A recent visit to Hong Kong and Seoul
Last week I visited Hong Kong and Seoul.
The Hong Kong visit was at the invitation of Ada Wong (Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture and MaD Asia), a remarkable woman who has been a multiple civic entrepreneur, councillor, arts animator, school founder, and a leading figure in SIX.
Over the weekend she was running a session of the Global Innovation Academy with people from civil society and government - a model that's now been trialled in many places and works well to intensively accustom innovators from different sectors on how to become more skilled at making innovation work.
According to the newspapers, Ada had been offered the job of culture minister last month, with strong public backing in opinion polls. She had even been approved by Beijing: but a local party faction lobbied to get their candidate in place instead.
I also met Carrie Lam who is taking over as Hong Kong's top civil servant in July, a formidable administrator who has been in charge of development. Part of her job will be to respond to the new mood in Hong Kong that's accompanied the appointment of its new leader, CK Leung.
The public are calling for much greater attention to questions of inequality and poverty in a city that has been something of a plutocracy in recent decades, run mainly for the convenience of the very rich.
We were joined in HK by Won Soon Park for the launch of SIX Asia (see picture above), and then went with him to Seoul for the Asia NGO Innovation Summit (ANIS), which is run by the Hope Institute with backing from Intel and others. Won Soon Park was elected as Seoul's mayor last November and is now fully in his stride, shifting the city's direction to a more human approach to development, revitalising the city's heritage, overhauling welfare, and accelerating innovation with a crack team of top officials.
He was elected as an independent candidate partly thanks to social media and has 500,000 twitter followers (a simpler alternative to relying on old media), deputy mayors covering issues like ageing, and even a group of staff whose job is to criticise him and protect him from sycophancy.
I first visited the city in 2006 at the invitation of then Mayor Lee Myung Bak who had just opened the 6 km Cheongyecheon river right through the heart of the city (an achievement which helped him win the presidency a couple of years later). A similar energy is now being devoted to improving the quality of life of Seoul's 11 million citizens.
At a national level South Korea's ambition also continues to impress. It's now the fourth biggest investor in R&D catching up fast with Germany. Its big firms are doing phenomenally well, hardly touched by downturn partly thanks to an aggressive stimulus package.
Its schools top the world rankings (and I was able to visit some of their educational bodies, which are on the cutting edge of making schools digital). And it's moving upstream into basic science, with ambitions to lead the world in fields like life science, as well as consolidating Seoul's position as a powerhouse of fashion, games and music.
One of many impressive people I spent time with was Jeon Young Lee. He was one of the founders of Postech, recently rated the top new (ie less than fifty years old) university in the world. His background ranges across computer science and venture capital as well as academia.
His main role now is as head of the Seoul Business Agency which supports entrepreneurship, and SMEs across the city, with centres for everything from animation to fashion. But he is also involved in designing and spreading large scale fuel cell based energy systems (with a cell in every housing block, linked in a distributed system) and personal rapid transit.
Their aim is to sell know-how to other Asian cities - a good example of true systems thinking and of a remarkable level of ambition that's become too rare in Europe.