The Seoul capital area in South Korea is the third largest metropolitan area in the world and the second most dense after Paris. With a population of nearly 26 million people (10 million in the city), the voice of the public is important, yet hard to hear. Fortunately, Seoul Metropolitan Government (that has a really cool website too), led by mayor Park Won-soon, truly cares about what its citizens have to say.
To celebrate the opening of the new City Hall in 2012, the government commissioned artist Soo-in Yang to create a public work that would send a clear message: We listen. Yang, who believes that, nowadays, “public art cannot afford to be just an aesthetic object to look at but must have a strong social message and direct participatory engagement with the public”, delivered.
The work, called Yobosayo (which is a Korean word used to start a conversation, similar to “Hello” or “Hey”), looks like a cross between a giant ear and a horn. It invites passersby to lean in and share their ideas about the city, as well as criticism or praise of the government. The recorded messages are then played in the City Hall building to other passing residents and officials. There is also a mechanism for “voting” messages up and down – the more people listen to a certain message, the more important it is labeled. Conversely, if no one wants to listen to a message, it is sent into a virtual recycle bin (a computer algorithm) where, together with other such messages, it’s turned into a unique musical piece played inside a Sound Gallery.
You’re probably thinking that this all sounds pretty well-intentioned, but are also wondering whether it’s making any difference. In a recent talk, mayor Park, who has had a thirty-year history as a social justice and human rights activist, said that he wants “to be the first mayor to truly change the lives of citizens”:
Hearing [out the people] is my everyday business. My ear is becoming bigger and bigger. I’m communicating with the citizens, [and] there are so many demands. On the spot, I’m asking my staff to resolve the complaint. Within one week their complaint has been resolved. Now, the people can easily communicate with me.
Public suggestions collected by Yobosayo and other government initiatives have resulted in several projects, including late-night buses that serve 2,000 passengers per day, safe zones for children, and parking spaces near small eateries to increase their sales. Park also noted that in the first six months since the project launched, the city was able to resolve 98 percent of the complaints reported to them.
As Dr. Eddie Dorotan, executive director of Galing Pook Foundation, said, the hope is that other cities and the national government will also take notice: “Our only hope is the national government would listen because there are a lot of small initiatives in the local level that we can replicate.”