What Hong Kong can learn from Korea on innovation

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Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong


“Starting pay ₩50 million. Monday start work at 1pm. 3 free meals a day”

This is a job advertisement from a hotel reservation website posted at Pangyo subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The most eye-catching fact is that this annual starting salary of ₩50 million (about HK$340,000/a, or HK$28,000/month) is targeted at fresh university grads. And they can skip working Monday morning. And it isn’t a Goldman Sachs job. It’s more than double the median wage in Hong Kong. A typical starting salary for a Hong Kong university grad is half that amount. Clearly, tech pays in Korea for even the youngest workers.

In October this year, I was invited to visit Seoul to see how South Korea has achieved 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.

The Pangyo Techno Valley (PTV) is South Korea’s Silicon Valley, an important information technology town. It is a miniature representation of innovation and technology (innotech) development across Korea today.

South Korea was once drowned by the financial turmoil in 1997. However, the country created an amazing economic miracle in the following 20 years: its GDP per capita has doubled. Its K-Pop and innotech are popular all over the world. Cosmetics and skin care products, home appliances, mobile phones, food, clothing and automobiles have all driven exports to grow by more than five-fold during the period.

The mighty PTV

PTV was developed at the end of 2004, it is located in Seongnam of Gyeonggi-do province, only 30 km from Seoul. The government has invested over ₩100 billion (over HK$700 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 development of PTV is being undertaken 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 an office there. In fact, 8 of the top 10 corporations in Korea, as well as 1,306 IT companies, have offices located in the Valley.

As of 2016, there were about 75,000 employees working in the Valley, generating the largest number of job opportunities and contributing 22% 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 one-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 travelling between Pangyo railway station and the valley for a trial period of 12 months starting from the beginning of 2019.

Actually, the success of PTV is founded on the aggregate efforts of Korea over the past 20 years.

The Korean story

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

Secondly, they begin learning computer coding starting from kindergarten, which provides ample talent for the technology industry.

Thirdly, they are very patriotic and proud of their country. Koreans support their home culture, art and products wholeheartedly. Our exchange tour has many local college students acting as tour guides.  They took us sight-seeing at the old market, night market, monuments and museums. Their keen spirit for learning and humble attitude is very impressive.

And then, Hong Kong

However, as for Hong Kong, young people seem to be complacent and obstinate.  As said by Professor Charles Kuen Kao, it is normal for young people to be rebellious though. With the help of a number of favourable science and technology policies and increasingly fertile soil of innotech in Hong Kong, I hope there are opportunities for our young people to develop their potential. Then one day, we could see job advertisements everywhere competing for local talent similar to Pangyo today.

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