I visited a most peculiar—and the most interesting—office so far in this series. It contained a kitchen garden, furniture made from recycled wood, disjointed bookshelves, a patchwork wall of Post-it notes and various columns of paper stacked several feet high. Its inhabitant is not an eccentric academic, as one might assume, but someone holding a powerful political position in his country. Meet Park Won Soon, the 57-year-old mayor of Seoul, a grassroots anti-corruption activist and former human rights lawyer, who contested and won the mayoral election as an independent candidate in October 2011.

The unusual workspace captures Park’s distinct political ideology, his personal charisma and idiosyncrasies—some of which underline my reasons for visiting South Korea. I was in Seoul to speak at a conference on social innovation and cities, co-hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Social Innovation Exchange, a global non-profit network of thinkers and doers in the social sphere.

Post-it notes with suggestions and requests from citizens

Each item in Park’s office has a story. The handwritten Post-it notes at the entrance are specific requests and suggestions by citizens urging him to “build more playgrounds" or “create more jobs", for example.

Park received them during his election campaign and inauguration; they are consistent with Park’s campaign slogan that “Citizens are the mayor". They also serve as a daily reminder of the need to focus on “the small and the trivial things in citizens’ everyday lives", he says, rather than big-budget projects which add to the city’s deficit and do not improve everyday life for all. He adds: “ I want to start with small but definitive change; the big picture is too abstract." Better pavement construction; eco-friendly, free school lunches; and more public rental housing are personal milestones for Park.

A kitchen garden in one corner of his office

The creative symbolism extends to his office furniture. A wedge of bookshelves is artfully inserted between two deliberately slanted cabinets to join them. The slanted shelves represent social gaps “between rich and poor, the left and the right, elderly and young. My vision is to be a bridge", explains Park. Elsewhere, a meeting table is made of recycled wood by a carpenter from a social enterprise, who sourced and re-fashioned material from old wardrobes, shoeshelves and drawers into a table.

A wedge of bookshelves artfully inserted between two deliberately slanted cabinets to join them

Personalized artworks proliferate on every available surface—a cartoon showing Park growing older, a children’s drawing of Seoul, a small poster with “Big Ear leadership", highlighting his desire to be perceived as a leader who listens to his constituents, and a cardboard placard with “Social Designer" on it—an unusual epithet.

Park likes to think of himself as a “social innovator"—or someone who uses creativity, empathy and insight to generate user-driven, innovative solutions to tricky social challenges. “The answer is always at the site of the problem," he says, adding that he spends many hours travelling on local trains or visiting public housing projects to understand the citizens’ challenges himself, in the same way as professional designers dig deep to understand user needs when trying to come up with new products or services.

A cardboard placard saying ‘Social Designer’

I’ve been to several creative workspaces over the years, but never have I met someone who has so deliberately—and cost-effectively— leveraged his office as a personalized communication tool with his target audience. Park’s offbeat workspace might warrant scepticism about his governance approach. The symbolism in his office might even seem gimmicky or self-promotional.

But, he’s on to something: the citizen-oriented ideology has made him popular with constituents. Even the few businesspeople I spoke to in Seoul, who point out that he’s not as focused on business as his predecessors, concede that he is doing good work for the city.

Citizens, communities and institutions

A piece of furniture made with recycled wood.
A piece of furniture made with recycled wood.

“I’m always trying to invite citizens to participate in the process of public decision-making. That’s the reason why I’m trying to establish various institutions," says Park. These institutions include the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an anti-corruption movement started by Park in 1994; The Beautiful Store, a second-hand goods retailer started in 2002; and The Hope Institute, a think-and-do tank focused on social challenges set up in 2006.

Lessons from Seoul

So what insight does this rather quirky mayor in a highly developed city, several thousand kilometres away, have to offer us?

First, Park’s approach to democracy can be replicated in other countries, by other players. In fact, US President Barack Obama’s path to power is similar—grass-roots activism, community mobilization and public life experience as a lawyer.

Park’s success seems to lie in his ability to build and scale institutions, and thus mobilize people and resources in effective ways. Along the way, he has been quick to adopt new ideas and tools such as social innovation or social media, which help him remain connected, and relevant, to a younger audience.

A cartoon shoiwing Park growing older

Third, and the most basic conclusion: cities need someone to run them, whom citizens can hold accountable. The Seoul city administration claims, on its website, that it is currently pursuing 286 projects, straddling all the usual important issues such as transport, education, health and energy, among others. Park says he has asked all his staff to make data available to the public. “Transparency increases credibility and accountability," he insists. Just these tenets could be a good beginning in thinking about how we shape our cities.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.