i3 | January 03, 2020

Seoul: A World Class Smart City

by 
Cindy Loffler Stevens

Rolling out a true smart city takes a lot of experience. Born in a village in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea, in 1956, Park Won-soon entered Seoul National University in 1975, and shortly after, was arrested for participating in a student protest against the militant dictatorship of President Park Chung Hee. He was imprisoned for four months and expelled from university. Later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Dankook University.

Park passed the state bar examinations in 1980 and worked as a public prosecutor in the Daegu District Court in Gyeongsang Province from 1982 to 1983. Returning to Seoul, he launched into private practice as a human rights lawyer defending political activists. In 1991, Park earned a diploma in international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the University of London. In 1993, he went to the U.S. as a visiting research fellow in the Human Rights Program of the School of Law at Harvard University.

Back in South Korea in 1995, Park founded the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic organization formed to promote democracy and secure human rights in South Korea. In 2001, he founded the Beautiful Foundation to promote a culture of philanthropy in South Korea. And in 2002, he founded the Beautiful Store, a second-hand store to spread the culture of giving and sharing with others. In 2006, Park founded the Hope Institute, a think tank with the goal of applying policy alternatives based on the ideas of ordinary citizens. Known as a “social designer,” Park has dedicated his career to bringing about fresh change. In 2006, his efforts were recognized with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, called the “Nobel Prize of Asia.”

Park was elected as Mayor of Seoul in October 2011 as an independent candidate, with the support of the Democratic Party and the Democratic Labor Party. His slogan was “the citizens are the mayor” and he pursued collaborative governance with citizens in the policy decision-making process. He realized the importance of strengthening city-to-city cooperation while tackling common challenges. He assumed leadership responsibilities in government organizations, such as WeGO, an organization to promote e-governance and smart cities, GSEF, an organization to find solutions to social problems through social economy, ICLEI, C40 and more.

He was re-elected as Mayor in June 2014 for a second term, and then again in June 2018 for a third term. He is the longest serving mayor of Seoul in the history of South Korea. He talked with i3 about Seoul as one of the first smart cities in the world.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon

What makes a city smart?

The “dynamics of the city” and the “participation of citizens” are the factors that make a city smart. A “smart city” is the product of mankind's agony and introspection on how to make life happier and fuller, and the output of both the city and the citizens by actively realizing and using state-of-the-art technologies. Moreover, a smart city has become the most useful method to enhance the quality of life of citizens and an efficient tool to resolve global urban challenges. Beyond its dominant status as the best global e-government in the world for seven consecutive years, Seoul is now leaping forward as a leading smart city in the world based on big data and new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

More than anything else, the voluntary participation of Seoul citizens and the combination of new attempts and innovative challenges utilizing cutting-edge technologies by the public and private sectors are making Seoul’s own smart city differentiate itself from other cities. The “Digital Mayor’s Office” on one side of my office symbolizes the status of Seoul as a global smart city. It is a smart city digital platform where I can see the status of the entire city at a glance in real time. It is one of the indispensable practices that the world’s mayors and delegations learn when they visit Seoul. Professor Susan Crawford of the Harvard Law School highly praised it as the sprout of democracy. It is a representative item of Seoul to present at CES 2020. I hope many people visit the Seoul booth in Eureka Park and enjoy the charm of the smart city of Seoul.

How is Seoul paving the way for other cities to become smart cities?

Ever since Rutgers University in the U.S. started the Global E-Governance Survey on the major 100 cities around the world, Seoul has never let go of its number one position in the performance of municipal e-government. Seoul is a state-of-the-art city that boasts the world’s best information and communication network where people can enjoy free high-speed Wi-Fi even in moving buses and subway trains. It also has the highest retention rate of smartphone users on the globe.

Based on these strengths, Seoul is now writing a new chapter in the history of smart cities in various areas that are closely linked with the lives of its citizens, such as in transportation, economy and the environment. Among them, the area in great demand and with the biggest ripple effects on the citizens is transportation. Seoul has significantly enhanced the convenience of public transportation through “Seoul’s Intelligent Traffic System” (ITS), Smart Transportation Card and Bus Information System (BIS).

In 2010, Seoul established the WeGO (World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization) to support sustainable urban development and also to narrow the information gap through exchanges and cooperations with world cities for the smart city area. WeGo has members from 177 cities and corporations. Seoul is also supporting other cities by exporting smart city solutions including TOPIS (Transport Operation and Information Service), loT-embedded LED streetlights, and smart garbage processing systems.


How are you using data to provide better experiences for city residents?

“Big Data,” so-called “the crude oil of the 21st century,” is the key driving force to operate a smart city. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has created the foundation to produce, store, process and utilize big data, and is scientifically analyzing the data and making reasonable inferences. The goal of Seoul is to provide innovative alternatives to solve urban problems and to focus the city’s capabilities in making significant changes to the lives of the citizens.

The most representative case is the late-night bus called “Owl Bus,” which is an innovative scheme for night-time transportation. To determine the Owl Bus’s routes, we analyzed three billion cases of big data (i.e. mobile phone calls). A total of nine routes of the Owl Bus have been designated in the areas with the highest demand for public transportation at night-time. These buses are now responsible for the safe trip home for more than 10,000 people a night.

