A giant red ear greets visitors at the gates of Seoul’s City Hall. Speak into it, and your voice is broadcast to civil servants inside.

The sculpture is symbolic of the change that the Seoul Innovation Bureau is driving within City Hall. It was set up to bring about radical changes across the government, getting ideas from citizens and working with departments to implement them.

Simply shifting tasks between departments is not enough, says Jun Hyo Gwan, Director-General of the Seoul Innovation Bureau. “New ways and approaches are required, and they should be based on compassionate attention to citizens,” he says.

GI speaks to him on Seoul’s citizen-led projects and living labs.

What it does

The unit reports directly to Mayor Park Won-soon. He set it up in 2013 with a vision to make Seoul a “city of innovation”. This year the bureau has a budget of $70 million.

It is cutting out excessive bureaucracy, and turning to citizens for alternative solutions. “It has dramatically reduced unnecessary procedures and content – convention practices at the time,” Jun says.

It’s key tool has been to engage citizens in getting ideas and sharing resources. This has “brought about change in the entire administration”, Jun says. Until 2013, talk of “innovation” had been the remit of science and technology experts.

Living Lab

This year the bureau will launch a living lab to test solutions for the most complex forces shaping the city – rising property prices displacing poorer families, youth unemployment, healthcare, the sharing economy, and technology.

The lab will use a combination of diverse methods to gather and test ideas through on-site experiments, pilot projects, workshops and conferences.

Solutions are cross-cutting and departments must work together. This is its biggest challenge, Jun believes. In the past, tasks have been clearly divided between agencies, and the bureau must find a way to overcome the inertia. “No matter how many good ideas are drawn from citizens, unless the appropriate divisions accept and develop them, they are of no use.”

Key schemes

One of the most prominent examples of citizen-led change is Seoul’s night bus. The idea came from a citizen on Twitter, and gathered support from many others. The city used data from people’s phones to set late-night bus routes, analysing the locations of 3 billion phone calls. The buses now run on eight routes between midnight and 5am.

Next, the bureau has implemented sharing schemes. It taps into unused resources across the city from housing to transport, and is a capstone project for the unit.

Drivers are sharing parking spaces, saving the city 300 billion won (US$261 million) in new parking lots. People with long-term parking contracts rent them out when they are not in use. The government encourages them with a 50% discount on monthly parking fees.

Elderly citizens are renting out spare rooms to college students. Older residents get extra income and a subsidy for renovating their homes, and students get cheaper accommodation.

After successful pilots, the schemes are being expanded to all 25 districts in the city.

This year the bureau is looking at a new “youth policy”, Jun says. The number of young, employable is on the decline, while jobs decrease and the cost of living rises. “Now is the time to boldly invest in the young”, he says.

The city will provide allowances to help citizens find training, jobs, and set up new businesses. It has set up community and business centres called “youth zones” offering places for people to meet.

The government has set up a new committee of youth leaders and business representatives to get ideas on policies and projects that city hall will implement.

How it works

What sets the Seoul Innovation Bureau apart is that it engages citizens from the earliest stages of planning for a project. It wants to be at “a level where citizens can themselves participate in administration from decision making to implementation”, Jun says.

It has set up an online platform offering payments to citizens to canvass ideas. People can discuss the ideas back and forth, and vote on them. Departments have 10 days to review the five with the most votes. Citizens can win up to 200,000 won (US$174) if their suggestion is implemented.

The city is publishing nearly all government documents, including financial reports and mayoral conversations. “Seoul is disclosing over 90% of documents produced in the government and a huge amount of public data”, he says.

When more in-depth discussions are needed, departments meet with citizens in person. For instance, budgetary proposals submitted online are discussed face-to-face with citizens to hear the details.

The city holds an annual “ideas expo” to collect suggestions from citizens. Around 30,000 people turn up every year, and in the last three years, it has collated 1,000 suggestions. “Results of the proposed policies are continuously being shared with citizens,” says Jun.

This constant rush of ideas creates more work for civil servants and they are turning to businesses for help. Some projects are being run by the private sector rather than departments, Jun says. “When a project is beyond what a department can handle, a variety of alternatives emerge and cooperation with the private sector, in particular, creates synergy.”

No matter how many citizens shout their frustrations into the big red ear, they will be pointless if civil servants don’t make changes. The Seoul Innovation Bureau is making sure ideas don’t fall on deaf ears.