ESG and Social problem-solving design; with a focus on design governance project

Speaker: Kang Hyo Jin (Head of Public Design Project team, Design Policy Bureau, Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Since the spread of COVID-19, cities have faced various social problems different from the pre-COVID era, and citizens have experienced fatigue and stress arising from social problems including Corona Blue (depression due to self-isolation and social distancing), social isolation, increased hatred, digital addiction, etc. To effectively respond to social problems of the city that take place in a multifaceted manner, it is critical to clearly define subproblems first.  

Seoul City is implementing “Social Problem-Solving Design Policy” which utilizes design as a tool to propose effective solutions to social problems such as population aging, school violence, crime, dementia, etc. to establish a citizen-oriented design city with social resilience. Social problems of the city are broken down into more specific ones and they require flexible approaches depending on topic and expand into projects with various aspects. Social problems of the city are closely connected with the daily lives of citizens and remain to have a direct impact on the quality of lives; therefore, it is seen as the role of the municipal government to be keen on discovering social problems. 



The concept of public design today is recognized as an area that centers around installations and hardware built to improve a city’s landscape and raise its brand value. However, as the city focuses on the daily lives of the citizens and their quality of lives and tries to change the paradigm in social problem-solving using a new content and tool that didn’t exist before, it is necessary to redefine the scope of public design in a more comprehensive meaning. 

The first example of social problem-solving design that have approaches from the public area is a project in the field of cognitive health design conducted to respond to dementia. It is which was created in the parking space of a welfare center that elderly people visit to get a free meal. The garden became a space for walking and enjoying plants of all seasonal terms, and showcased collaboration works with various artists and designers for the elderly to experience emotional stimuli. In addition to creating a park or a green space in a welfare center, the project also developed an emergency response manual related to physical and psychological health so that the elderly diagnosed with mild dementia could be treated on time under emergency conditions. As seen from this example, Seoul City expands into building not only hardware but also content-oriented program and an education to enhance awareness, aiming to come up with balanced solution that considers hardware, software, and humanware. 


 Cognitive health design > a garden for centenarian at Chung Dam Social Welfare Center in Geumcheon-gu ©Seoul City

Next is a project that responds to adolescents’ overdependence on the digital media. In this project, a green space was created in an idle classroom in school where students spend most of their time in a day so that they could easily access plants. This space was not just a part of environment improvement project, but a case that was planned with detail by applying a theory of biophilia which is the innate human instinct to connect with nature so that teenagers could experience multi-sensory stimuli, boost brain development, and take care of their emotional wellbeing. 


Adolescent problem-solving design > MAUMPOOL Project ©Seoul City

So far, projects for welfare centers and teenager-related facilities that have been actively supported by public sector have engaged various stakeholders in the problem-solving process so that the stakeholders could proactively develop content and reflect their own needs into the solution creation. Also, the project emphasizes robust and organized programming so that operators could leverage design well when the solution becomes a real-world service in the future. 

Design governance project where a citizen discovers and addresses a social problem 

Seoul City is implementing “Design Governance Project” where citizens, students, designers as well as experts from various fields and companies gather together to discuss an idea suggested by a citizen and come up with a solution to a public social problem. The Design Governance Project starts from when citizens talk about a problem they face in their daily lives and suggest an idea to solve the problem. This approach helps find a social problem topic that was neglected in the public service or assess a social problem that cannot be easily solved by citizens and identify citizens’ requirements about innovation and come up with solutions to problems such as communication issue in the community and conflicts with neighbors which can be widely applied in the long term. 

- < Yakssoksangja- a box for medicine disposal > for proper medicine disposal 



is a service design project designed to promote proper medication disposal. Conducted in 2021 as part of Seoul City Design Governance Project, it started from a proposal by a citizen who was conscious of the water pollution caused by waste medicine. This project carried out an activity of making < Yakssoksangja - a medicine disposal box > in 30 elementary schools in Seoul. The name < Yakssoksanja - a medicine disposal box > meant putting a medicine (Yak) right (ssok) in the box and the aim was to encourage children to properly dispose the waste medication. This activity served as a chance for children to think about taking a small action to protect the environment and to learn and practice proper disposal of medicines collected at home. 

