Saturday night in the Hongdae district of Seoul. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs line the streets four stories high for blocks. The crowds in the street cover acres of blacktop. It's nightlife on mega-city scale.
When I de-boarded in Inchon, South Korea, on Thursday March 12, I immediately got the impression that I was in completely new territory. The airport was massive, sleek, and modern with big Samsung LCD displays everywhere. This was the first time I've felt like I was in a more modern place than any in the Western world. I prepared myself to be wowed by Seoul, a megacity that awaited me a short distance from the airport.
Seoul's historical backdrop contrasts sharply with the Dutch cities I visited two weeks before. Seoul was leveled during the Korean War. Sanko Jo, the CEO of Kozaza.com, told me on a walk later in my trip that after the war, South Koreans paused some of their traditional ways in an all-out effort to merely survive. Only 60 years later, Seoul is the largest city proper in the developed world and one of the most modern. It has earned the moniker, The Miracle on the Han.
I was picked up at the airport by Jung Kim, starting that very day as a new member of Seoul City’s innovation team. She was my official guardian angel for my visit even making sure I made my return flight after a weekend on my own. This was a pattern for my entire stay. I was well looked after in formal and informal settings. At times, I felt like a package that was being carefully passed from person to person, group to group. I was blown away by the kindness of Koreans. I was told that it would be the height of embarrassment if I had a bad time. Like my Dutch friends at Seats2Meet, Koreans took hospitality seriously.
This became immediately apparent that night at dinner with Indong Cho, head of Seoul city government’s innovation department, and colleagues at a traditional Korean restaurant near the Cheonggyecheon, a five-mile long creek that runs through downtown that's famous for being successfully resurrected after decades under concrete.
We had a traditional Korean meal with a dizzying selection of side dishes including kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage treat that is the most famous of scores of pickled vegetables from land and sea that distinguish Korean cuisine. The relaxed pace of dinner gave Indong Cho and me a chance to get to know each other. I learned that he’s a Georgia Tech graduate and has traveled extensively in the U.S. I’ve visited nearly every corner of the continental United States, but as we compared travel notes, it became clear he had visited far more US cities than I. It was cool that he road tripped his way across America. I had done the same when I was younger. It established common ground. And Jack Kerouac, of On the Road fame and one of my literary hereos, would have been proud.
My hosts for dinner May 12, 2014. From left to right: Jinnam Park, Bae Hyung Woo, Me, Indong Cho and Su Jeoung.
I also learned that Seoul’s innovation team is expanding, and begun to understand that the need for change in Seoul is becoming more acute as economic growth slows, the population ages, youth struggle with a deteriorating job market, citizens struggle to reconcile the demands of modernity with traditional values, and social isolation and pollution worsen. Sounds familiar, but with some unique twists. One such change Indong Cho shared at dinner is that South Korea now allows cooperatives. In the 12 months after the law changed in 2012 or thereabouts, over 3,000 cooperatives were started — more than half of them in Seoul. The federal government had banned them due to fraud at a large financial cooperative in the past, but rolled back the ban except for financial cooperatives.
The next morning I attended the Metropolis International Training Institute’s (MITI) opening ceremony. I joined others speaking about Sharing Cities, the ceremony’s theme. MITI is the learning network of Metropolis, the world association of major cities, and is located in the city’s Human Resources Development Center Gangnam district headquarters. This was part of the city's goal to further embed itself in a network of knowledge sharing among major cities. And, indeed, knowledge sharing among cities was the subject of the keynote by Tim Campbell of the Urban Age Institute. Tim’s keynote illustrated the extensive knowledge sharing among city officials on a global basis, both electronically and in person. His keynote, based on his 2012 book Beyond Smart Cities, posited a new meaning for smart cities — that smart cities are cities that share knowledge with each other and not merely technological marvels. His message about the agency of humans in urban transformation resonated with me.
MITI opening ceremony March 13, 2014
The highlight for me was Indong Cho’s talk on Seoul’s Sharing City initiative. It was an update on accomplishments since launching in 2012. Shareable will be reporting on that soon, so I won’t spoil that except for one detail: Seoul opened up 779 city properties for public use with 17,000 new visits. The [freespace] movement could learn a lot from Seoul and vice versa.
The following day was the highlight of my trip. I gave an hour keynote about Sharing Cities, followed by a meeting with the Mayor Park. I was tad nervous before my talk. I started speaking about sharing 10 years ago in living rooms, cafés, and underground clubs in San Francisco. My talk was at Seoul’s sleek new City Hall with city officials, a cadre of press, simultaneous translation, video recording, and a couple hundred people. I had come a long way. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I welcomed the challenge.
My Seoul City Hall talk March 14, 2014
Apparently, I did okay because the audience asked a lot of questions after my talk. I was told that’s unusual. When I went upstairs to meet the mayor, he mentioned it. Well, that felt pretty good coming from the mayor. I was invited to the mayor’s office to be interviewed with him by Chosun Biz, one of the largest business dailies in South Korea, about sharing cities.
I was ushered into his office through a gaggle of people and considerable hubbub. We shook hands. I gave him a copy of Share or Die as a gift. Pictures were taken. We sat down across from each other in a large conference table inside his office with a Chosun Biz reporter, a translator, and several city officials. The office didn’t look official. It reminded me of an outsized college professor’s office. There were stacks of books and reports everywhere — some halfway to the ceiling. There was a large shelve with a variety of plants on it across the room. I didn’t see a desk. I think the conference table was his desk. I was told later that he had reduced the size of his office by half to open up more space for staff. In any case, I felt at ease in his space. It was lived in.
