Citizen Participation is Key to Social Innovation in Future Cities

On March 31, 2022, the 1st preliminary forum of Seoul Design International Forum hosted by the Design Policy Bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Government was held online. Out of the three speakers, Lee Kun-pyo, Dean of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, explained the core of the change towards future society and the role and vision of design under the theme, “Design in the Era of Disruptive Paradigm.” It was an inspiring lecture that led me to contemplate on a lot of things as a professor who studies and teaches design and as head of an institution of social innovation education at a university. In this paper, I aim to discuss the relevance of the meta discourse raised during the lecture on our actual lives as well as its implications for citizens of future cities.

 What was interesting about the lecture was how the speaker explained the characteristics of the change in design paradigm using three keywords – ‘democratization of the core competencies of design,’ ‘new design problem,’ and ‘new question’ – by taking a look into the changing rule of game in design from a macroscopic perspective. The keywords will be discussed in more detail as follows.

Democratization of Core Competencies in Design:

 With the development of technology and social changes, the object and method of design have continued to change and evolve. During the time when physical tools and environment were the object of design, skills handed down from generation to generation were important. However, as invisible experiences and systems became the object of design, user-centric design thinking and computer-based tools became more important. And recently, platforms and ecosystems have become the object of design, leading to more collaborative creative work with various stakeholders. Now, the objective of design has become not only the formative beauty of design and the benefit of users, but also identifying problems in the complex social system and improving them. As a result, the role and social responsibility of design for the public has naturally become important.

 Such approach to design is called ‘public design’ or ‘service design.’ Recently, the concept of ‘design for social innovation,’ which focuses on solving social problems to achieve social values, is gaining much attention. The role of design in this area is to change the behavior of users through design and to share values and contribute to society through design. As such, design is no longer owned by a certain group of experts, but rather functions as a tool in solving universal problems. In other words, there is a democratization of the expertise or core competencies of design, making ‘design thinking’ a method that can be utilized by anyone and enabling solving social issues using design through the participation of various stakeholders. Furthermore, ‘empowering design,’ which gives power to users by intentionally leaving room for users to participate in the design so that they can creatively reprocess or create according to their context or behavior, will become more important in the future.

 I am the head of the Center for Social Innovation Education at Seoul Women’s University that leads social innovation education to realize social values. Over the past three years, the center has managed a public-private-academic project that is also an extracurricular program for students from various departments to join. It is an urban renewal project implemented jointly with Habitat for Humanity Korea, POSCO E&C, and local governments. In the first year of the project, we collaborated with Uijeongbu City as well as Jeonju and Busan. Participating universities also expanded to Jeonbuk National University, Pusan National University, Hanyang University, and Korea University. Participating students identify problems together with the residents of underdeveloped regions and seek solutions, while Habitat for Humanity Korea and local governments provide administrative support and companies offer financial support. The project applies ‘design thinking’ as a method of innovation to solve social issues, which is a good example of ‘design for social innovation’ through democratization of design core competencies. In 2022, the center plans to establish an ‘urban innovation school,’ an educational community for public-private-academic partnership, at the Seoul Women’s University campus and continue to pursue social innovation projects.


[Public-private-academic partnership-based regional social innovation project with citizen’s participation]

New Design Problem:

 As mentioned before, the development of technologies and social changes have created a change in the object and method of design. Following such change, the design problem that we must solve for has also changed. Our times have changed from an era of creating tools through design to an era of computer for design, and then to an era of design for computer that designs the interaction for information devices. And today, data and AI are considered means of solving design problems. In this new era, we face a new problem of what to design and how to approach problem solving when it comes to ‘design for social innovation.’ This is more than simply ‘AI for design,’ where one seeks a design outcome using AI technology. Instead, the concept of ‘design for AI’ has become crucial in design using public big data or AI technology. In other words, we need to contemplate on ‘what’ the new design problem is before we think about the ‘how.’

