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A Look at Digital Cities
Seoul, Republic of Korea
Photo credit: © frank’n’focus/Alamy

Seoul’s Internet-savvy citizens

How they are managing their own city’s development

While other cities aim to make their citizens’ lives easier by offering planning permission, parking permits and wedding packages online, Seoul has taken the ultimate step in engaging its citizens. The world’s fifth biggest metropolis, with a population of over 10 million people, is using the Internet to give its residents a direct role in the running of the city.

The OASIS Online Policy Suggestion System, which was launched in October 2006, enables citizens to contribute ideas about city policies and to discuss suggestions directly with city officials. The ideas suggested by citizens through OASIS follow three stages to become city policies: first, the idea is reviewed through online discussions, with the participation of public officers, experts and citizens; second, the idea is reviewed through offline meetings between the citizen who proposed the idea and policy-makers in order to expand the proposal and to establish feasibility; and finally, the idea is implemented into policy.

Since the launch of the system, 4.2 million citizens have participated with on average 4640 daily visits to the site. Among successful citizens’ suggestions have been the provision of English subtitles in Korean movies for international spectators; and the ability for users of public transport to make donations through their transport card.

“We are implementing citizen-oriented e-governance initiatives via the Internet and making some citizens’ suggestions into actual policies,” says Youngsoon Lee, Manager in the Information System Planning Bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. As a result, Seoul was given two United Nations Public Service Awards on 23 June 2009 in recognition of the impact that this initiative has had on the day-to-day lives of citizens.

The OASIS system’s innovative approach promoting active participation of citizens was made possible by the idea of “creative governance,” combined with the application of leading information technologies in the city. “Creative governance” is a phrase coined by Oh Se-hoon in 2006 when he took office as the 33rd Mayor of Seoul and the term has since become the motto of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

“We are improving our work processes with creativity and imagination to ultimately enrich the quality of life for citizens and to enhance city competitiveness,” said Mayor Oh on receiving the UN awards. “We hope the city’s creative governance inspires other cities in the world to provide better services for their citizens.”

For more than a decade, Seoul has had the justifi able reputation of being one of the most wired cities in the world. The shift towards an economy that includes more information technology, after the severe financial crisis of 1997, is now regarded as an enormous success.

The Republic of Korea is an ICT leader in a number of ways. Some 95 per cent of Korean homes have a broadband Internet connection — by far the highest percentage worldwide, according to the 2010 edition of ITU’s report: Measuring the Information Society. Published in February 2010, the report features the latest ICT Development Index and ICT Price Basket — two benchmarking tools to monitor information society developments worldwide. The Index ranks 159 economies, and the Republic of Korea is in third position. The country has the highest proportion of households with fibre-optic connections, a technology that is essential for supporting the next generation of ultra-high speed applications.

The country has a strong domestic ICT industry with a number of large manufacturers and operators, including Samsung, LG, KT, Hanaro Telecom and LG Telecom. Other factors that contribute to the country’s strong performance include high educational levels, government awareness and support for ICT projects as well as an “ICT culture” — Koreans are known to be ICT savvy and eager to adopt new technologies. The country was one of the first worldwide to adopt mobile broadband third-generation technologies. And by the end of 2008, it had over 35 million mobile broadband subscriptions for a population of about 49 million people.

Photo credit: © frank’n’focus/Alamy

With such widespread access to the Internet, it is no surprise that Seoul has been one of the leaders in introducing online services to benefit its citizens. A year before the OASIS system was launched, TOPIS (Transport Operation & Information Service) came on stream in 2005 to help passengers plan their journeys better and select the best modes of transportation by flagging congestion areas, giving estimated travel times, and providing bus arrival and waiting times. Its key functions include data collection and integration, operation and control, information pooling and usage, improved service and information sharing, mitigation of traffic congestion, incident management, using data for policy-making, remote enforcement for illegal parking, and bus management.

“Citizens are now able to get the information they need at home and at work,” says Youngsoon Lee. “They get real-time updates on traffic and jobs, all on the move. They also can report complaints and inconveniences directly to the municipal government and can pay taxes and participate in e-procurement on the web.”

The government is also making efforts to bring together the latest in communication technology with existing infrastructure to ensure protection of the environment while rolling out new technologies. The Republic of Korea is aiming to build the world’s first nationwide smart grid system to reduce its emissions by monitoring energy use more carefully. The grid, to be set up by 2030, is part of the country’s USD 103 billion initiative to increase its generation of green energy from the current 2.4 per cent of total power to 11 per cent in the next two decades.

Unlike conventional “dumb” electricity grids, smart grids allow two-way communication between electricity suppliers and consumers, as well as enabling more dispersed generation and storage of power. According to a government-led committee, the Republic of Korea could lower its greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 million tonnes. Meanwhile, Staterun electricity monopoly, Korea Electric Power Corp, plans to set up a USD 65 million smart grid pilot project in the country’s southern Jeju Island by 2011.

“Korean technology companies have been at the forefront of innovation in information and communication technologies and they are now poised to take a significant leadership role in the smart grid market, both within the Republic of Korea and on a global level,” says Andy Bae, an industry analyst and contributor to the smart grid advisory service of Pike Research — a market research and consulting firm for clean technology markets.

The Internet has become an indispensable part of life for Seoulites. From participating in social media to avoiding traffic jams, Seoul’s residents have become completely dependent on the Internet. What if all Internet access was cut off just for one day? “It would be complete chaos,” said Youngsoon Lee. “If all online services in public and private sectors were suspended, the inconvenience would be beyond the imagination.”


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