My interview with the mayor lasted about 30 minutes. Most of the reporter’s questions were for the both of us. The mayor would answer in Korean and that was translated to English so I could add to his thoughts and vice versa. The reporter had given me the questions in advance, so I was prepared. It seemed to go smoothly (see the interview here). What stood out was how articulate Mayor Park was about sharing. His brilliance showed through the translation. This made me happy because I realized that the Sharing City initiative was not a show piece; it was an authentic expression of his leadership. It shouldn’t have surprised me given his lifelong commitment to human rights and sharing. Prior to being elected mayor, he ran The Beautiful Foundation, the first community foundation in South Korea, whose mission is to be “the wise conductor of sharing.” Later, he established The Hope Institute as an offshoot to promote grassroots solutions to social problems. I realized later that he is one of us! He may be the first member of the sharing tribe to become mayor of a mega-city.
As I left his office, I took a selfie with him. Thankfully, he and everyone else I was holding up for this silly indulgence were good sports about it. This was followed by a tasty restaurant lunch in a mall underneath city hall with the city’s sharing committee. This concluded my official duties. I spent the weekend touring Seoul with members of the sharing community.
Mayor Park and me in his office.
My Saturday morning started with breakfast and an interview with Jihyun Lee of Bloter.net. Creative Commons Korea’s Nanshil Kwon and Jennifer Kang joined us. I learned about the partnership between city government and CC Korea to launch Seoul’s Share Hub, an online guide about all that can be shared in Seoul (a great model to follow). Afterward, I had traditional Korean tea with Nanshil and Jennifer.
Later in the afternoon, I took a tour of Bukchon traditional Hanok village with Play Planet and Kozaza.com. The highlight was the watercolor painting session at one of the many traditional workshops in the village. I also got to chat with Sung Yoon of Seoul Youth Hub, a coworking space for young adults to foster more peer collaboration in life and work started by Mayor Park. The tour concluded in the afternoon with tea together. It had gotten a tad chilly, so the delicious pine needle tea I ordered hit the spot.
My Play Planet tourmates and me show off our work after a water coloring lesson at a hanok house in Bukchon village.
That night I dined in the Hongdae district, party central for young adults, with Duck of Zipbob.net (a peer-to-peer dining platform with substantial traction), Jay Yoon and Jeong Wook Seo of Creative Commons Korea, Soonam Kahng of Parking Share, and a few others. We had a wide-ranging discussion about sharing in Seoul and San Francisco. I learned that South Korea has many of the same services as the US to share homes, cars, meals, money, and more as this handy graphic shows:
The gang made sure I got a cab out of the Hongdae mob scene, and I went back to Bukchon village to sleep in a Hanok traditional home thanks to Sanku Jo of Kozaza.com. There are just a few of these villages left in Seoul. The city, along with entrepreneurs like Sanku Jo, are making a concerted effort to preserve what’s left to stimulate tourism and for historical preservation. Most Hanok homes were destroyed in the Korean War and the rapid development of the city that followed. Hanoks are small, made of all natural materials, and traditionally heated from underneath the home. They’re so cozy! I slept like a baby on a traditional Korean sleeping mat.
Sanku Ju of Kozaza.com and me at my traditional hanok house.
Sunday’s highlight was a walk with Seokwon Yang around Changdeokgung Palace, which is next to Bukchon Village in the northern part of the city. We talked about his work with D. Camp, a huge coworking and startup incubator space funded by the Banks Foundation (founded by the major South Korean banks, $500 million in assets) to build startup culture in South Korea, especially among young adults. This was part of a drive to open up other career paths besides school, corporate job, retirement. Only a tiny fraction of students get into the elite universities that lead to highly coveted management jobs at Samsung and their ilk, and as the economy slows, that option gets even less sure. Similar to the US, new ways to build a career and an economy are needed, though the US seems further along in the breakdown of the old pattern.
Seokwon Yang of D. Camp and me at Changdeokgung Palace.
After a short shopping expedition for gifts near Bukchon Village with Sanku Jo the next day, I caught a bus to the airport. Before I boarded, Sanku Jo called my guardian angel Jung Kim to let her know I would be on time for my flight and then waved to me from the curb as the bus pulled away.
I was indeed wowed by Seoul if not overwhelmed. Over a month later, I’m still digesting my experiences. It’s impossible to grok a city of 10 million in a few days. Yet some patterns emerged that tell a much different tale than Amsterdam. While Amsterdam was instrumental in innovating modernity hundreds of years ago, Seoul jumped into modernity in one generation only recently. For this reason, Seoul is more modern in some ways, at least on the surface. It has the world’s highest broadband Internet penetration and world’s fastest Internet. The buildings, subways, and streets are new. Yet underneath, ancient values guide behavior. Respect for elders and hierarchy still reign supreme.
Civil society in South Korea is fairly new, but it’s opening up new citizen-to-citizen options for change outside of traditional hierarchies, albeit slowly. Mayor Park is part of that wave of change. That said, the hierarchical mode could lead to much faster change than Western cities as Seoul's miraculous jump into modernity suggests. With its advanced infrastructure, homogenous population, and emerging civil society, Seoul could become a Sharing Mega-city in less than one generation. With its growing soft power and geographic position between China and Japan, Seoul could influence changes in other major Asian cities where nearly a third of all humans live. Could Seoul become the city that saves the world? It’s possible.
A lot rides on whether Mayor Park gets re-elected this coming June and his Sharing Cities initiative continues. Mayor Park has a small lead in the polls, but the old industrial order is backing the challenger. The sharing world should watch this election closely. My fingers are crossed for Mayor Park. Yet, when all is said and done, it will take Seoul, Amsterdam, and many more cities to transform the world. We have so much to learn from cities' histories, challenges, and triumphs. I believe that we already have most if not all of the solutions we need among our cities for a more joyous, resilient, and equitable world. It may only be a matter of putting them in place in every city.
Read the part one of this story here.