“I assume you have heard of ‘Gangnam Style’,” says Park Won-soon, the Mayor of Seoul.

The glamorous Gangnam district of Seoul has gained international fame from Korean pop music. But the Mayor’s focus is on Gangnam’s neglected neighbour – an area to the north of the Han river called Gangbuk.

In July, as Park began his third term as the Mayor of Seoul, he left his official residence and moved into a low-cost house in Gangbuk for a month to experience life as a local citizen. “The reason I did it came from the judgement that problems could only be observed and solved by putting myself right in the middle of the citizens’ lives,” he tells GovInsider.

In an exclusive interview, the Mayor of Seoul discusses his plans for the third term.

Seoulpay

During this year’s elections, he committed to use technology to build a “people-oriented metropolitan city”.

His latest tech initiative is a payments app, built by the city, which will be launched at the end of this year. Like China’s Alipay, Seoulpay will allow people to pay by scanning a QR code with their smartphones. There are plans to expand the app to the rest of South Korea by 2020.

The app will give a boost to local businesses, the Mayor believes. Currently, they lose up to 30% of their operating profits from credit card transaction fees. The app will allow them to avoid these costs while transacting with customers.

In another tech-enabled policy for businesses, Seoul is providing entrepreneurs with better access to data for them to plan future investments. The government has analysed data on 43 types of small businesses, and published an online map visualising demand for businesses in different parts of the city.

Entrepreneurs can use this to find the best locations to set up shop before they make any investment. “Citizens who want to start their own businesses can use this service to refer to whether there is a strong or weak business in a particular area, and increase their level of success in business,” the Mayor says.

On the website, entrepreneurs can view digital maps of the city’s districts, zoom into specific neighbourhoods, and toggle site options to check the exact locations and number of stores already in operation with the business they want to start. They can also view the sales figures in each neighbourhood to estimate their potential profits.

Digital Democracy

A long-running focus for Mayor Park has been digital democracy, which he has pledged to expand upon. In 2017, Seoul launched the Democracy Seoul platform where citizens can discuss and deliberate on upcoming policies. Citizens can decide how the city’s budget will be allocated, and vote on the policies they want implemented. “It is essential to gather public opinion continuously”, he notes.

Over 3.6 million citizens took part in shaping the city’s “one less nuclear power plant” policy, Park says. The policy will slash city’s energy use equivalent to the capacity of two nuclear power plants.

Government participatory schemes often involve citizens in simpler community-level decisions. But Seoul’s approach shows that they can be part of more complex, long-term policies. “Citizens directly participate not only in establishing children’s playgrounds, but also in matters regarding urban planning,” Park says.

During Park’s second term, the city launched the 2030 Seoul Plan, a citizen-led guideline for all urban planning and policies that the city will pursue until 2030. It was “worked out solely through the participation of citizens”, Park says, involving a 100-member group of citizens, officials and experts.

The city has a mobile voting app where citizens can submit policy suggestions. For example, citizens can suggest bus routes, driving restrictions, lessons for after-school programmes, and even whether gay marriage should be legalised. By 2016, the app has received over 4,400 policy proposals from citizens, and 181 of them have since been adopted by the city.

Park’s focus on citizens’ participation stems from his early days as a social justice lawyer and human rights activist. As a university student in the 1970s, he was expelled for protesting against the government’s policies and imprisoned for four months. He later set up an anti-corruption non-profit to monitor government practices.

Park’s political philosophy is that “politics is about solving the problems of the citizens, that politicians should be close to where the people who suffer the most are, and that the answer is always at the scene”.

A new ‘Gangbuk Style’

Entrepreneurs are often pictured as young 20-somethings, but an MIT study found that the average age of startup founders is actually 42. Age should be no bar, so why can’t startups be setup by people in their 70s – or 80s?

The Seoul government has set up a scheme for the elderly to take up new jobs and even start businesses. It is setting up five 50+ Campuses across Seoul – a school where retirees have access to education, job opportunities, counselling and a space for social interactions. These will be supported by 19 small centres run by the city’s districts to allow the elderly to access support and services. They will “provide integrated support from policy making, education to job searching and opportunities for employment,” he shares.

By 2026, 20.8% of Seoul’s population will be aged 65 or above. Today, these citizens aged 50 to 64 years old are anxious about retirement, and in the past, “have been politically in the blind spot”, the Mayor says.

The city wants to encourage people to “actively participate” in their old age. It has launched the “50+ Foundation” to design policies that will prepare people to live longer lives. It will include schemes for jobs, healthcare, culture, education, and building a new social consensus around what it means to be elderly.

The city is also building new infrastructure to allow the elderly to travel easily, particularly in areas with steep hillsides and narrow streets. The city is building gondola lifts and monorails on the slopes. It will convert abandoned homes along narrow paths into shelters, so the elderly can rest and recuperate. “Mobility rights are part of the basic rights that should be given to everyone without discrimination, regardless of gender, age, physical condition”, the Mayor says.

Rising housing rental

At the same time, the city’s younger residents are under pressure from skyrocketing housing prices. Millennials have been hit the hardest by rising rents, delaying marriage and children to save on living costs. “We will expand the provision of public rental housing to ensure better rights to housing for the citizens,” Park says.

The city is building public apartments for citizens to rent for cheap. More than half of these units will be given to millenials to encourage them to start families, Park says. Seoul has housed 130,000 households in its rental flats since 2011 and plans to build another 240,000 units by 2022.

The city has remodelled underused buildings to provide “a space for the youth community, or into a rental house to attract young people.” This year, Seoul purchased another 1,000 vacant homes to restore and lease to newlyweds at a low price.

Another point of concern for the city is the pressure on young mothers. Women are inclined to stop working after giving birth, or are less likely to have children to focus on their careers. “This is an issue which is also connected with job creation, problems of career discontinuity of women, and low fertility,” Park notes.

The government is building daycare centres to support young mothers. “What would follow will be an era of public responsibility in childcare”, he says. In Gangbuk, the city is setting up 486 public daycare centres and a city-run children’s hospital. Park hopes that these daycare centres will encourage married couples to have children whilst still keeping women in the workforce.

Park’s time in the Gangbuk flat helped him find a “new direction for a balanced development” of the city’s future, he says. “You could expect ‘Gangbuk style’ coming next”.

This new vision for Seoul could be a more inclusive city, where citizens shape policies and 60-somethings launch startups.