How a city can empower young change makers: lessons from Seoul

Seoul has been hugely supportive of social innovation and social entrepreneurship – and initiatives born in the South Korean capital are now spreading across borders. Sunit Shrestha, a member of the Mayor of Seoul's Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee, explores a city that's pioneering a new social economy, in the second of a series of essays on future trends for innovative cities

Seoul city has inspired the world with its collective cultural geniuses, from K-POP and K-Drama to the recent Candlelight Revolution that gave the world a beacon of hope in an ever darkening age of global democratic uncertainty. 

Now it has a chance to lead the world in another area: young people creating a new and desirable social economic future globally. A future where social and economic benefits are not a trade-off but rather reinforce each other; a world where social innovations are not bounded by national borders, but driven by a strong sense of global citizenship. This is not a far away dream but already an emerging reality in Seoul, with its strong social economy ecosystem, particularly in social enterprises and their incubators, accelerators and social investors. 

The city can become a place where young people can create their own desirable global futures, by celebrating the successes of change makers and social entrepreneurs. This will encourage and inspire them to take risks in pursuing their entrepreneurial path. Connecting them to the global impact community – from social innovators to impact investors – allows them to learn and imagine a vision with the reach and support of others worldwide. 

Hong Kong, through its multi-stakeholder partnerships, has been organising the Asia Social Innovation Award annually, as well as the MaD (Make a Difference) conference, exposing its young change makers to international inspirations and opportunities. The Taiwanese government, in collaboration with social enterprise ecosystem builders, has organised city-level, youth-focused events that complement privately-led social enterprise development initiatives. As a result of this, a large group of aspiring social entrepreneurs are connected with both the regional and the global social entrepreneurship scene. Taichung's city government went even further to provide the facility to host and support a global non-profit organisation that wants to move its regional headquarters into Taiwan. 

Seoul has surpassed all other Asian cities in making a new form of social economy a reality

Seoul has come up with many similar initiatives in the past. As a foreign observer who has been to Seoul more than 20 times over many years, most of my trips are spent with social entrepreneurs and ecosystem players. To me, it's clear that the city has surpassed all other Asian cities in making a new form of social economy a reality for its citizens. Mayor Park Won-soon’s policies on social economy and youth participation have provided a base for the social entrepreneurship ecosystem to grow successfully in the city. From the Social Innovation Park that converted government space into a hub for social innovators, to blockchain-based Social Impact Bond initiatives, as well as multiple support programmes for young social entrepreneurs – such policies have transformed Seoul into one of the most social entrepreneurship-friendly cities in the world. 

On the private front, we are seeing an emergence of youthful social entrepreneurs creating a collective of radically different futures that could also inspire the world. From the Terreno Spanish Restaurant, under Oyori Asia, that trains and supports migrant and disadvantaged people and also happens to be listed in the Michelin Guide, to the massively popular Marymond that creates lifestyle products such as phone cases, notebooks and accessories with a social justice concept. Treeplanet creates mobile games and runs a crowdfunding platform looking to plant half a million trees in over 10 countries. We are witnessing growing support structures too, with unique models such as HEYGROUND, a wholesome building that provides shared office and event spaces for dozens of social entrepreneurs with linkages to various social enterprise shops around nearby locations. D-Well, meanwhile, provides co-living and co-housing space for social entrepreneurs. Crevisse Partners and its supported social ventures create in-house talent ecosystems, where team members with different specialisations are shared among multiple social ventures in order to effectively grow their social ventures as a group. 

Many are beginning to take Seoul’s social innovations to the world

Many are beginning to take Seoul’s social innovations to the world. Oyori Asia has expanded its social ventures to Nepal, setting up multiple cafes successfully with similar models of training and providing job opportunities to disadvantaged youth. Marymond is exploring international opportunities. Crevisse Partners and MYSC, a social innovation development company, are partnering with the government agency KOICA and local incubators in Indonesia and Vietnam to accelerate social enterprises in those countries. The D-Well co-living model is also being replicated in Las Vegas in the United States. Cdot, a social innovation connecting and convening company, is working with partners to bring to Seoul a famous Vietnamese social enterprise, KOTO, that trains disadvantaged youth for job opportunities. ChangeFusion, the organisation I lead in Thailand, is exploring opportunities to bring HEYGROUND and other innovative Korean social enterprises to Thailand. 

Suddenly Seoul is rapidly becoming a new hub of social entrepreneurship, with linkages to the whole world. Perhaps, after K-POP and K-DRAMA comes ‘K-SE’. 

So what can Seoul city do to capitalise on this emerging movement of young change makers linking Seoul with the desirable global future? 

It could celebrate, connect, facilitate and support these cross-border youthful social entrepreneurs and intermediaries that are already working on this. Perhaps it could run a programme that systematically explores cross-border social innovation/social enterprise opportunities, that could position Seoul as a hub in this new wave of Asian-led social entrepreneurship. This could be done by inviting successful Seoul-based social entrepreneurs and intermediaries to share their work with the rest of the world. This would help develop credible cross-border impact scaling plans, and find them local partners in different countries. Similarly, the city can also screen, invite, connect and support social entrepreneurs who want to expand their impact to South Korea and host them in Seoul. We are seeing such approaches in New Zealand by the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, which invites international social entrepreneurs that ‘want to change from down under’ and even provides them with a ‘global impact visa’. There is already a strong link between Seoul’s social entrepreneurship ecosystem and its counterparts across Asia, especially in ASEAN countries. The city could start by capitalising on this initial linkage. 

By capitalising on these initiatives, one day these cross-border youthful social entrepreneurs can change the world, with Seoul as their global hub.

This essay is one of a series, Future Trends for Innovative Cities, curated by the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) and made possible with the support of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. It is republished here with their permission.