Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gangnam... Quanser Style

Last week as part of a broader Asian tour, I visited Korea. This country has experienced more recent economic transformations that many have called miraculous. Brands such as Samsung and Hyundai now compare well against more seasoned names as Sony and Toyota. The average income is approaching those of the so-called “developed” nations. It has hosted the Olympics and co-hosted the World Cup. And it has begun to seriously influence global pop culture in the form of TV dramas and music. Indeed, upon my return, the most frequent questions that I’ve gotten are “How was Gangnam? Did you do the dance?”. Gangnam was fine. I did not do the dance. And in fact, I couldn’t even find a Psy CD for my daughter. But I did get a better idea of some seemingly remarkable trends in the national psyche, especially in the area of education.

안녕하세요. 저는 1963 년에 한군에서 태어났습니다. 하지만 1971 년에 캐나다로 이민갔습니다. 한국말 잘못함니다. 미안합니다.

The above phrase exactly translates to “Hello. I was born in Korea in 1963. But in 1971, I emigrated to Canada. I cannot speak Korean well. I am sorry.”  This is the phrase that I start pretty much every conversation in Korea. Whether it’s a renowned professor, a taxi driver, or the lady selling street food, it has always been my primary defense to the direct probing question (Koreans can be very direct and probing … especially those ladies selling street food), or the “to self” question implied by puzzled looks on people’s faces, “Why does this old guy look Korean but speak like a tourist with a bad phrase book?”

A floral display in Seoul, Korea highlights a more traditional Gangnam Style.

A Visit To TechPlus Forum 2012
On November 7-8, 2012, in the Gangnam area, Korea celebrated its newly discovered tech entrepreneurial spirit with Tech Plus Forum 2012. A very slick and bouncy production consisting of successful Korean tech entrepreneurs and invited international guests sharing their experiences in commercializing innovation. The style of the talks was very Ted Talk and the program was an interesting mix of “how I made a bazillion dollars” stories and artists promoting the virtues of raw creativity. The audience was largely young people: students from high schools and universities. The ultimate goal was to get these kids to begin dreaming about transforming their smarts to economic and cultural success and the organizers did not hold back.

Several of the speakers were expat Koreans like myself, including Michael Yang of (a pioneering web site for online price comparisons), and professor and roboticist Daniel Lee of the University of Pennsylvania. Both presented very inspiring and entertaining accounts of their success. And they both started their presentations with “Hello. I was born in Korea in _________. But in _________, I emigrated to America. I cannot speak Korean well. I am sorry.” Instantly I realized that I was no longer alone in my illiterate though over-educated universe. If there were two others who butcher our mother tongue so proficiently at a single conference, there must be more of us. It also was made clear to me just how far reaching and deep the Korean economic, cultural and intellectual diaspora could be in the modern world.

K-Pop star Eun-Mi Lee closes TechPlus Forum 2012.
People often compare Korean economic development with that of Japan separated by about a generation’s worth of time. Indeed, today, “Made in Korea” is no longer something you want to hide from your friends. Samsung and Hyundai produce products of global Tier One quality and on par with Sony and Toyota. But the most intriguing observation for me at TechPlus Forum was that choice that the country is making to not follow the Japan path of growing through multinationalization but with a largely unchanged framework of quality, efficiency, and technical excellence. Everyone is now realizing that Japan’s past success is also a major part of its current challenge and it seems like Korea is not interested in blindly following that model. In fact TechPlus Forum was the exact opposite. It was about starting small, dreaming big, and taking risks. 

You have to trust me when I say that these three phrases are as un-Korean as can be. In fact, the modern Japan story is much closer to the natural Korean value set than the Silicon Valley story. But here was the Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy (the fact that they have such a ministry is also telling), funding a major feel-good conference, complete with lights, contemporary K-pop stars (except Psy … sigh), and free lunch for everyone, to encourage young people to think like people that their parents always warned them about! This is big time change.

Sitting beside me was my friend Dr. Won-Jong Joo of Seoul National University of Science and Technology. He introduced me over a year ago to the well-funded national initiative to reinvigorate and modernize engineering education in Korea. This established a national network of universities collaborating to essentially leap frog over Japan and indeed most other developed regions with a more progressive and effective engineering education process. I had originally perceived that initiative as an admirable one but still saddled with the vestiges of traditional scholarship. As we were grooving to songstress Eun-Mi Lee’s soulful (Seoulful? ha ha) ballads at the end of the conference, it did seem like the changes were more than an academic exercise. Best wishes Korea (I really wish I knew how to say that in Korean).

 For more information on TechPlus Forum 2012, see You can also see presentation samples on their YouTube channel.  Most presentations were in Korean (there was a translation service) but a few are in English. Most of the videos on this channel were from Day 1 of the conference. I attended Day 2.

 - Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

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