Springtime has arrived in Seoul, unimpressed by the posturing of nuclear powers from near and far. One day, the first leaves suddenly emerged after a long, cold winter and within a short week, the cherry trees blossomed and the metropolis morphed from a barren concrete jungle into a flowering, exuberant, artistic center.
As with the change of seasons, the transformation of South Korea from an industrial powerhouse to a creative economy seems nothing short of a divine miracle. However, even with a culture that is often perceived as traditional, South Korea is no stranger to managing change.
Korea's ancient culture faced multiple threatening challenges throughout its history. Wedged between China and Japan, the country had to fight for its very existence during the past 1500 years and embracing innovation has proven to be a viable strategy.
The country invented movable type printing in the thirteenth century to help unite the kingdom. Then, in the fifteenth century, they reorganized the empire by creating the rainfall meter to plan the harvest and conceived the Hangul featural alphabet to increase literacy. Korea also developed the multiple rocket launcher and, later, the first armored gunships to protect it against intruders.
In the nineteenth century, the Koreans embraced Western culture and technology, embarking on a rugged path to industrialization though eighty years of occupation, civil war and brutal dictatorships. After this ordeal, South Korea emerged as an industrial superpower, providing consumer electronics, automobiles and ships to the rest of the world.
Now, South Korea has set out to remake itself once again and to become a design hub for the world's creative economy. Promoted politically from the top by huge investments in education, research, infrastructure and businesses, it is reinventing its core.
Ninety percent of the current generation earns college degrees and university professors frequently hold PhDs from American or European universities. The design and engineering universities of KAIST, Hanyang and Hongik collaborate with leading universities and invite foreign professors to teach and conduct design research with their teams. The bullet train connects the southern tip of the Korean peninsula with Seoul and the expressway system is constantly being expanded, enabling business to move out into the country.
This creative journey started in the twenty-first century with the rejuvenation of Seoul itself. Expressway overpasses that covered the river were demolished and in their place scenic river walkways were installed. At the same time, the city was beautified and humanized with trees, flowerbeds and sculptures while museums, galleries; design and fashion stores sprang up all over the city.
Architects from across the world came together with local artists, architects and designers to experiment with new philosophies and expressions and Seoul became the World Design Capital for 2010. Comparative studies of Korean and European innovators show that Koreans manage measured risk in much the same way, as do Europeans. Though careful investors, they are not in lacking in a vision for their country and have the political will to back it up with action.
Seoul has managed to successfully balance its respect for multiple religions as well as history and traditions with the need for sustainable progress. Koreans, who are usually thought of as risk averse and "fast followers" are once again surprising the world.
For South Korea, located in the northern hemisphere, spring arrives at the same time as it does in America and Europe and this spring promises to be a particularly beautiful period as what has been planted in Seoul begins to grow and blossom.