Observations From Korea’s Creative Economy 2013 Conference

Xconomy National — 

Innovation is one of those goals that transcends borders. Spurring technology innovation, and through it the creation of new industries that accelerate job growth, is always high on the agenda of any advanced economy.

But what if you had to change the culture of an entire nation at the same time?

That’s a major part of the challenge facing South Korea, where I recently took part in a conference called Creative Economy 2013. The four-day conference was the outgrowth of the massive Creative Economy initiative formally launched earlier this year by new president Park Geun-hye to try to overcome some 15 years of declining or stagnant GDP growth rates and make it more competitive for the long term.

As part of a small group from the U.S. invited to speak at the conference, I had the great honor of meeting President Park and other dignitaries in a private session on the opening day of the event, December 11. (Disclosure: transportation, hotel, breakfast, and a $400 honorarium for other expenses were provided by the conference organizer, the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning.)

This was actually the second time I had met her in seven months: the first occasion was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles last May, where some of the same group and others met to share ideas and perspectives on fostering entrepreneurship and innovation in advance of the Creative Economy’s formal unveiling the following month (Park only took office in February, so she is moving fast).

Our entourage included some leading Korean-American entrepreneurs, as well as others, like me, who are immersed in the innovation economy and hopefully have some insights to share. Among them: Steve Kahng, founder of Power Computing (an early Macintosh clone company ultimately bought by Apple); Israeli and New York venture capitalist Zeev Klein of Landmark Ventures; Stanford University engineering professor Thomas Lee, former director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office; New York-based Suk Park, co-founder of entertainment startup DramaFever; former University of Alabama system chancellor Malcolm Portera; Kay Seo, senior director for open innovation at Bell Labs; and mysimon.com founder Michael Yang.

Four of the group came from the Boston area: early stage investor Kija Kim, of Clark Hill Partners; Hikyu Lee, co-founder and CEO of Olev Technologies, a wireless charging company; intellectual property lawyer Bruce Sunstein; and me.

That's me between the moderator and Power Computing founder Steve Kahng. I missed the name of the Korean entrepreneur on the right.

That’s me between the moderator and Power Computing founder Steve Kahng. I missed the name of the Korean entrepreneur on the right.

At its root, the Creative Economy initiative is about cultivating an environment for high-tech innovation by spurring entrepreneurship, venture capital investment, new collaborations, mentoring, and more. The idea is to enhance the competitiveness of existing industries while also creating new ones—all things that in the U.S. we see as omnipresent but are always trying to improve.

In Korea, as in many other nations in Asia and elsewhere, the challenge is cultural as well as economic. I heard this time and time again—at the conference, in special meetings with various government and industry officials, and in a visit to a Seoul startup accelerator called D.Camp. Almost everyone spoke about the imperative to spur risk-taking, to be more innovative in their thinking, and to praise (rather than ostracize) people who try to create new businesses but come up short initially. As a briefing paper we were given put it, the initiative seeks to help “people with indomitable entrepreneurial spirit take on the challenge again without fear of failure.”

None of this will surprise readers who have experienced these same cultural restraints (in Asia or elsewhere). But it seems rare in my experience, anyway, to have the sentiment come from the very top. As President Park said in her opening keynote, the country is in “dire need of a paradigm shift.” Korea, she said, can no longer just follow industrialized countries—real recovery will “depend on who has more ideas and who will be more creative.”

The goal of the Creative Economy is to uncover and foster people’s “hidden and potential talent,” she said. “Dazzle us with your capabilities.”

The economic situation against which this cultural shift is framed is … Next Page »

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