Skip to content
Seoul Smart City Portrait: The Power of Citizen Participation
Lisa Smith27. August 20188 min read

Seoul Smart City Portrait: The Power of Citizen Participation - Part 1

This city portrait is in two parts. This first part describes the reorganization of the Seoul Municipal Government in order to empower citizens and create a stronger climate of citizen participation at all possible administrative levels. The second part, Seoul Smart City: Collaboration & Smart Solutions, takes a closer look at some of the specific smart solutions being implemented by the city.

A Smart City with Seoul

With a population of around 10 million citizens and another 15 million people living in its wider reaches, Korea’s capital qualifies as one of the world’s great mega-cities. Seoul’s residents, which make up around 20% of the total Korean population as of early 2018, are familiar with the typical urban woes caused by pollution, traffic congestion, the limited availability of affordable housing and almost out-of-control population growth. Mayor Park Won-soon, elected to office in 2011, knew that a top-down strategy to resolve these issues wasn’t the right answer. The heart and soul of a city is its people, and the new administrative philosophy that Park put into practice emphasizes the value of each and every one of them.

Previous attempts to use citizen committees in municipal government advisory roles failed when it was determined that they were supplementary, their engagement limited. Seoul’s Civic Participation Administrative Philosophy enables more active participatory governance by directly involving the city’s residents in co-operative policymaking, focusing on the role of the citizen innovator to guide the growth and development of the city.

In practice, the extent to which citizens are able to participate in the governing of their city varies with government and project level, but the bureau set up by and run under the office of the mayor – the Seoul Innovation Bureau – is focused on civic co-operation and is responsible for overseeing public-private partnerships, innovation planning, youth and human rights policies, conflict resolution and the development of active local communities. It is telling that the government’s organizational chart now places citizens at the very top of the governance hierarchy. The implementation of this new philosophy and the creation of the Innovation Bureau were big steps toward Seoul becoming a third- or even fourth-generation smart city.

Creating a Culture of Citizen Participation

The Seoul Innovation Bureau operates on many levels, the key to which is the engagement of the city’s residents. It has increased citizen participation in city governance by making several different channels available for citizen input. Citizens are invited to debate current and major policy issues and to participate in problem-solving for issues faced by their community, both online and offline in ‘field offices’ visited by the mayor, where he can discuss issues directly with the citizens being affected by them.

In addition to citizen input on government policies, Seoul has recruited groups of citizens to work within various levels of the city’s administration, and separate groups have been invited to function as part of the city’s monitoring and auditing systems. This sort of cooperation establishes trust between the city government and the people. The city also encourages the engagement of its citizens by holding innovation competitions to find new smart solutions to Seoul’s problems and has provided a public collaborative space in the City Hall for events and activities such as discussions and lectures as well as exhibitions and community recreation programs.

Extending the accessibility of such collaboration and innovation activities, especially to less mobile participants, are the Seoul government’s online services. These have evolved since the 1990s from chiefly the provision of information to the people into an open and interactive platform, hosting forums on policy and opinions, a digital complaints and proposals system, as well as an electronic voting option. The platform is now also usable via smart mobile technologies, turning the previously one-way communication into an agile conversation and enabling the public co-creation of policies and projects.

Bart Gorynski, Managing Partner, bee smart city GmbH"The City of Seoul has recognized the importance of a citizen-centric strategy to successfully develop and implement smart city solutions. Citizen innovators - or 'smartivists' - as we call them, play an increasingly important role in the creation of smarter cities.”
, recognizes Bart Gorynski, Managing Partner of bee smart city.

Enabling Seoul’s Citizen Innovators

The Seoul municipal government knew from experience that it wasn’t enough to have open channels for citizen participation and to just hope that people would use them – in order to enable citizens to engage with their city and develop innovative solutions for their problems, some sort of guiding step was required. For citizens interested in the concept of Partnership Governance, the city set up a school dedicated to instructing people in how the system works. Since 2016, it has been holding discussion-based education programs and training sessions for people from both the public and private sectors, including a forum for expressing less positive experiences. Classes place a focus on the citizen-oriented future of Seoul, communication skills, and how to design goals for desired smart city project outcomes. The city estimates that one in every hundred people has so far engaged and participated in some way in their local community affairs.

By 2020, Seoul hopes to become a globally leading digital capital. Instead of taking charge of projects and services that are currently being adequately provided by the private sector, it intends to focus on filling in the gaps, delivering such services to underprivileged or otherwise excluded demographics, and applying technology where needed to resolve the problems voiced by its citizens. As part of this venture, in mid-2016, the Seoul Digital Foundation was established with the goal of driving and facilitating digital innovation in the city. It is responsible for fostering a digital economy, researching and consulting on information and communication technologies and their potential applications to solve Seoul’s problems. It also manages various digital education programs to improve the digital literacy of Seoul’s residents, including a Digital Innovation School, classes in coding, and hands-on activities like maker fairs and hackathons, providing citizens with the technical knowledge to support their innovation.

Open Seoul

Another major enabler is openness. Transparency in governance not only leads to greater trust between a people and their government, but also further encourages citizen participation and engagement. Open data allows people to be better informed about the things most relevant to them and to generate smarter solutions to their problems. With this in mind – and in order to accelerate the progress of a country-wide directive toward increased openness that dates back to the year 2000 – the Korean Government 3.0 Vision included plans to disclose information generated by public institutions, and to create two platforms, one for public access to government information and services, and one for public access to data: a public information portal (, and an open data portal ( Such measures have seen Korea’s government ranked higher than that of any other country for the past two years (2016, 2017) in the OECD Open Data Index.

Supporting these efforts, Seoul became a member of the international Open Government Partnership in 2011 and is well into the implementation stage of its plans, which focus on citizen participation, building e-government initiatives and improving the quality and accessibility of public services. The commitments established by the city through the Open Government Partnership, which were evaluated to be already around 20% complete, included a promise to disclose its progress toward becoming more open, more transparent, more sustainable and more responsible on its own open portals (, With citizen participation as a core theme of the plan’s design, the city hopes that these steps will encourage citizen innovation and forge strong public-private cooperation.

Dr. Alexander Gelsin, Managing Partner, bee smart city GmbH"Open data represents a powerful tool to facilitate citizen innovation and to foster citizen participation and co-creation. As a result, the use of open data strengthens open government policy and enriches the ecosystem of smart city solutions.”,
says Dr. Alexander Gelsin, Managing Partner at bee smart city.

Public-Private Partnerships in Seoul

Another responsibility of the Seoul Innovation Bureau is to facilitate the formalization of public-private collaborations to resolve complex social problems. Having recognized that previous citizen participation was limited in part by its restriction to the lowest levels of government, the new philosophy has enabled active civil participation at various levels of the administration. These newly styled partnerships are intended to foster a more cooperative public-private climate and can be separated into two major categories based on the level of government involved – local projects and municipal projects.

At the municipal level, projects can be suggested by citizens and are discussed between the citizen and the city’s administration. The evolved concept of the project can then become a part of the public budget, with about ten billion won (almost 9 million USD) per year being devoted to such initiatives. The full development cycle of the smart solutions that come out of these partnerships, from planning to implementation and evaluation, is then carried out cooperatively between the citizens and the Seoul Municipal Government.

New groups and policies have been generated to make citizen participation smoother across municipal and local levels of government, establishing connections between the city’s central and regional administrative levels. The Partnership Governance Committee is the citizen’s branch, discussing ideas and initiatives before they are brought further to the Community Innovation Plan, which is then responsible for selecting and prioritizing projects, as well as for their implementation and evaluation at the community level. In 2017, thirty-five projects initiated by citizens were included in the city’s budget, and fifteen city boroughs had adopted this operating model – around half of which have already begun executing smart solutions co-created by Seoul’s people.

For examples of these solutions being implemented in Seoul, please see part II of this smart city portrait.

For more best practice solutions and to exchange knowledge and lessons learned, join the leading global smart city network & community operated by bee smart city. Connect with thousands of peers and discover hundreds of solutions. Register today and contribute to creating smarter cities and communities.




Lisa Smith

Lisa Smith holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Melbourne, where she studied a mixture of arts and sciences. She has worked as an editor for Wiley’s materials science program since 2010, and works on both fiction and nonfiction writing and editing projects in her spare time.