The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Design Seoul Wins INDEX: Award but its Future Uncertain

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Children playing in Gwanghwamun Square (Source: INDEX:)

Seoul, South Korea - The city of Seoul has been undergoing a design renaissance of sorts over the last five years.  Modern-day Seoul, home to more than 10 million people, grew from a landscape that was almost completely destroyed by the Korean War.  The rebuilding effort focused on growing quickly and on a large scale, with quality of life considerations a distant second to meeting basic living requirements.

Since the end of the war, South Korea has achieved tremendous economic development, going from having a GDP equivalent to Ghana’s to having the 13th highest GDP in the world today. However, as many residents of Seoul can attest, the city's resulting infrastructure is challenging with respect to its livability. On a daily basis, residents navigate through a densely populated concrete jungle, severe traffic congestion (despite an excellent public transportation system), pollution and chaotic neon signage.  On the flip side, Seoul has not maximized its natural gifts, including the Han River that bisects the city and its mountainous landscape.  

Many of Seoul's design-based initiatives can be traced to its recently resigned mayor, Oh Se-Hoon. Upon Oh's inauguration in 2006, he envisioned designing a new Seoul, with a plan based on designing people-oriented solutions addressing not only aesthetic challenges, but social, environmental and public health issues, as well as revitalizing the design industry in Seoul.   The result was the founding of Design Seoul Headquarters in May 2007 - a project devoted to transforming Seoul into an iconic design capital. cannot lose sight of the greater impact these [design] changes have on the city as a whole.

The projects implemented under the Design Seoul initiative were key factors in Seoul being designated the 2010 World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design and being appointed by UNESCO as a UNESCO City of Design in July 2010.  On September 1, 2011, the city of Seoul added another recognition to its list - Design Seoul was awarded the INDEX: Design to Improve Life award in the Community category. INDEX: uniquely contributes to design discourse by specifically looking for those designs that target and solve the challenges and problems of human life. INDEX: prizes may be the world’s largest monetary prize for design, with a total purse of 500,000 euros divided amongst five award winners.

According to the INDEX: jury, comprised of an international group of designers, design scholars, business people and curators, Design Seoul is the "first ever coherent design-based approach to improve life for citizens in a very large city". The INDEX: jury stated that "[t]his solution tackles the problem from a holistic perspective - usually this is addressed piece by piece, but Seoul takes it on from a systems perspective. Furthermore, the phase-staged design strategy created to roll out the changes makes the plan visible on the scale of the individual, neighborhood and city, ensuring the support of the citizens - from the Han River to street lights to the sewer system."

In accordance with guidelines developed by Design Seoul, projects aim to improve five aspects of the lives of Seoulites: living, economy, environment, cultural and communication.  According to Chung Kyung-Won, Design Seoul's Chief Design Officer from May 2009 to 2011, approximately 700 projects are overseen by Design Seoul per year, some of which include:

  • the Dasan Call Center, a city-wide information telephone service for locals and foreigners;
  • the Gwanghwamun Square project that has transformed part of a 16-lane road into a new public space in downtown Seoul that emphasizes historical and cultural aspects of Korea;
  • the Namsan Renaissance project that is restoring the ecological system and historical assets of Mount Namsan, a mountain in the centre of Seoul, and includes scenic jogging routes;
  • the Hangang Renaissance project which has created a leisure infrastructure and cultural centre along the Han River;
  • streets and buildings are also undergoing a rejuvenation to make the city more people-friendly and efficient; and
  • construction of a new City Hall and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park are in progress.

Through all of these initiatives, Design Seoul has been gradually transforming the landscape of Seoul in ways that have not gone unnoticed by its citizenry. But, with all such initiatives, Design Seoul has its critics - citizens and civic groups who argue that taxpayers' money should not be wasted on decorating the face of the capital. While Design Seoul's recent award of the esteemed INDEX: prize may change some minds, recent events in Seoul that culminated in the resignation of Oh, Design Seoul's champion, on August 25, 2011, has cast doubt on the scope of Design Seoul in the future.  With Oh's critics opposing many of Design Seoul's initiatives, at best, some projects may stagnate, at worst the whole thing may be scrapped altogether.


Gwanghwamun Square at night
(Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government)

But, many residents view Design Seoul's initiatives as beyond mere beautification, if not yet agreeing with, or realizing, the long-term vision of Design Seoul to transform quality of life of Seoulites at a systemic level.  Says Jen Kim, an attorney at Korean law firm Kim & Chang and long-time resident of Seoul: "I am a firm supporter of taxpayers' funds being put towards these causes.  While we need to ensure that appropriate compensation is made to those whose livelihood is affected by these beautification projects, you cannot lose sight of the greater impact these changes have on the city as a whole. I hope [Design Seoul] continues on after Mayor Oh's resignation and that whoever replaces him has the same kind of long-term vision for the city." 



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