Technology Lessons from Seoul, South Korea

It is humbling to be an American technology expert visiting Seoul, South Korea. In case you don’t know it, that Asian city has the world’s fastest broadband. While there for the inaugural general assembly of the World e-Government Organization, I compared notes with meeting host Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. He told me his broadband speed ranges from 100 to 300 mbps, while I had to confess mine averages 50 at the office and a meager four at my Washington, D.C. home.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has new mobile applications for smart phones. Through their mobile devices, people can find when the next bus arrives, where the closest restaurants are to their current location, the latest data on air and water quality, and where traffic congestion is at its worst.

The city is a pioneer in civic engagement. When Mayor Oh recently asked ordinary citizens for ideas on improving metropolitan government, he got over 100,000 suggestions. He has implemented the best 180 ideas and is looking for others as well. Still, when pressed on future plans, he says Korea should not rest on its laurels. He wants the city to add enhanced services such as emergency planning, mobile TV, motion pictures, and GPS features.

He also is moving his city to the forefront of helping officials from other less fortunate places. His gathering of city leaders from 50 different municipalities around the world included mayors from African, southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern cities. Not only are they struggling with issues of poverty, housing, education, and transportation, their technology infrastructure is far less well-developed than what Korea has.

He feels it is his duty to work to narrow the digital divide across cities and share best practices. Public officials in the developed world should donate personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices to places that lack such hardware. Unless we work to close this divide, he believes the class divide will grow larger.

Seoul furthermore is committed to ambitious goals for green technology. By the year 2020, its metropolitan government has agreed to reduce energy consumption by 15 percent and greenhouse gases by 25 percent.

In an effort to combat corruption, city officials have placed information concerning government contracts online so that all can examine the money flow. Businesses and citizens can sign up for text alerts on metropolitan government contract opportunities. That way, no one can claim they were cut out and had no chance to place a competitive bid.

Through this leadership, the Seoul Metropolitan Government is setting a tremendous example for public officials in other countries. In an era of citizen cynicism, technology can become part of the solution of better government. By enabling citizen engagement, public transparency, and social collaboration, technology can improve the way the public sector performs.