Moreover, Seoul combined LTE signal data of mobile carriers and the public data of the city government and produced “Daily Population Data” that can be utilized in various areas, for instance, the analysis of commercial districts, marketing activities, welfare, transportation, and other various municipal policies. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is taking a step further to consecutively install 50,000 IoT-embedded sensors across the city and is gathering “city life data” including fine dust, noise, vibration, floating population, UV rays and more.

With the accumulated data, Seoul is creating brand new services, such as Intelligent CCTV, AI taxis, and IoT sharing parking. In this process, the basic philosophy determining the success of smart city policies is “governance” and “openness.” The Seoul Metropolitan Government is establishing the “Data Storage” system where anyone can see and use the public data of Seoul. A total of 528 kinds of the city government’s administrative system data is expected to be stored. I look forward to seeing that big data and collective intelligence create innovative services so that every citizen is allowed to enjoy the benefits from it.

"The 'Digital Mayor’s Office' on one side of my office symbolizes the status of Seoul as a global smart city."

Can you talk about sustainability issues and what you are doing to resolve them?

If the paradigm of “growth” and “development” was at the center of urban civilization in the 20th century, “sustainability” is what determines urban civilization in the 21st century. Seoul has achieved unprecedented rapid growth. However, it is also true that this growth-centered development left us with various wounds of environmental destruction, community breakdown, economic polarization and other social problems. As the Mayor of Seoul, I took office with the aim of solving these challenges.

Therefore, after the inauguration, my priority was to recover the rights of people which were pushed back and neglected behind “development” and “growth,” and to redefine the owner of the city of Seoul as its citizens. Also, various initiatives related to welfare, economy, labor, energy and the like have been implemented closely for the lives of the citizens. Seoul is pushing forward with “urban regeneration” instead of “demolishing” the city. During my tenure, I will significantly increase the amount of public housing by more than 400,000 — 10% more than the OECD average to secure the continuity and sustainability of housing welfare. In terms of energy policies, I will expand the production of new and renewable energies such as solar power, electric/hydrogen-powered vehicles and encourage citizen participation to prepare against energy depletion.

We also are systemizing sustainable development so that it can be applied to all municipal policies. Seoul has established the “Seoul-type Sustainable Development Implementation System” and is running the evaluation on sustainability across the administration. As such, it is no exaggeration to say that sustainability is the beginning and also the end of all policies of Seoul.


How did Seoul achieve the rank of the #1 smart city?

There are three factors that constitute a smart city: smart city infrastructure, innovative companies with cutting-edge technologies, and smart citizens. First, Seoul has a cutting-edge smart city infrastructure.

Korea is the first country that commercialized 5G communications, and you can gain free access to Wi-Fi even in moving buses and subway trains. Seoul is taking a step further to become a “free data city” by 2022, where anyone can use public Wi-Fi free of charge anywhere in the city. Public IoT networks will be expanded, where one can use services such as shared parking. Each citizen will save communications expenses and foreign tourists can also enjoy the same benefit. Second, in Seoul, innovative companies equipped with creative ideas and cutting-edge technologies can participate in the policy-making process. The private sector's big data is a great resource. The public and private sectors can resolve urban problems together. We are making a new value chain in the process by creating opportunities to further develop the already verified technologies and making them profit-making models.

Third, Seoul is actively operating the “digital communication system” that connects the world class smart infrastructure to smart citizens and expanding citizen’s engagement. Some of the examples are “Democracy Seoul,” a citizen participation policy proposal platform; “M-Voting,” a mobile voting system; and “Seoul Online Civil Complaints,” an online/mobile window to register and process civil complaints.


How does South Korea encourage innovation?

As the Korean market is highly sensitive to technological changes, it is said that the products that succeed in Korea can succeed anywhere else in the world. As such, global companies regard Korea as a testbed where they can measure the success of their products. For these reasons, they are putting more effort into targeting the Korean market.

Besides, the well-acknowledged big companies in Korea, startups armed with creative ideas and innovative technologies are actively delving into the market to make the city one of the “Top 5 Global Startup Cities.” In cooperation with the Korean central government, the Seoul Metropolitan Government is taking a two-track strategy to alleviate regulations that deter corporate activities, while establishing a startup ecosystem where innovative companies can enjoy the new challenges without the fear of failure.

By 2022, we will raise an “Innovative Future Growth Fund” worth 1.2 trillion won to expand the startup investment market and to provide a customized-service for startups from the early-stage growth to the global advancement. For companies at their early stages undergoing difficulties in attracting investment, Seoul makes bold investments in them so that their potential ideas can be realized into products within six months. It provides support throughout the entire process from business feasibility analysis, product design and prototype production, to matching manufacturers with them.

What are you most excited to see at CES?

It is the first time for me, as the Mayor of Seoul and also in person, to participate in CES. I already have great expectations. I know CES is the most reliable testbed where we can measure the success or failure of all the outputs of innovations from around the world, and also a “museum of innovations” where we can witness the products that may lead our future markets in advance.

I am looking forward to the innovations of global companies and their creative passion that I will see there. The innovation and creativity that I will experience at CES will serve as a precious foundation and an insight for me to make Seoul a greater city.