Creating new possibilities to make human(e) cities — governance in the digital age

Since I have returned to Seoul, South Korea, many have asked why we need regulatory experimentation, what governance innovation means, and what are the relevant pathways to change. I hope this blog gives a glimpse of answering some of these questions from personal experience. We would like to build a shared interest in, and urgency around, creating new governance models and regulatory innovation through micro-massive experimentation.


In this blog, we argue firstly that the complex societal risks of the 21st century and the technological advances of the fourth industrial revolution can be both challenges and opportunities for our current governance models. Secondly, to shift complex systems, it is necessary to test strategic options for change through deliberate experimentation. To illustrate this, we discuss the example of Planning Tech through a street licence experiment, seeing how this can be applied to cities. Third, we suggest several experiments that sketch out institutional infrastructures for cities in the digital era, concluding that the subversive meaning of such experimentation is the paradigm change of experiencing, understanding and designing the city differently. This leads to a philosophical question around technological progress in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, namely how it should be used for advancing positive human freedom and ennoblement instead of as a mechanism of control or behavioural-economic efficiency.

Challenges and possibilities of governance

Korea faces a wide range of new societal challenges. Global warming, income inequality (the top 10% of Korean population account for almost 50% of the nation’s total income), platforms that have become distribution channels of fake news, attempts at new regulations that backfire and erode trust in the government — the future risks faced by Korean society are complicated. Clearly, it is difficult to address these issues with a vertical, hierarchical governance model centered on the government.

News headlines:

The development of information technology (eg. Internet, IT) and intelligent technology (eg. AI, IoT, Data) both requires and enables us to update our traditional ‘19th century’ governance models — as it brings about the possibility of a new governance model in the digital age. For example, automation and artificial intelligence technologies are bringing about radical efficiencies in the management of systems, reducing bureaucratic costs to near-zero. In addition, as we convert regulations into machine-recognisable codes, dealing with complex decisions using parametric variations, this regulation could be constantly retweaked, refreshed and reinforced to respond to the need of changes in humans and machines.

Reimagining next generation of governance through experimentation

A common misconception about governance in the digital age is that it replaces ‘analog’ regulation with ‘digital’ regulation. For example, in imagining the process for something as simple as getting a permit for street-trading, we imagine a digitised version of our existing series of procedures (write an application, submit to the government’s office, read the compliance clauses in the relevant regulations, sign the contract, and get a permit). But the new tools used in digitised regulations do far more than just ‘putting the process online’ or making it more economically efficient. Limiting it to that would be ‘faster horses’ thinking, which fails to recognise how the creation of automated regulatory compliance stands to revolutionise the more fundamental ways in which these processes are run. As we move into this unprecedented territory, there are certain structural questions we should be asking in advance:

  1. In what ways do we want future regulation to deal with complex problems and the fast pace of changes in cities, where new demands, challenges and opportunities are rarely predictable?
  2. What are the pertinent ways of writing and adjusting policies, legislation and regulations for this emerging future?
  3. More foundationally, what could be the entirely new regulatory infrastructures of the digital age required to enable everyone to flourish in living and working in — and creating — in our cities?

Of course, this type of questions cannot be proven and answered through an innovation approach focussed on fixing issues through simple problem-solving within the status quo or the creation of new public services within narrowly defined policy siloes. They require experimentation.

According to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin system change framework, in complex systems — where it is almost impossible to untangle cause and effect through reasoning alone — we need iterative experiments to make decisions. This is because the situation is constantly changing in unpredictable ways due to numerous interdependent external / internal factors, implying that neither statistics nor precedents from the past are necessarily useful to inform your options in the future. The Cynefin conceptual framework explains this process as “probe (experimenting) — sense (giving meaning to collective experience) — respond (changing the system)”. In other cases, where there is a clearer relationship between cause and effect, the rule is applied through a simpler set of categorisation processes, “sense — categorise — respond”. This helps us to imagine a range of regulatory experiments from relatively simple policy issues to complex social problems using different processes of designing solutions.

Since the challenges facing Korea and other societies are characterised by complexity, interdependence and a fast pace of change, we need to be highly agile in response, lest we fall in the ‘relevance gap’ as our incrementally improving practice fails to keep up with exponentially growing challenges. This means a focus on articulating and testing new approaches and options for strategic innovation through experiments, and investment in our capacity to adopt new realities and emerging insights into co-designed futures. Experimentation therefore isn’t a ‘nice to have’, marginal to the policy formation or eccentric — it is critical to envisioning the next generation of governance models, and therefore to strategic innovation around the shared challenges of our time

An example: machine readable regulation for everyday urban life

Governance experiment: Planning Tech, Street trading licence

In November 2018, Radicle prototyped a hypothetical experiment called “Street trading licence design” during the Unusual Suspects Festival SEOUL. Participants received: 1) a series of hypothetical scenarios eg. Silent street festivals* in unused city spaces; and 2) an overview of technological trends on the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: data, identity, reputation, place, traceability, compliance, permission and civic oath. This enabled them to create a set of speculative futures in which machine readable licensing would be used in designing, using and governing city space.

* An event to enjoy listening to music together through wireless headphones with FM transmitters: festivals free from noise pollution while reducing the time and space constraints of live performance contents

The session explored new regulatory infrastructures, for instance, using Augmented reality (AR) to find the potential location for the festival through hidden messages from others; taking a selfie to verify one’s identity connected with other social IDs, and linking to environmental data to ensure real-time compliance with e.g. noise regulations. All this could complement or even replace the traditional structures of governance: the application form, permit issuance and regulatory compliance. The following scenarios are several small experimental options which help to explore the kinds of elements this infrastructure could include.


