MIT GOV/LAB is excited to welcome our new Project Manager for Governance Innovation, Seongkyul Park! Seong is a social innovation strategist with 10 years of experience partnering with frontline teams to research and co-design solutions in educational, international development, and governance contexts. She has previously worked with leading organizations such as Proximity Designs, Myanmar, and Public Policy Lab, New York. 

Our Policy & Communications Associate, Akshat Singh speaks with Seong about her past work, her recent trip visiting GOV/LAB partners in Sierra Leone and plans at MIT. 

Akshat: Firstly, welcome to GOV/LAB! Let’s start by talking about how you got interested in governance innovation? Could you tell me about how your previous work, and academic experience led you to the field? 

Image: Seong traveling to Freetown with a team of MIT GOV/LAB researchers and staff. Credits: Carlos Centeno

Seong: Curiosity. I have always been curious about figuring out ways to bridge social inequities. I started out in the nonprofit sector, working with refugees and urban youth, then transitioned into the social enterprise space because I was curious about a more creative and financially sustainable approach to work. Being trained in Anthropology, I also wanted to work in ways that centered people’s lived experiences, especially communities not traditionally represented in spaces of power.

While building creative capacity building programs for an agricultural social enterprise in Myanmar, I saw how designing income-boosting products or services with smallholder farmers could meet their needs in ways the government or the private sector wasn’t addressing. The iterative process also enabled quick innovations. I wanted to see if governments could adopt a similar approach to scale impact. When the military coup reversed Myanmar’s hard-won economic progress, I strengthened my conviction about the government’s role – the benefits of innovation are limited without the right environment. 

This brought me into government adjacent work here at MIT. I believe that influential work happens on the ground, and that spaces closer to the power levers must also be used for complementary structural change. Having spent most of my career at the community or practitioner-level, I also wanted to step back a little to understand what shapes ecosystems of innovation, a crucial question I wish to explore at GOV/LAB. 

Akshat: What is the most challenging experience that you have faced in your years of professional policy work? 

Leaving Myanmar and observing the aftermath of the 2021 military coup was heartbreaking. Until the coup, the democratic experiment was taking root and people were reaping the rewards of it.  Myanmar people are continuing to find creative and inspiring ways to improve their country’s conditions in spite of this setback – their resolve reminds me that structural change requires persistence and patience.

In the past, I’ve also worked in some contexts where pushing the boundaries required permission. I imagine these are the kinds of challenges that civil servants face when they’re trying to make incremental changes within institutional constraints. For this reason, I was attracted by MIT GOV/LAB’s spirit of experimentation, risk-taking, and creativity; but even more so by its goal to research and support other government actors to innovate despite constraints. 

Akshat: You recently came back from your first GOV/LAB trip to Sierra Leone. The lab is working with local government agencies there. Could you tell me a little about the work there?

Seong: We’re working at both the city and national levels to research or co-design for governance challenges, whether that’s improving back-end government processes, public service delivery models, or citizen engagement.

At the national level, we’re working with the Directorate of Science, Technology, & Innovation (DSTI) to understand how they established themselves as a government lab and are providing valuable design expertise to other ministries, departments, and agencies. In a conversation with Michala Mackay, the Director and Chief Operating Officer, she expressed her hopes that the innovations produced by DSTI would improve the lives of ordinary people across Sierra Leone, such as school children who want to learn. We met other such brilliant thought leaders who could do anything in the world, and who are choosing to deal with complex problems alongside government bureaucracies. This is very motivating. 

At the city-level, we are working with the Freetown City Council to strengthen community consultation for urban planning projects. Our designer-researcher Andre Arruda has been working with key members of the FCC to systemize this work, so we are excited to see how this will shape up over the next few months.

Akshat: “What are you most excited about in the coming months with the Innovation Team?”

So much! We’ve been using different models to build up governance design skills of our country partners. So far the model’s included a bootcamp, an accelerator, and a designer-researcher program. I’m looking forward to analyzing what works best and producing toolkits that civil servants can use to shape cultures, teams, or institutions that drive change within governments. I’m also eager for our Global South government partners and MIT scholars to refine and co-produce new bodies of design frameworks that are specifically relevant for developing country contexts. 

We’re also in the process of strengthening our multi-country research strategy, which will shape the types of case studies we produce as an academic lab. For example, what conditions are most favorable to innovating within government? Does it take a certain kind of an individual? Or a certain kind of a lab embedded within, outside, or between key government bodies? Are there certain political or social variables – such as the elections coming up for both Sierra Leone and Nigeria – that pressure or stall countries from innovating? I’m excited for the Innovation Team to narrow down and test these hypotheses, and expand upon our learning community to do so. And I haven’t even mentioned the tech and community building components we hope to address later next year! 

On a personal level, I’m excited to continue working with our country partners. One of the best parts about my role here is working closely with creatives, managers, and advisers from countries like Sierra Leone and Nigeria. They’re good at what they do and we have fun doing the work. So I’m excited to see what we explore together! 

Header Image: MITGOV/LAB’s Innovation Team visiting the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation in Sierra Leone. Credits: DSTI.