Exclusive: How Taipei’s Mayor designed a newly liveable city

By Ng Yi Ming

Interview with Ko Wen-je, Mayor of Taipei, Taiwan.

Taipei - Taiwan’s capital - was ranked top 5 in the world last year for improving its ‘liveability’. This nebulous term refers to a set of metrics including safety, greenery, education, air quality and publication transportation options. It’s increasingly important as global cities compete for top talent.

Heading up Taipei’s liveability work is Ko Wen-je, Mayor of Taipei, whose administration has come to be known for its design work - from revamping the background sounds of Taipei’s metro to redesigning local playgrounds.

“My personal philosophy is that politics revolves around the everyday lives of the people, around considering things based on the people’s needs,” Ko tells GovInsider. He sets out how he has used design, digital and openness to push Taipei forwards.

Background music

Within 100 days of Ko’s election as mayor in 2014, the Taipei metro launched the “Taipei Soundscape” project that brought in local musical talent to redesign Taipei’s metro music and provide a more pleasant commuting experience.

A three-day challenge was organised by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and involved 53 local representatives from composers to students, while an online competition calling for music compositions received a total of 447 submissions from the public.

By end 2017, Taipei’s metro music was completely revamped and composed by local musicians, with more soothing station gantry and in-train musical notifications, uplifting train arrival tunes on the platforms unique to each of the 5 metro lines, and special ambient soundtracks for selected stations that reflect the station’s identity. Ko says that giving different metro lines different sounds “is one way for us to de-emphasise uniformity or monotony, and to emphasise more openness and diversity”.

Making play more fun

The Taipei city government also launched the “Play for All” inclusive playgrounds project in 2016, “as we hoped that the park will be a friendly place where everyone can visit, where it's not only for ordinary children to play.”

As of 2019, Taipei redesigned and rebuilt 37 creative and inclusive playgrounds with more accessible surfaces, replacing the previous generic playground equipment which were impossible for disabled children in wheelchairs or the elderly to access. As Ko puts it: "all of this is about building empathy, where we don’t have to say that this society is primarily about the mainstream, where we agree that this society has different kinds of people, and say that everyone can share.”

The Play for All project also emphasises citizen participation in its design. Ko says that “our inclusive playgrounds are all according to local thinking, where everyone discusses what amenities they hope to have in their park.”

It also created an opportunity for the city government to support local design firms. Each park has a different “identity”, he says.

Using digital to listen more

Taipei launched a digital platform to get more views on these matters from citizens.The i-voting, platform was launched in 2016 for citizens to vote on municipal issues and propose new projects.

The platform has solved two apolitical issues in the past year alone. First, whether to adjust the opening hours of the Taipei Zoo to better meet maintenance needs. Second, did citizens want to paint a giraffe or magpies on the chimney of the Muzha Refuse Incineration Plant.

Taipei receives 50 to 60 citizen proposals every year. “Through i-voting, we are starting to actualise direct democracy in Taipei,” he says.

Harnessing smart city technologies


The next digital initiative is in the field of epayments. This month, all schools will be implementing cashless transactions through the installation of an unmanned store, essentially an automated vending machine that only accepts cashless payment methods.

Implementing cashless transactions is “the big thrust” of Taipei for the next year, Ko says, because “for Taipei to become a modern city, cashless transactions need to be established.” He is starting with the youth.

All schools have also upgraded to provide fast wifi connection, so that Taipei can achieve the Right to Internet Access and “otherwise education will lose its status as a tool to preserve social mobility,” Ko says.

They are also moving into e-learning to ensure that the best teachers area available to everyone. “We are constructing our Taipei version of the Khan Academy, it is an online portal with all the courses on it. I think this will be a revolutionary change of Taipei’s entire teaching methods,” he says.

Tomorrow’s Taipei

Taipei has strong lessons for other cities looking at citizen engagement, design thinking and epayments. The key is to bring industry along, he thinks. “During government procurement, we can request to external companies that if they don’t embark on digitalisation, we will not procure your goods,” Ko says. “We will compel the whole of Taiwan’s private enterprises to start digitalising”.

He is now embarking on a new challenge, running in the national elections under the auspices of a new political party. If he could be defined in one word, it would be ‘feedback’. “It is impossible for the government to do every single thing right,” Ko says. “We dare to establish new initiatives, then afterwards we readily accept criticism”.