Global Economics

The Seoul of World Design


The Korean capital, soon to host the Design Olympiad, is funding projects to promote style in Korean brands—and help keep growth on track

Korea's economy has long been one of Asia's success stories, but pessimists fret for the future as Korea is sandwiched between fast-growing China and longtime rival Japan. Could a government-backed plan to raise Seoul's standing as a city focused on design help keep its growth on track?

Seoul Mayor Oh Se Hoon certainly thinks so. Oh, leader of a city home to nearly a quarter of the country's population of 48 million, is convinced Korea can stand out from its larger neighbors by establishing the capital as a international design center.

The 47-year-old mayor says thinking about design will have numerous benefits. At an individual level he believes cultural benefits can enrich the daily lives of work-obsessed Koreans. Just as important, a renewed creativity can help the economy. "Design is everything," declares Oh.

The hyperbole isn't pure talk. Since taking office in July, 2006, Oh has set about turning Seoul into a global design hub with a slew of initiatives. He quickly established a new design division headed by a vice-mayor and initiated design competitions aimed at improving the city's looks. He has also begun offering training and seminar courses for young designers. The effort will kick into high gear in October when the city hosts the first Seoul Design Olympiad. It has also commissioned international "starchitect" Zaha Hadid to design the $98 million Dongdaemun Design Park.

Seoul Named 2010 World Design Capital

Oh's ambition got a huge boost last October when the city was designated as the World Design Capital in 2010. The title is bestowed biennially by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), which represents some 150,000 designers from scores of countries.

These combined efforts, Oh reckons, will help increase the size of Korea's design market—measured by the total of revenues by design houses and investments in design by ordinary companies—to $15 billion in less than 10 years, from $7.4 billion last year. "In coming years we'll see aspects of design in our everyday life," predicts Lee Kun Pyo, president of Korea Society of Design Science and an acolyte of Oh.

Understandably, some find the challenge daunting. After all, Seoul isn't alone in seeking to boost its global standing through design. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Yokohama all hold ambitions to be design centers. Then there's global competition from cities like London, Paris, Milan and New York, with many decades as leading arbiters of design. Yet Oh and design industry leaders insist there's big potential in Korea. For one, Seoul beat some 20 rivals, including Singapore and Dubai, to be named ICSID's first World Design Capital to be chosen through competition. (Torino, the first city to win the award, was named as pilot.)

Better Design Boosting Korean Blue Chips

Perhaps more important, Korean companies have also made great strides in recent years in improving brands through design. Companies like Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and SK Telecom (SKM) boast leading designers in the fields of digital displays, handsets, and mobile products and services, garnering international design awards along the way.

The fruits of their efforts are reflected in the improved global standing of Korea's blue chips. Last year Samsung overtook Motorola (MOT) to become the world's second-largest cell-phone maker (BusinessWeek.com, 12/16/07) after Nokia (NOK).

Samsung also beat all Japanese rivals to become the No. 1 flat-TV brand, and LG consolidated its position as No. 5 in handsets and No. 4 in flat TVs last year. "In the TV market, design will be a critical differentiator," Simon Kang, president in charge of LG's digital display unit told BusinessWeek earlier this year.

Promise from the Next Generation

The argument is straightforward: In a world awash with digital and high-definition TVs boasting super picture quality, it takes more than technological superiority to win business. Consumers may consider the purchase of a flat-screen TV as much for its look as a piece of furniture as for its technogical capabilities (BusinessWeek.com, 1/16/08).

Korea also has a remarkably large number of wannabe designers. In Seoul alone about 11,000 students are majoring in design at 18 universities, while another 2,600 students in 51 graduate schools attended design programs in 2007. Recognizing this potential talent, Japanese auto companies, including Nissan (NSANY), have begun hiring young Korean designers. "When I first saw the sketches that Korean students were drawing, I was utterly shocked. Their design is very emotional and powerful," Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's chief creative officer, said last year.

The city government has set aside $180 million to finance projects ahead of Seoul becoming the first World Design Capital, part of which will go to sprucing up Seoul's streets, buildings, parks, and the Han River running through the city. Big business, sensing an opportunity, will lend a helping hand by dispatching senior designers to help out on projects. Cha Kang Heui, chief designer at LG's handset division, reckons the overall effect could echo the impact of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. "Just as the Olympics often serve as a coming-of-age party for a developing country, design could provide momentum for Seoul," he says.

All Eyes on Seoul This October

For Seoul mayor Oh, though, the highlight of the design drive will be the Design Olympiad in October. Oh plans to invite top designers from fashion, graphics, and other different design fields. He's counting on attracting 2 million people to the 21-day event featuring competitions, exhibitions, live performances, and light shows. If that doesn't whet the world's appetite for Korean design, perhaps nothing will. "I want people around the globe to say, 'If you want to check out the latest in design trends, go to Seoul,'" says Oh.

For more, see BusinessWeek's slide show.


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