is that the citizen is the mayor. He makes this fact by a series of radical policies that have created two way dialogue between city hall and the 10million citizens.  Citizens can become assistant mayor for a day so that they can see from the inside how city hall works.  When there is a major issue Mr Park moves the City hall to the district and stays there until the problem is solved. So far the Mobile Mayor’s office has been used 19 times and is credited with solving some of the city’s most acute problems.

Seoul has been benchmarked as the world’s leading digital city.  You can get a free but slow wifi connection in any part of the city, smart phones are ubiquitous and there are thousands of free hot spots.  A dozen city websites cater for specific needs, from emergency response for storms or terrorism to crowd-sourcing future policies.

Their approach to participation goes deep.  A randomly selected citizen panel advises on an annual budget of 20m USD.  600 City Hall meeting rooms have been opened up for 20,000 citizen meetings. If all goes to plan, by 2030 the city will have reduced carbon emissions by 20million tons and particulates in the air by 40%.  New green spaces are being created including a version of New York’s High Line on a former urban motorway.

The city is a leading sharing city, with hundreds of small-scale citizen-led sharing initiatives so that you can share a suit for an interview, share a book in a tower block, or if you are a student share an apartment with an elderly person.  Each sharing initiative seeks to bring elements of reciprocity, community and activity to strengthen social cohesion.  Citizens in Seoul suffer from stress, isolation and anxiety just as in every other city. Across South Korea as a whole, suicide rates are the second highest in the world with elderly poverty and stress among young people as the main drivers.  Sharing is seen as a way of reconnecting citizens, who mostly live in high rise blocks, with each other and also to build more resilient communities.

The administration in Seoul is just as rigid and difficult to change as our own administrations in European cities.  The suffer from departmentalism, bureaucracy and lack of integration. The key focus has been the emphasis on changing the internal culture of the 17,000 staff organised in 30 departments.  They have developed a new policy approach “Cheong Chek” or policy by listening.

The meeting also heard about how European cities are developing new solutions.  Turin is building up an ecosystem approach to social innovation and at the end of 2015 opened the Centre for Open Innovation.

A number of good practices from Nantes were showcased. These included a refugee centre housing 70 people including families with children.  The centre provides wrap around support including extensive psychological services to aid those who have been traumatised in their countries of origin.


Outside in or inside out?

My feeling after this meeting was that the major question cities need to address is how to contribute to and perhaps organise their social innovation ecosystems.  They can do it ‘Outside In’, meaning that the city relies on outside organisations to pursue its social innovation ambitions, typically by funding a range of independent bodies that are in the city. These include coworking spaces, labs, centres, incubators and financial instruments or the new style Social Innovation Factory.  Or they can do it ‘inside out’  where they create an innovation unit inside the city.  Seoul is a large city and it has done both, with a large unit inside the city but also considerable investment in the actors in its social innovation park which are independent.  Perhaps outside in and inside out is the best of both worlds.


Other European examples presented at the meeting

Anderlecht in Brussels hosts the recently launched Social Innovation Factory,  a type of accelerator working across Flanders that uses a virtual currency for payments for social innovation services between peers.

Among the URBACT cities, Gdansk and Paris are running participative budgeting exercises. Gdansk is lead partner and Paris is a partner in the new network Boost Inno. Genova on the other hand is working on its social media links with citizens and is leading an URBACT network on the same topic called Interactive Cities. Eindhoven, one of the leading city examples of triple and quadruple helix approaches is looking into citizen participation in service design with other partners of Change! network.


Photo credits: Seoul Innovation Bureau



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