The Seoul of a new innovation machine


South Korea’s spending on research and development is climbing up to 5% of its gross domestic product. That’s the highest rate in the world, almost twice that of the United States.

Writing a quick snapshot of Korean science for Nature, I keep coming across such striking contrasts.

Heightened R&D spending is one foundation for the push for a “creative economy” that President Park Geun-hye launched when she took office two years ago. A centerpiece of her agenda, this initiative aims to boost the creation of innovative products and services, especially by the smaller firms that often struggle for air in an economy dominated by giants such as Hyundai and Samsung.

The quest for a creative economy builds on many multi-year, multi-billion-US-dollar projects, among them the International Science and Business Belt. This hub for science, technology and business is now rising in Daejon, a city an hour south of Seoul by high-speed train that is already crammed with both government and industry research centers.

How well will these grand governmental top-down innovation programs pay off?

Well, who knows?

But I’m impressed by not just the scale but the speed of some of these bets.

One example comes from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), seen above. Launched in the 1970s as a kind of Korean version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, KAIST enrolls about the same number of students as MIT with a third the budget.

Like MIT, KAIST is investigating “flipped classrooms,” in which students watch lectures online and then go back and forth with professors and each other in the classroom—a more interactive alternative that seems to work well for fairly obvious reasons.

MIT has come up with quite wonderful technology for such teaching (supplying the platform for edX online courses). It’s going ahead with a few great courses and thoughtful research about optimizing the benefits thereof. But KAIST is adopting flipped classrooms much more quickly, planning to deliver no fewer than 800 such classes two years from now.