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April 6th, 2016

The Seoul Innovation Bureau and its “Sharing City” initiative

In 2013, Seoul’s Mayor Park made good his intention of transforming Seoul into a city of innovation by setting up the Seoul Innovation Bureau, the first of its kind in Asia. It encourages citizen participation by seeking ideas and insights which it often adopts as city policies. The Sharing City initiative is a case in point: citizens are encouraged to share resources such as accommodation, books, parking spaces and even clothes with their fellow-residents.

The initiative

The rapid progress in online and mobile technologies “have made it easier for the city to engage with citizens and companies, and to create the platforms for resources to be shared”. [2] The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon, “is progressing with plans to turn Seoul into an innovation-led Sharing City, engaging citizens in the radical redesign of public services”. [3]

In 2013, he initiated the creation of the Seoul Innovation Bureau (“the Bureau”), which is the first city-level government structure in Asia, to make Seoul a city of innovation. The aims of the Bureau are to “revolutionise the policymaking process[:] the city government is embarking on extensive civic engagement to help identify and solve challenges” and use social innovation to improve citizens' lives.

The challenge

South Korea is renowned for its rapid technological innovation over the past 30 years. In its most recently published e-government survey, the UN said that: “the Republic of Korea has retained the top spot in 2014 with its continued leadership and focus on e-government innovation”. [1] Within this context, the South Korean capital, Seoul, has also been expected to make innovation a priority.

The public impact

The Bureau looks to make impact in two main ways: encouraging citizen participation and changing government culture. The Bureau “involves residents in many aspects of decision-making, for example in budget decisions, where 250 residents were randomly selected to decide how GBP16 million of the city's GBP600 million budget should be spent”. [4] It has developed an online portal to encourage citizens to contribute ideas, knowledge and insight (see Stakeholder engagement, below, for public transport examples).

The Bureau also “works with departments across City Hall to support them to host listening workshops with citizens and policymakers to discuss particular topics. More than 6,000 of these have been held — allowing the government to hear from more than 600,000 citizens”. [5]

Stakeholder engagement

The main internal stakeholders in the Bureau are Mayor Park and his staff at Seoul City Hall, who are using its services to modify the culture of the administration and engage with citizens.

The main external stakeholders are the citizens of Seoul, who are seen as the main drivers of government innovation through their participation, such as suggesting new ideas. To take three examples from public transport:

  • “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.” [6]
  • The introduction of an automatically updating travel card.
  • “A ‘Pregnant Ladies First' badge, suggested in response to pregnant women being denied seats on public transport, leading to City Hall distributing these for pregnant women to wear when travelling throughout the city.” [7]

In the Sharing City initiative, citizens are encouraged to share resources with each other, whether accommodation, books, clothes suitable for job interviews or drivers with long-term parking contracts who let them out when they are not in use.

The Bureau involves the private sector in developing the many ideas it receives. “The 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.” [8]

Political commitment

Mayor Park has been very active in the creation of the Bureau and in its deployment to lead various initiatives such as the online portal and the Sharing City. He has been described as “a mayor on a mission to revolutionise the policy-making process”. [9] This use of innovative ideas and technologies is in line with his use of social media tools in day-to-day politics to help increase his citizen engagement.

Public confidence

In 2014, Mayor Park was re-elected for another three-year term of office, indicating that the reforms with which he was closely associated were popular with the citizens of Seoul.

A large number of Seoul's residents have been involved in the Bureau's initiatives, such as the Sharing City. More than 6,000 workshops have been held, enabling the government to hear from more than 600,000 citizens to discuss topics.

Clarity of objectives

The driving principle of the Bureau is that citizens are the main catalysts and sources of innovation, whether in identifying problems, clarifying issues or generating solutions. Establishing Seoul as the world's first Sharing City is a key priority for the mayor in his partnership with the Bureau.

The Bureau's other main objective is to change the culture of government in increasing the adoption of suggested changes and improvements by the relevant agencies and departments across Seoul City Hall.

Strength of evidence

Success from sharing is not a new concept and sharing city initiatives are not unique to Seoul with multiple ‘sharing cities’ evolving near simultaneously in recent times, with Amsterdam providing another classic example. However it should be noted that  Seoul was one of the first sharing cities and is a “stellar” example that many other initiatives refer to.


The advances in e-government technology in South Korea and, more generally, the advances in mobile and internet technology enabled the online interaction with citizens to take place.

In human resources terms, initiatives like the Sharing City and the workshops depend on a participative mindset in the citizens themselves. This appears to be present in Seoul. The Bureau is also well-funded and has significant human resources: “is a cross-departmental innovation unit with 58 staff members and an annual budget of £5 million”. [10]


The Bureau reports to the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon and benefits from his enthusiasm and commitment.  It is led by Jun Hyo Gwan, the Bureau’s director-general. When the flood of new ideas is in danger of overwhelming civil servants, the Bureau outsources work to the private sector (see Stakeholder engagement above).


The Bureau does not currently have an evaluation strategy in place for recording impacts of its individual programmes, but it does record levels of activities and outputs. For example, with Sharing City Seoul, it is measuring the increase in the number of ‘sharing’ companies and initiatives, as well as recording the number of residents attending events and workshops and suggesting ideas both online and offline.


There is a strong alignment between the Mayor, City Hall, the staff of the Bureau, citizens and the private sector and to make this initiative successful.

The director-general of the Bureau reports directly to Mayor Park. The Bureau coordinates with the citizens with citizens both online and offline to seek ideas and insights.  It cooperates with the civil servants in City Hall to gather insights and implement them. It also outsources some work to the private sector when it has insufficient resources to implement a project.

Citizens do not just contribute resources; they are also seen as the main driver of government innovation.

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