There is no limit to the scope of project topic under Design Governance Project which aims to address life’s problems through design. Experts review proposals from the citizens and the final topic is selected through voting by citizens. Then, the process is shared with various stakeholders to encourage their participation and the project goes through the repetitive process of diffusion and convergence and aims to reach a better position to problem solve. The project has been presenting awards to the participating citizens to motivate them and holding an event that shares the results of the project. Meanwhile, the process and the result of projects that have been implemented since 2015 are organized and summarized by topic on an open-source whitepaper.  ( As seen from the above, Seoul City Design Governance Project has a positive influence as it allows for creative planning across various areas, and in particular, as it can turn various ideas from young generations into real world solutions.

- a space to meet beloved family 

is a case of service planning by social problem-solving design which created a new space for visitation in a nursing home for the elderly to respond to restrictions on in-person visits to nursing homes due to the pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 virus restricted visits to hospitals and nursing homes and those who were admitted in the nursing homes were put on isolation without knowing when to meet their family again. As such, Seoul City created an extra space for non-contact visitations by setting up a container booth in the nursing home. The booth for non- contact visitations which was not possible in the existing visitation room was carefully designed to protect against the risk of infection when visitors came in and out, so the booth can be adopted to other facilities for the elderly and the disabled. 


A special space for visitation in a nursing home for the elderly “Family’s Living Room” ©Seoul City

Family’s Living Room is a case of developing a solution to a social problem to which no one needed a solution before. This project started from planning a space which would function as a booth for visitation in a nursing home while protecting people from infection. However, instead of giving too much emphasis on functionality, the project also focused on creating a cozy home environment specially for the elderly regarding their daily lives and experience. Family’s Living Room which functions as a space for visitation and can also be used to serve multiple purposes of individuals and groups is a valuable space that provides people with a special experience of meeting beloved family. 

ESG and Public Design 

ESG which has taken on increased importance is an acronym for Environmental, Social and Governance. It means non-financial performance indicators that can have a big impact on company’s mid-to-long term values and sustainability. These concepts and standards are set for corporate world and applying these in the public arena should consider how these indicators, standards, and concepts of ESG need to be executed as appropriate to the public arena.

Seoul City has established environmental goals for urban competitiveness (GREEN DESIGN;4L) which includes concepts of LOW (Clean & Harmony), LESS (Optimizing & Efficiency), LONG (Durable & Reliable) and LAST (Disassemble & Recycle) for healthy and sustainable city. Also, as introduced earlier, among the resources to solve social problems in the city, the outcome in social segment is already taking a significant presence. However, the environment and governance segments have insufficient strategies and solutions compared to the social sector, which requires more attention and approaches. It is a time to discuss the possibility how a company’s social contribution activity through ESG management can be translated into public value and how it can be compatible with public value. 

Design has many strategic strengths. 

Tim Brown at IDEO, a design consulting group assured that “Design is one of the important drivers that provides good experience to the service users, and in the same context, a city should be serious about design and prioritize the quality of service design to maintain public trust.”, and Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta said, “Design Methodology helps participants communicate through prototyping or visualization, accelerates the pace of innovation in the public sector and helps the government find a better solution more quickly.

Then, what is the role of design in public arena? Given that today’s design is not only focuses on aesthetical factor but also used as a strategic tool and a methodology to trigger cooperation, the answer could be facilitator. Design holds a significant value as it starts from defining a problem that focuses on understanding the context and can reflect the needs of various participants, promote effective communication through visualization, and maximize the value of services that a user experiences through quick iterative execution.  Also, the most realistic and strategic solution to approaching the ESG-related topic would be that the design process aims to collaborate with various actors and pursues convergent problem-solving approach.

Why not SESGD?

As I conclude my presentation, I would like to redefine ESG to SESGDesign as a design strategy Seoul City pursues. SESGDesign means the potential and role of design as a credible facilitator that helps build and test a model of cooperation among multiple parties. We would need more time to discuss and come to a conclusion, however, I hope that there will be a broad discussion on how the public should execute ESG by sharing various perspectives so that relevant research continues going forward. 

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