 In early 2020 when COVID-19 pandemic spread, the government disclosed a public data on the status of face mask sales to the public. Since then, the private sector developed various services using the data to share the status of mask inventory. The National Information Society Agency provided support for developers to upload mask related apps on Google Play Store. And numerous individual developers and private companies used the disclosed public data to develop mask apps for the public interest to provide helpful services for the public. In addition, useful services such as Corona Doctor and Corona Map were developed by the private sector using public data. This is a positive case where the cooperation between the public and private sectors contributed to solving the social issue that arose in the unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2021, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its plan to become the first local government to establish a ‘metaverse platform,’ which surfaced as a key non-face-to-face communication channel in the post-COVID-19 world, and that it will introduce the platform across its administration to provide a new concept of public service. The platform, ‘Metaverse Seoul,’ is to be established by the end of this year and the government aims to establish a metaverse ecosystem across all its administrative services in areas including economy, culture, tourism, education, and civil complaint in three phases.


 From the left in order, [mask app / Seoul Tourism Organization, Virtual Seoul Playground / DDP realized in metaverse]

 These examples show that we need a completely different new approach to the design problem that we need to solve as public services based on technologies such as data, AI, and metaverse change into new urban functions. How we realize existing face-to-face public services in non-face-to-face platforms and how we achieve the vision of a smart inclusive city where citizens of all backgrounds can enjoy the benefits are two new design problems that we face.

New Question:

 In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported a case of using AI in classrooms where an elementary school in Shanghai, China, used AI technology in measuring brain waves. The story sparked controversy. The school had students wear headbands with AI sensors during classes. The sensors collected brain wave data of students, analyzed their concentration levels during classes, and sent the results to their teachers and parents. Aside from the controversy around human rights violation, there is a need to think about whether it is important to consider a more convenient interface or usability when designing such new technology-based user experience. Rather, we must think about the ‘why’ when it comes to using AI technology in education and focus on a new question. Recently, there are many scholars who emphasize the importance of ‘design for pluralism’ or ‘design for a better world.’ This means that ‘design for people,’ which was considered an important design philosophy in an era represented by informatization and digital economy, must now become ‘design for ecosystem’ that includes humanity. To this end, we need to make effort in creating the technology and services we need today by raising a new question based on a desirable vision of the future, rather than picturing a new future based on currently developed technologies.

 POSCO, founded on its management philosophy of ‘corporate citizenship,’ has declared POSCO Charter of Corporate Citizenship in 2019 and implemented various activities for its employees to understand and practice the Charter. Corporate citizenship refers to a company as a member of society that voluntarily contributes for the benefit of the society with rights and responsibilities as a corporate citizen. POSCO defines its five corporate citizenship brands as Green (a company you protect the environment with), Together (a company you want to work with), Challenge (a company you want to grow together with), Life (a company you build a future together with), and Community (a company you engage with for the local community). It has carried out various activities for carbon neutrality, shared growth, ventures, supporting future generation, and co-prosperity with local communities. Other companies such as SK Group and GS Group also pursue ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) management that aims to grow together with stakeholders beyond the past goal of generating profits and maximizing shareholder interest. These are examples of companies, that once led social change through technology, asking a new question for a desirable future vision and community and realizing social values with citizens through technology development and business activities.

 Social innovation is an essential concept that can expand the role of civic society by effectively solving social issues through a creative and innovative process and leading positive social change. Design thinking is not only a methodology to social innovation, but also beneficial in forming the mind and behavior of members of society to build a sustainable society. There still are designs that are restricted to physical objects or designs used as a way to show outcome for the sake of outcome. But the role of design will become more important in our journey as we seek answers to new questions and as a strategy and tool in creating valuable experiences that can be enjoyed and shared by citizens in future cities.

 This paper discussed the change in design paradigm with social innovation cases from the perspective of the key themes of the lecture, ‘democratization of the core competencies of design,’ ‘new design problem,’ and ‘new question.’ After the lecture, I contemplated on the direction of our effort that is needed to achieve social innovation in line with the changes in paradigm. Public services must change from being supply-centric to demand-centric, the object must shift focus from physical hardware to experiential software, and policies must change from benefits that supplement the shortfalls into focusing on engaging with various stakeholders and encouraging citizen participation. When these efforts are made, citizens of future cities will relate to various social issues, understand them, communicate about them by taking action, share new experiences, and take the next steps together as participants of social innovation in building sustainable cities.

*This article is the author's opinion related to the presentation of the first pre-forum (31 March) of SDIF

Speaker l Lee Kun-pyo (Dean of Hong Kong Polytechnic University)

Writing ㅣPark Namchun (Head of the Center for Social Innovation Education at Seoul Women's University)

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