  1. There is little permanent open space in Seoul
  2. The average green space per person in Seoul is 6.56㎡ (London 27㎡, New York 23㎡, Paris 13㎡)
  3. Planning a silent street festival to create a temporary space for people to come together (Digital oath / pledge)
  4. Finding possible locations using augmented reality maps (Geolocation in augmented reality)
  5. Applying for a licence by adding place, time, and purpose of use via smartphone application
  6. Taking a selfie, biometric identity connecting with social IDs (Digital ID)
  7. Ensuring traders have awareness of health and safety through compulsory training videos (Time stamps to confirm viewing)
  8. Monitoring real-time noise level compliance via IoT sensor (Auto compliance)
  9. Giving real-time comments and ratings
  10. Smart receipts which allow automatic payments to taxes/community development funds (Point of sale)
  11. Storing data in the public data registry (Data black box)
  12. Independent third-party platform algorithms automatically re-write codes in real time and optimise ‘regulatory conditions’ (Machine learning regulation)

New possibilities of creating new urban space

This street license experiment was aimed at finding or at least suggesting a the range of new possibilities, as if seeing a vast spectrum of the light throughout the smallest slit. It also aimed to grow participants’ knowledge and insight about how technology advances could be applied and used in various situations — stretching our ability to imagine future realities. During the session, a set of similar future scenarios invited us to answer questions on what we want to regulate or be regulated, how we will regulate, and who will be part of designing and regulating our cities.

We live in an era of large scale of citizen engagement — in campaigns and protests, civic initiatives and shared debates. Linked with technology this now enables us to change policies in a variety of ways — and through that, perhaps politics as well. And this matters to cities more than ever, as we now understand that the value of the city (both to its citizens in everyday life, and to the economy) is critically dependent on a huge range of intangible, hard to grasp factors — the kind of unpredictable and messy, but hugely creative, entrepreneurial and valuable initiatives that citizens take — if they can. Government and its city planners have traditionally been pretty good at providing the hardware of our cities, the primary physical must-haves. But it is the intangible, softer assets that matter just as much for our shared quality of life and therefore for people’s well-being. In economic terms, they support both the productivity of the workforce and the retention of talent. Sometimes, city governments come up with masterstroke ideas for this — think of Paris Plage or Seoul’s re-opening of the Cheonggye Stream — but frequently they depend on their citizens to take unexpected initiatives, ideally in an open and collaborative process. Bringing together an increasingly engaged citizenry and the new opportunities that technology offers us could unlock such new ways of working together through distributed networks of agency right across the city, from its core to its many different neighbourhoods. It could create a new, uniquely 21st Century institutional norm, where people can have meaningful ‘micro-massive’ influence over how their cities look and feel not (just) through elections and formal consultations, but through a myriad of collaborative actions.

In short, a fundamental shift taking place in regulatory innovation is to give new possibilities to liberate urban policy beyond questions of efficiency and order. Technology pushes up against the limits of our current regulatory systems and traditional governance models, as well as offering new domains of understanding, designing, using and governing urban space. We believe that regulatory experimentation is an opportunity not just to create a new governance model for the 21st century but ultimately to make our cities more human(e) in their civic, social, economic life.

Practically there are several other examples of regulatory experiments that could prototype the future of the human(e) city:

  1. Open API (data interoperability to improve city services),
  2. Street licence (licensing mechanism that can use urban space for various purposes),
  3. Machine readable compliance (using machine learning and data to optimise policy/regulation in transportation, security & public safety and energy),
  4. Smart rental agreement (radical service to lend material / non-material capital on an hourly basis),
  5. Code of Conduct for the use of Algorithms (standard Code of Conduct/Ethics in the Public sphere),
  6. Smart receipts (automation of transaction specification/distribution process),
  7. Open source supply chain (automation of supply chain management and trace inventory/materials),
  8. Smart procurement (optimized investment/transaction completion through real-time data collection and analysis),
  9. Smart covenant (social contract where some of the proceeds are automatically paid for social purposes),
  10. Self-repairing streets (constantly changing / modifying urban spaces according to automated repair systems), and
  11. Smart land registry (using blockchain to register land ownership and property-related government transactions)                    

Can technology be used as a tool of ‘control’ or ‘freedom’?

The ‘2017 Global Risk and Trends’ of the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that the maximisation of social benefits and the mitigation of any future threats or risks brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution depends on the quality of governance: the rules, norms, standards, incentives and mechanisms that influences the impacts of technological development. As seen in examples such as China’s data-based social credit system, concerns about human rights violations and ethical concerns about the applications of rapidly growing machine learning capabilities are already being discussed: they recognise the risk of tech-driven innovation as a control mechanism . The alternative is ‘human-centered innovation’ that focuses on maximising the real, positive everyday freedoms of people beyond the frame of economic efficiency or behavioural control. This interpretation opens up the possibility — and highlights the urgency — to initiate new dialogues with each other to co-design the futures around bringing out the best in each of us not through coercion but through collaboration.

This piece has been co-authored by Eunji Kang(Eunji Kang), Chloe Treger(Chloe Treger), Joost Beunderman(Joost Beunderman) and Indy Johar (Indy Johar).