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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

And the winner is... I.SEOUL.U (not Seoul?)

Earlier this year, I joined the Seoul Branding effort because I love this city and I wanted a better signature than 'Hi Seoul' to represent it.

I prefer such expressions as 'signature' to 'brand' because Seoul doesn't need branding. As Roy Disney famously said, "Branding is something you do to cows. It makes sense if you're a rancher, since cows do tend to look alike".

Anyway, it couldn't get worse than this...:

... could it?

I knew that I had to brace for the worst when I received an email, last July, giving the team its first true 'mission'*: doing some SNS PR for PARK Won-soon's trip to China...

Still, the crowdsourcing effort across the capital did bring a lot of suggestions (over 16,000), including decent ones: even if the old 'Infinitely Yours, Seoul' had been dumped, such newbies as 'Find your Seoul' sounded promising.

Since I was out of town during most of the process, I don't know how the 3 finalists made it: the utterly unhashtagable "I.SEOUL.U" looked and sounded like an insult (as in I.EXPLETIVE.U), and "Seoulmate" like a dating site for corporate designers of the eighties. If Seouling didn't make much more sense, at least it mirrored the city's elusiveness, and anyone could make anything out of it, without being forced into a Relationship in capital letters.  

  • Note that, as often the case here, nothing seems to have been done to protect the 'brands' or their URLs (typically: will Seoul City move its Facebook page from, or wait for its next avatar?)...
The winner was decided by the combination of 3 votes (50% for the first, 25% for each of the other two), starting with a popular one open to everyone and closed a few days prior to yesterday's event, where a poll of 1,000 citizens (who turned out to be 1,140) and a panel of 9 experts voted with an electric device guaranteeing the one voice one vote ratio. The first vote brought 121,000 ballots (76,000 online, 45,000 offline), and there's no way to tell how many people voted how many times - in my case, once, and online.

Yesterday, I came to Seoul Plaza to vote as a Seoulite who barely speaks Korean, and only slightly better English, but with a personal experience in each of the city's 467 neighborhoods, and a professional experience in branding. Which made the choice even more cruel. I opted for 'seouling', since I've already been seouling for over almost a quarter of a century - whatever that means.

The winner, I.SEOUL.U, claimed only 36.5% in the open ballot, but 59.8% of the citizens present yesterday. I bet many voted for a team rather than for a logo, and I even saw one of my neighboring clapping ajumma change her mind after watching what turned out to be the best video and the cutest team. The fact that 100% of the expert panel supported I.SEOUL.U made me wonder, as a giant flag with the winning logo was unfurled over the audience just minutes after the verdict, if similar flags had been prepared for the other finalists...

Seoul Brand: citizens vote for I.SEOUL.U (NB worst brand but best video tonight)
To wrap up this democratic fest, PARK Won-soon danced on stage in a mini musical. I left in the cold Seoul night when the first k-pop group popped up.

Now get ready for the I.SEOUL.Uization of your environment: a CCL (Creative Commons License) makes sure it will spread everywhere, and the city plans 'brand sculptures' for this December.

Happy Halloween indeed.

---20151029 ADDENDUM---
Speaking of Seoul brand's latest avatar: I.SEEOUL.U?

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* Before that, we'd been asked to suggest names for the team (I proposed to keep a simple 'Seoul Friends').

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

'Horizontal Housing' shouldn't mean 'mini-apateu'

Here's the design selected for Seoul's 'Horizontal Housing' test in Myeonmok-dong, Jungnang-gu:

Nothing disruptive: for years, small developers have been building this kind of things by the dozens in clogged 'villa' areas like Gangseo-gu. If this fits the Hausmman-friendly 6-7 levels limit, it still looks like a 'mini-apateu'... and certainly doesn't deserve being heralded as an 'alternative to the New Town model' and an example of 'urban regeneration. 

This is precisely the kind of architecture that's destroying Seoul streets: a lifeless ground floor where cars matter more than humans. Call it a 'low-rise block' if you want, but if you intend to deliver serious urban regeneration, please go back to the drawing board.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Yet Another Textbook Textbook Controversy

History belongs to those who write it, and in utterly politically divided South Korea, each side accuse the other one to push its own propaganda.

