Seoul, South Korea
Can every citizen be a mayor?
As one of the world’s largest urban areas, Seoul can feel both exciting and lonely. Rickety food stalls sit outside gleaming corporate headquarters while a new Seoul City Hall stands proudly over its colonial predecessor. In progressive steps this year, the city’s much-loved Mayor Park Won-soon became the first South Korean politician to publicly support same-sex marriage while the city sent an advance specialist team to West Africa to aid in the global effort against Ebola. In addition, Seoul marked its one-year anniversary of its “Sharing City” initiative, which aims to leverage the city’s population density to promote the sharing of resources. The past year has also seen the city more divided than usual due to the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which shook the city’s faith in its leaders. However, in a city long defined by conformity, the increasing willingness of Seoul’s residents to challenge their leaders bodes well for the future.
Hub for progress
Due to Seoul’s traditional Confucian norms as well as the dominance of conglomerates like Samsung and Daewoo, startup culture and coworking spaces have been slower to take off here than in other Asian hubs. However, 2014 saw a big change in this area with Seoul’s hottest homegrown tech product KakaoTalk reaching more than 150 million users and coworking spaces like How2Company rising in popularity. An incubator called TriBeluga launched in October with the specific mission of helping Seoul-based startups crack the massive and competitive Chinese market.
Mayor Won-soon’s slogan, “Citizens are the Mayor,” is true to his behavior. A former civic activist who has brought that spirit of openness into office, Park’s savvy on social media, tweeting regularly to his nearly 1 million followers. Unlike other powerful politicians in the country, he regularly speaks to media and meets with citizens. One noteworthy project Park started is “Eco Milage,” an incentive program for citizens to save energy at home. (Some 1.7 million residents have signed up for the service so far.)
Daehangno Street and its surrounding area are collectively known as a hub of youth culture, with more than 40 theaters, concert halls, and movie theaters. This fall, the neighborhood hosted the eighth installment of D.FESTA, a street performance festival in Marronnier Park.
In April, South Korea suffered its worst peacetime disaster with the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the country’s southern coast. The disaster was responsible for more than 300 deaths, many high school kids on a field trip. While the country was united in sorrow, the tragedy also spurred criticism of the government’s response; in an unprecedented move, the government ceded and accepted some of the blame. Though the sinking did not take place in Seoul, echoes of the tragedy were felt throughout the capital.
Uber’s expansion into Seoul did not go smoothly. In July, the government announced plans to ban the service, claiming the ridesharing service skirted all regulatory rules. Not one to be left out of the sharing trend, though, Seoul is in the process of launching its own localized version in December.
Taking inspiration from New York City, Park announced plans in September to construct a High Line-inspired elevated park in Seoul, to be built by the end of 2015. The project will make use of a kilometer-long elevated motorway in the CBD, part of a larger trend to repurpose the city’s unsightly elevated motorways.
While Seoul now has more foreign residents than at any other point in its history, its aging population coupled with a low birth rate has raised concerns about the population’s long-term demographic future. In October, a global summit held in Seoul discussed the role of immigration in the city’s future, with international leaders pointing out the need for Seoul to become “known as a welcoming to innovative contributors who are going to really play a part of the economic and social part of this country.”
In Seoul, known for cutthroat competition for spots at elite universities and white-collar jobs, a near-religious work ethic is expected from childhood throughout adult working life. However, in a much-needed loosening of those norms, the city hosted the world’s first “Space Out Competition” in October, in which participants were encouraged to do absolutely nothing while keeping a steady heart rate.
Steven Borowiec is a freelance journalist based in Seoul. He’s hooked on the city’s constant energy and the buzz of 50 million working people, from suited salary workers to elderly citizens tending plants outside their tiny homes.