[FIRST IN A THREE-PART SERIES] City of Seoul takes the lead on social economy

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[FIRST IN A THREE-PART SERIES] City of Seoul takes the lead on social economy

The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced last year a three-year plan to lead an effort to connect cities and local governments throughout the world to share best practices on global issues. In this three-part series, the Korea JoongAng Daily follows the Seoul city government to destinations abroad as it makes new contacts and looks at the work of some international organizations in Seoul. -Ed.


Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon affirms the Seoul city government’s commitment to promoting social economy enterprises and initiatives alongside the commitments by other mayors and city representatives at the Global Social Economy Forum in Bilbao on Oct. 1. [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]

The hallways of the Euskalduna Conference Centre in Bilbao bustled with hundreds of representatives from cities in more than 80 countries — all gathered to create a network of local governments and organizations that will promote an alternative form of economy.

“The Global Social Economy Forum [GSEF] is much more than an event,” said Juan Mari Aburto, mayor of Bilbao, addressing some 1,700 participants of the forum on Oct. 1. “It is a congress where we are going to work and share experiences and try to reach a conclusion to achieve a more inclusive society.”

The GSEF was created in 2014 by the Seoul city government to bring together cities and local governments to share best practices on cooperative-based and community-driven economic activities.

“We take pride in taking the place of Seoul and Montreal, those cities that celebrated the GSEF previously, to be the first city in Europe to hold this meeting,” Aburto said, “which is considered the most important social economy forum in the whole world.”

The European Economic and Social Committee defines social economy as a “set of private, formally-organized enterprises, with autonomy of decision and freedom of membership, created to meet their members’ needs through the market by producing goods and providing services, insurance and finance, where decision-making and any distribution of profits or surpluses among the members are not directly linked to the capital or fees contributed by each member, each of whom has one vote, or at all events take place through democratic and participative decision-making processes.”

It is a form of economy touted in some parts of Europe and the Americas.

“Social economy is in our DNA,” said Robert Beaudry, vice mayor of Montreal. “The GSEF meeting in Montreal in 2016 was fuel to the social economy movement in the city. We have set apart 22 action plans and a $17 million investment to help social economy development throughout the city, as well as a $9 million fund to help launch companies with a social economy model.”

“Spain today has 43,000 companies on social economy, whose production generates 10 percent of the national GDP,” said Magdalena Valerio, Spanish minister of labor, migrations and social security, in her opening remarks at the forum. “For the last five years, more than 7,000 cooperatives have been established, which create quality and stable employment.”

Social economy has been promoted in various parts of Asia. The government of Hong Kong has a funding for social enterprises that address local poverty issues or work with people with impairments.

The South Korean government adopted the Social Enterprise Promotion Act in 2007. The city government of Seoul was the first local government in the country to create funding specifically for social economy organizations and enterprises in 2012.

Since the city government funding was established, the number of social economy businesses in Seoul quadrupled from 819 in 2012 to 3,914 last year, according to the city government.

“There is such a high interest in this forum in Europe because they see Seoul as a rising city in Asia in terms of its social economy movement,” said a participant who works for a free-trade coffee company in Korea. “Their eyes are on Seoul.”

“We see that the movement for social economy is growing in Seoul,” said Yvon Poirier, an honorary member of the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy, a global network of groups across Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania that promote social economy. “The city has 30 local governments interested in social economy. That is notable.”

The three-day conference in Bilbao was well attended.

“The room is so full today,” said Ulla Engelmann, head of the Advanced Technologies, Clusters and Social Economy Unit of the European Commission, on the first day of the conference, “because people want to learn about social economy, and here is a decent forum where we can exchange ideas and best practices.”


City of international organizations

Just a decade ago, it was hard to imagine that an international organization created in Seoul would host conferences that would attract crowds from all over the world.

The first time that it helped establish an international organization was in 2010.

“This marks the first time that the Seoul city government led an effort to establish an international organization,” the city government said in a statement in September 2010, when the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization (WeGO) was established to share best practices in e-governance among cities.

