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You can actually feel the difference between an
emerging economy and a mature one. I recall it from trips to Malaysia
and India. When you visit a place where the economy is growing like
mad, there is electricity in the air. It's the energy of hope. People
might not have any more idea where they're going than I do, but they
know they're going somewhere and that it's going to be big.
In large, mature economies, on the other hand, the highs and lows are
muted. There's a lot more to lose and less faith in what there is to be
gained. Like big ships at sea, they take a long time to get up to
speed and a long time to turn in a new direction.
I have not
had the privilege of visiting Suwon, South Korea
- that opportunity went to my
colleague John Jung
- but I bet I know what it feels like. I
have just finished writing their Top Seven Intelligent Community profile
on our Web
site, and I recognize the attitude. It says "let's get it done." The 1997 Asian economic crisis
made Mayor Yong Seo Kim
and his leadership team lose faith in a future that depended on South
Korea's enormous chaebol companies. So, they set about building an
economy whose growth would be based on small-to-midsize enterprises
(SMEs) specializing in IT, biotech and nanotechnology.
got it done. Fast forward a few years, and Suwon was home to three new
industrial complexes and nine multi-tenant technology buildings. The
new Kwangkyo Techno Valley campus is now full of research institutes set
up by business, universities and government working hand in hand.
Korea already has one of the finest broadband infrastructures in the
world, but Mayor Kim and his team wanted ICT to be ubiquitous in Suwon.
They got it done. A lot of investment later, the U-Happy Master Plan
had created a 1 Gbps e-government network. They integrated systems for
taxation, real estate, public health and safety, transportation and city
administration, and put them online. An e-services gateway handled
600,000 transactions last year from 10 million unique visitors.
its nomination for the Top Seven, Suwon
wrote that "Investment in education is one of
the most sound and rational outlays of capital that a government can
make." Between 2002 and 2009, the city backed up that proposition by
investing more than US$360m in upgrading school facilities, opening new
schools and expanding staff.
Globalization is much on their
minds. So they opened the Happy Suwon English Village in 2006 to offer
intensive learning in the global language of business to 7,000
elementary school students per year. A new Suwon Village of Foreign
Languages, which opens this year, will offer the same environment for
Chinese and Japanese. In 2007, Suwon established the Gyeonggi Suwon
Foreign School. It aims to make the city a premier destination for
expatriates with families working for Korean multinationals. And with
all of this focus on languages, they are not exactly ignoring
technology. The city holds an annual Suwon Invention Competition for
students and sends contestants to the World Innovation Olympiad every
year. Since 2004, Suwon has organized an annual Information &
Science Festival, which attracts 60,000 paid registrants to a National
e-Sports Competition, National Intelligent Robot Competition,
Professional Gamers Exhibition and much more.
It's not as
though the global recession missed South Korea. Well, okay, technically
speaking, growth never quite turned negative, because the government
poured in fiscal stimulus. But from November 2008 through March 2009,
exports slumped every month by double-digit amounts. When your economy
has been growing 7-10% for years, that feels like a recession. The
difference is attitude. While government and business in Europe and
North America have been obsessed with how much and how fast to cut,
Suwon has been thinking about how to win the next round of the economic
game. They may not know exactly where they are going, but they know
they are going somewhere, and it's going to be big.