MANY have described South Korea’s development over the last half century as spectacular. We now know why. Not so long ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, the country was not very different from us. Underdeveloped and relatively poor. But it is different today. Studies of the country’s rise from poverty point to one major success factor — innovation. South Korea is now a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of rich industrialised countries. In 2010, it became the first Asian country to host a G20 summit. The country is now rich and technologically advanced.
|“Innovation in all its forms, particularly technological innovation, has become a crucial driver of growth, enhancing competitiveness and increasing social wellbeing in all economies of the world.”
South Korea makes use of innovation to drive growth. Samsung, for example, has taken on Apple in the smart phones business.
Many are keen to know their secrets. President Park Chung-hee may have provided the turning point for South Korea. His policy reforms opened the economy up to international trade and motivated equally aggressive investments in innovation by both government and industry. The outcome has been astounding. In the early days when the country was less developed, who would have thought that South Korea would one day own global brands like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, just to name a few. Who would have imagined then that Samsung would take on global brands like Apple in the smart phones business? And Hyundai to challenge Honda for a share of the global car market. Many must still remember the days when we beat them in football to qualify for the first time in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Now, they are in the World Cup. Many believe it has been their commitment to innovation that truly paved the way to their success.
It is not surprising. According to the World Bank, “Innovation in all its forms, particularly technological innovation, has become a crucial driver of growth, enhancing competitiveness and increasing social wellbeing in all economies of the world.” But how did South Korea transform innovation from an activity dominated by academics into a strategic element of business? How did South Korea transform their companies to be highly passionate about innovation? For many years now, the industry there has taken over as the key driver of applied research. Our applied research is still driven by government institutions. Can we learn from the Korean experience to better energise our small and medium enterprises to invest and participate in research and development? Are there lessons from South Korea that can help stimulate innovation among our companies?
An analysis of the Korean innovation formula strongly suggests one key factor of success. And that is literally forcing the innovation culture on Korean business, policymakers, society and the academics. It has not been easy. Like us here, the Koreans were also not born with the innovation culture. They had to strategically cultivate the culture among the population. But how did they do this? There is ample evidence to show that they did this by resorting to the use of law. There, almost every initiative on innovation is implemented with some legal backup. They have laws on science governance. They create laws to stimulate the new technology areas of nanotechnology, biotechnology and many more.
We must try the Korean formula. We should do the same if we are to strengthen our innovation culture. We should proceed with the planned Science Act. It has been on the drawing board far too long. In fact, we should create other legal instruments to drive our science agenda. In Korea, they even have a law that makes it mandatory for the nation to invest in foresight studies every five years. Now, they are thinking of doing it every three years.
Through such laws, South Korea has been able to implement their innovation strategy effectively. We must remember innovation is a long-term process. For example, it took South Korea more than 20 years to be among the global leaders in nuclear technology! Now, they sell nuclear technologies. They also started by learning from international partners. The applied research in South Korea is based on the German Fraunhofer model. There is no doubt that South Korea has succeeded in strategically using the legal instruments to inculcate a vibrant innovation culture among its people, especially industry. The outcomes now speak for themselves. The country’s investment in innovation pays!