GSEF is the second international network of cities and local governments that the Seoul city government helped establish.
Year by year, the city government has incrementally expanded the number of international organizations in Seoul.

In 2010, Seoul was home to 12 international organizations including the UN World Food Programme, International Organization for Migration and WeGO. The city government made it a goal in 2011 to attract at least 10 additional organizations to Seoul by 2014.

Though this goal was not met, as of last year, 17 more organizations opened their headquarters or branch offices in Seoul.

“By attracting more international organizations, Seoul will not only help create new jobs in this sector but also contribute to attracting more foreign direct investment and foreign consumers into the city, adding a boost to the local economy,” the city government said in its plan to attract more international organizations in 2017.

“There is a reason why other cities like New York, Geneva, Paris and London focus on attracting international organizations,” it said. “By hosting additional international bodies in Seoul, the city will be able to grow as a global leader among the others.”

The Seoul Global Center building in central Seoul today hosts the headquarters and branch offices of 11 international organizations including Iclei, Citynet, World Wildlife Fund, Unicef and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A lot of the staff members at these organizations are not from Seoul.

“I came to Seoul to study and then the opportunity to work for WeGO opened up,” said Alexandra Sidorova, a senior program officer at WeGO, who has been working for the organization since 2014.

Originally from the Russian city of Yakutsk, Sidorova handles most communications with the region.

“I was the focal point of contact for the regional government of Ulyanovsk when it co-hosted the general assembly of the organization last year,” she said. “Throughout the year, program officers manage various feasibility study trips and capacity building programs, as well as the ties with partner cities and companies.”

WeGO hosted its fourth general assembly meeting in Ulyanovsk, Russia, in June 2017, gathering some 400 representatives of cities, including more than 60 mayors, to share best practices on smart city development.

The 13-person office manages communications with some 150 member cities.

“Most of my calls [with partners in other cities] are made in the afternoon,” said Earl Burgos, a senior program officer at WeGO, “mostly because geographically, Europe, Africa and Asia are mostly awake in the afternoon here.”

Burgos, who is from the Philippines and has been working for the organization since 2014, also uses his regional expertise for his work.
“I have been leading the preparations for the executive committee meeting in Quezon City this year,” he said.

Also manning the forefront of communications with partner cities at WeGO are program officers Alizée Rousset, a French-Swede, and Adna Karabegovic, a Bosnian-American.

They say they were drawn to the city of Seoul.

“It’s an attractive city to spend your 20s and 30s,” Burgos said. “Some of the smart city projects here are definitely factors that pull people in. They are aware that Seoul is a leader in the field.”

“It is often the case that people find Seoul more advanced than they thought once they arrive here and see it for themselves,” Sidorova said. “Some of the international participants of WeGO’s programs here told me Seoul feels like a city of future.”
The first international organization established by Seoul is aiming for exponential growth.

“Our goal is to expand the network of WeGO to 1,000 cities and 500 companies in three years,” said Lee Kyong-yul, secretary general of WeGO. “It’s not an improbable goal — look around you, there are cities and countries with the same goals. China is talking about building 500 smart cities, India 100 cities, the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] countries came up on a 26-city network on smart city development, and Europe has 400 so-called living labs in cities to experiment with smart city solutions.

“The plan is to increase visibility on Seoul’s smart city practices by creating tangible results in our cooperation with companies,” he said. “Our work cannot be isolated to local governments but will increasingly have to involve more corporates and civic organizations.”

Cities for global agendas

In line with the city government’s plan to host additional international organizations to create an ecosystem for city-to-city cooperation is its plan to attract more large-scale conventions. It set apart 46 billion won ($40 million) in its budget from 2013 to this year to attract large global conferences into the city. Part of the plan is to build bigger convention venues, like the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

Seoul hosted 242 conferences in 2013, marking the fourth-largest number of international conferences in a city that year, according the Union of International Associations.

The number grew to 526 in 2016 and the city rose to rank No. 3, following Singapore’s 888 meetings and Brussels’ 906 meetings. Meetings in Seoul accounted for 5 percent of all meetings in cities throughout the world that year.

