Why South Korea is so successful in innovative technology

February 11, 2019 12:44
The Pangyo Techno Valley, South Korea's Silicon Valley, reflects the frenzied pace of innovation and technology development in the entire country.  Photo: Reuters

Last October, I was invited to visit South Korea to see how it was able to achieve its ranking as one of the top three innovative countries in the world and in the Asia-Pacific region by Bloomberg and the World Intellectual Property Organization respectively.

One of the highlights was a visit to the Pangyo Techno Valley (PTV), South Korea's Silicon Valley, which is a miniature of innovation and technology (innotech) development in the entire country.

South Korea was deeply affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. However, the country rebounded and created an amazing economic miracle in the following two decades: its GDP per capita has doubled, its K-Pop and innotech have gained global renown, together with cosmetics and skin care products, home appliances, mobile phones, food, clothing and automobiles, all of which have driven exports more than fivefold during the period.

PTV was established at the end of 2004. it is located in Seongnam of Gyeonggi-do province, only 30 kilometers from Seoul. The government has invested over 100 billion won (US88.9 million) to build the 66-hectare Pangyo New Town (three times the size of the Hong Kong Science Park), with subways and highways connecting with Seoul and Incheon International Airport. The industrial complex is being developed in three phases; it is currently in the second phase of development.

Its convenient transportation network has attracted high-tech departments of large Korean enterprises such as Samsung, SK, and LG to set up office there. In fact, eight of the country's top 10 corporations as well as 1,306 IT companies have offices in PTV.

As of 2016, there were about 75,000 employees working in the valley, generating the largest number of job opportunities and contributing 22 percent of the province's GDP.

One of the factors that contributed to the success of Pangyo is the government’s strong support for innovation, including allocating more than a quarter of the land in PTV to research institutions.

In addition to nurturing startups, it also tests new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles – there will be two driverless bus services traveling between Pangyo railway station and the valley for a 12-month trial period starting from the beginning of this year.

The success of PTV is founded on the aggregate efforts of the country over the past 20 years.

Firstly, Korean people have been working very hard for it.

Secondly, Koreans start to learn computer coding from kindergarten, enabling the education system to provide ample talent for the technology industry.

Thirdly, they are very patriotic and proud of their country. They support their home culture, arts and products wholeheartedly.

During our exchange tour, a lot of local college students acted as tour guides. They took us to sight-seeing at the old market, night market, monuments and museums. Their keen desire to learn and humble attitude were very impressive.

What’s more, they all wish that their country can catch up with China in economic development one day.

In Hong Kong, young people seem to be complacent and obstinate. But as Professor Charles Kuen Kao has observed, it is normal for young people to be rebellious.

I still remember seeing a job advertisement on a hotel reservation website at the Pangyo subway station in Seoul. The starting salary was 50 million won (about HK$340,000) a year, and it promised “Monday start work at 1 p.m”. and “three free meals a day”, which sound really attractive to young people.

With the help of a number of favorable science and technology policies and an increasingly fertile soil for innotech in Hong Kong, I hope there will be more opportunities for our young people to develop their potential.

Then one day, we could see job advertisements everywhere competing for local talent similar to those we see in Pangyo today.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong