We are easily persuaded to look the other way or do nothing when confronted with an idea that appears to be quite daunting, however important that idea may be for our collective progress. In the same way when we allow ourselves to come out with ideas in a brainstorming session, what is observed is the simplicity and unsophisticated level of our wish list.
This may not be quite true of statements with a political outlook but I am only looking at professional statements. This state of affairs needs to be changed. Unless one takes on making the impossible possible, nothing much of significance is going to happen. We will simply chug along the incremental growth platform succeeding to some extent but would not be doing something quite groundbreaking!
Korea’s growth story
Looking back, the growth story of Korea is a lesson in itself. Perhaps not all chapters and sections of the Korea story need be repeated, yet the basic story is inspirational. We touched on Korea’s HAN project – Highly Advanced Nation project – earlier, recommending a similar movement in ours prior to the last budget period.
The HAN project was actually riding on the success of its some earlier operations. The real birth to the difference was introduced by President Park Chung-Hee’s ‘Saemaul Undong’ (New community movement) program. He conceptualised the concept and executed it across thus initiating the change for Korea.
If one prophesies a peasant-led agriculture economy to be transformed into a giant in ship building, electronics and automobiles, one could be forgiven of being sceptical. Yet this is what Korea achieved. While other countries may have joked about the conditions and used the names in a disparaging sense, the silent revolution that unfolded changed the landscape and with time where the influence is not just confined to its borders but spread across many a country.
It was a typical agrarian economy for Korea in coming up to the 1970s. You could find examples of flour milling, sugar refining, cotton mills and the production of cement as economies list of industrial examples. However, in the next 30 years Korea just exploded and a nation without any iron ore went on to becomes a leader in ship building.
As typical to a nation with such an industry base, the per capita Gross National Income (GNI) had been a few hundred dollars. General Park launched his community movement which was a nationwide endeavour to improve the quality of life of a Korean and to take the nation out of poverty.
"The spirit of thinking of General Park then and perhaps the current President Park – who incidentally is the daughter of the former President, is that when changes are needed and when you know what is required to be done, the full weight of the system is necessary in pushing the agenda. Short-term forays into explorations would not do. Then the impossible is no longer an impossibility. It is this steadfastness that singles out the doers from the rest. Though Korea did it and we speak of it as a model for underdeveloped countries, how many actually read the model, learned from the model and helped themselves? The inability to give a viable count here implies the lack of conviction that many of us carry with us when challenged with achieving an ‘impossible dream’"
Those who went to school on those days remember drawing passionate, nationalistic posters during school sessions everyday of the week. While the young drew posters they themselves perhaps were transformed in the process. The campaign did not started within the urban cities but focused first on rural areas. Subsequently the influence reached other regions.
Today Sri Lanka speaks of the middle income trap. To move from one segment of an economic system to another definitive shifts in thinking as well as some bold interventions are necessary.
Park wanted his nation to move from the poverty trap and the movement that he created is considered to be a model for underdeveloped countries. Today treading the same path may be a bit ambitious as the economic climate has changed since then. Yet the way he approached his mission and the ambitious targets it had should be the lessons in inspiration.
The target was high-tech capabilities when what you had on the ground were only as complex as flour milling! High-tech enterprises have their own infrastructure needs and before reaping any rewards the basic needs have to be created. This Koreans did launching steel, ship building, electronics and automobile enterprise programs. Decades later today they stand as giants in the global industry.
Research and development
Both financing and skilled manpower was necessary. To setup industries such as electronics, one could not buy technology easily from external sources and then install them on the ground but needed supporting research and development. The Government took the important challenge of supporting the research and development needs.
The Korean State had a choice in delivering R&D manpower. It could do so by investing in and developing the existing universities. It could also start something from scratch, thus creating a unique eco-system. The Koreans chose the latter option.
No Korean university that existed at that time had research-oriented graduate programs. Perhaps the only exception was the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) which had been in existence since the late ’60s, modelled after the US’s Battelle Memorial Institute.
The new institute that came into being was the KAIST – the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. KAIST has a global reputation today and has earned its due place with an unenviable track record. Its mission from the start was to produce well-trained scientists and engineers with advanced degrees.
Need for a research culture
This lesson should not be lost to us. We at present concentrate too much on the first degree and there is no healthy research culture within our public university system. Though this has been attempted with monetary inputs, the failure to understand the crippling effects of prevailing procedures has nullified most of the value of these inputs.
In Korea it has been clearly stated that the professionals from KAIST had been crucial for the task of transforming the Republic of Korea into an industrialised nation. The lesson here is that the graduate had been empowered to act and deliver. In such situations there would be no brain drain as they are immersed into a challenging environment the moment they graduate.
The numbers from KAIST too had been staggering. Since its first 100 masters graduates in 1975, KAIST had produced more than 50,000 degree holders among them many with post-graduate degrees. When these individuals moved across to other universities, they in turn were transformed.
It is interesting to see the current positions of the KAIST graduates in Korea to see the strength of this institute. It is also an indication of the pursuance of an idea over a period of years with a common goal. Students learned, loved the dream, stayed on and delivered.
Today Korea is learning again. With the economic growth slowed and with GNI stagnant, they are looking at a new growth engine to move forward as an advanced nation. This is the lesson in breaking through the middle income trap.
The industrial giants of today reaping the rewards from the past investments and strategic decisions cannot make quantum leaps to further add to the demands of doubling of economic growth rates. From a common sense perspective this should be considered as almost not possible. If one needs to move on from the current position, one must develop another breakthrough strategy.
A creative economy
It is interesting that the current President, President Park Geun-Hye who came into power in 2013, is considering the new strategy to be the heralding of a creative economy. The education is again going to play its part and KAIST has its new role cut out as it appears from incoming news.
A creative economy would need a new breed of creative manpower and KAIST is expected to mould this new generation too. The challenge KAIST had taken on itself is to educate future entrepreneurs and to create an ecosystem for world-class technology startups. Existing programs will need some revamping. Thus new programs for entrepreneurship education are on.
Also the creativity and innovation should be visible from the basic research and development activities. These elements will feed into creating intellectual property so important in a creative economy in reaping economic rewards.
Supporting technology startups also implies that a culture of taking risks and rewarding failures too will be commonplace – the attributes of Silicon Valley. However, successful you may have been earlier having these concepts are still challenging.
The spirit of thinking of General Park then and perhaps the current President Park – who incidentally is the daughter of the former President, is that when changes are needed and when you know what is required to be done, the full weight of the system is necessary in pushing the agenda.
Short-term forays into explorations would not do. Then the impossible is no longer an impossibility. It is this steadfastness that singles out the doers from the rest. Though Korea did it and we speak of it as a model for underdeveloped countries, how many actually read the model, learned from the model and helped themselves?
The inability to give a viable count here implies the lack of conviction that many of us carry with us when challenged with achieving an ‘impossible dream’.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]