And many of them are proving to be platforms for cities to discuss common global agendas.

“Today we have 50 percent of the world’s population living in cities,” said Jean-François Martins, vice mayor in charge of tourism in Paris at a conference on urban tourism in Seoul last month. “On top of this, tourism in urban areas is growing, which doubles the saturation [of population] in cities. Cities will need to work together to find out how best to address the influx of tourists in highly populated areas.”
The conferences also provide benchmarking opportunities.

“There was some opposition to the Cheonggyecheon project at the time,” said Michael Koh, a fellow at the Centre for Liveable Cities in Singapore, at the Seoul Urban Regeneration International Conference hosted at Seoul City Hall on Sept. 13. “The decision to take down the road and open up the stream there drew some opposition because people were worried it would worsen traffic congestion in the area.
“But what did the Seoul city government do? It decided to remove the roads and cars from the area. And it turned out to be the right call,” he said. “Maybe traffic increased in some areas because of the project, but more people enjoyed the new space. So, sometimes, being smart for smart’s sake may not necessarily catch on. But I want to compliment Seoul for making a call and achieving this.”

Koh said urban regeneration projects such as Dongdaemun Design Plaza in eastern Seoul, which has increased foot traffic in the area, and renovations in Sinchon’s Yonsei-ro area to make it more pedestrian-friendly are “examples that Singapore looks to and learns from.”
Some of its digital policies are also being noticed.

“The digital office of the mayor of Seoul was very impressive,” said Céline Vanderborght, the smart-city manager for the Brussels-Capital Region, during her visit to Seoul for the Seoul Digital Summit last month. “I would recommend other experts to look into this initiative.”
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has a big-data system in his office that delivers information on disasters and accidents in the city in real-time, as well as on traffic conditions and civil complaints.

Through this system, which was established last year, Park can also make direct calls to officials on duty.

Mayor’s hope

In putting together its plans to attract more international organizations and conferences, the Seoul city government announced last year its so-called City Diplomacy Plan.

Though the city administration has drafted various plans for hosting international organizations and conferences before, it was the first time that a comprehensive plan to focus on city-to-city diplomacy was put forward.

Assessing its ties with some 60 cities throughout the world with whom Seoul signed accords to cooperate on various fields including ICT and digital innovation, the city government outlined plans to not only continue to expand ties with other cities and international organizations, but also to systemize city-to-city diplomacy in the city administration.

“We have shared Seoul city government policies with 36 other cities,” the city government said in its City Diplomacy Plan issued in March last year. “We are working on establishing a platform that will digitalize all of Seoul’s policies to facilitate exporting them to other cities.
“The mayors’ trips abroad will also be planned through close assessment of the policy needs of destination cities and what Seoul can share with them,” it said. “Seoul hopes to expand its cooperation with growing cities in ASEAN, south India and CIS regions.”

The plan also includes establishment of an international mayoral congress in Seoul to discuss city-to-city cooperation on issues related to urban environment, traffic and housing; building international organization hubs in the Seoul Innovation Park, northern Seoul, and southeastern Seoul; creating a regular meeting among the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local governments to coordinate their diplomacy efforts; identifying and working with foreign residents in Seoul who can represent the city government’s diplomacy vision; and working with some 230 private and nonprofit organizations in Seoul that have international projects to possibly fund their programs.

In his third term as mayor of Seoul, Park emphasized the role of cities in making a difference in the world.

“The role expected of city governments in solving global problems has really grown over time,” Park said in a meeting with reporters during his trip to Europe earlier this month to meet with city representatives for cooperation on smart city development and digital innovation. “Their role was highlighted at the COP 21 conference in Paris, when some 500 mayors got together to create the Compact of Mayors, which was later renamed the Covenant of Mayors.

“Central governments will continue to play their role in diplomacy by setting in line the big picture and direction in terms of relations among countries,” he said. “But it will [be] up to the local and city governments to carry out the initiatives in detail.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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