PARK Geun-hye recently announced her project of a single 'correct', State-issued textbook to replace today's choice between eight private publishers. Needless to say, Korean History Research Association scholars boycotted it.

PGH's project is clearly troubling: the last South Korean leader to do so was her dictator of a father PARK Chung-hee in 1974, and even Textbook Revisionist in Chief Shinzo ABE hasn't succeeded - so far - in restoring State-issued history textbooks in Japan, where they were banned at the end of WWII. Japanese activists actually fear Korea's project could serve ABE's agenda*.

If this reform is supposed to be implemented just months before the next presidential elections in 2017, PGH's presidency is now compared to the worst moments of her predecessor LEE Myung-bak, whose government terminated the much needed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see links below), stopped history teaching at school, created a controversial museum of contemporary history (see "The Sejongno Insult"), and even issued a creationist textbook**.

Now this is not the only controversy surrounding these book: the project is motivated by the fact that, even if some mechanisms give the government its say in the editorial line, all history textbooks are deeply biased. Not just left-leaning, but at times into pro-North Korea propaganda territories.

No wonder this debate brings back such 1970s name calling darlings as 'dictator!' or 'commies!'

IMHO something definetly had to be done regarding these textbooks, but the government chose the worst possible solution by negating the historical debate. This should have been the opportunity to tackle the issue at its core, to restart the Truth and Reconciliation process. And when there is a debate on the interpretation of events, it should be reflected in the textbooks, with diverging opinions mentioned as such.


About the termination of the TRCK:
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* "Japanese civic groups protesting S. Korea’s turn to state-issued textbooks" (Hankyoreh)
** see "State-condoned creationism in Korea? A cold-blooded murder against King Sejong"

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

(Translation of an article I recently published - in French - on the Korean paradox: "Quel modele pour la Coree demain?" - Asialyst - 20151001)

Which model for Korea tomorrow?

Seventy years after its liberation, Korea seems at the same time more present than ever on the global stage, and full of doubts. This nation has countless times proved its capacity to bounce back and to surprise, but today does it have to reinvent itself?

Diplomacy: can yesterday's weakest link become tomorrow's keystone?

With such neighbors as China, Russia, and Japan, plus an unruly (to say the least) brother up North, South Korea would have had a tough time surviving without the support of the United States. Yet as much as her spectacular economic boom (now a major contributor to world institutions, then at the other end of the charity chain), her opening to China helped her become a key diplomatic power: a UN secretary general, the first G20 host in Asia, and even for a moment the quasi-pivot to the G2, thanks to the good fit between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping..., and Shinzo Abe's irresistible urge to undo the democratic progresses of postwar Japan.

While waiting for an elusive reunification that would help her claim yet another dimension, Korea could benefit from perfecting her diplomatic distinctiveness. But this delicate exercise is under a double threat: between their increasing economic dependence to China, and the unconditional support of the USA to Abe's restoration of militarism in Japan, Koreans fear they might end up in the sphere of influence of the former, as hinted by Asan Institute polls.

Politics: can the democracy in the South overcome its own divisions?

If South Korea put an end to dictatorship over a quarter of a century ago, presidencies remain limited to one single term, which contributes to an unbalance of powers; between presidents gone lame duck as soon as they're elected, lawmakers plagued by scandales, and not so independent justice and media, two powers emerge: the almighty familial conglomerates (chaebol), and netizens very motivated to defend democracy, but trusting only the web... which sometimes means spinning the wildest rumor or hoax.

Adding to the traditional geographic divisions (particularly those opposing the conservative South East to the progressive South West), deep generational gaps appear between left-leaning youth and right-leaning seniors. The political debate is at best absent, at worst very contentious or polluted by extreme minorities from both sides (ultraconservatives on one, supporters of the North Korean regime on the other).

Even if they are divided, South Koreans long for reconciliation, and even reunification, a prospect as problematic as ever, but again wished by a majority. The pure, joyful communion of the 2002 World Cup seems far away, and to this day, no one has managed to reunite the South by leveraging this positive energy.

The democratically elected daughter of a dictator, Park Geun-hye had the unique opportunity to set up a new deal and to show the example across the region, but she didn't chose the path of truth and reconciliation. Meanwhile, the opposition is stuck in the quagmire of its own contradictions, and under the influence of leaders trained to resist dictatorship, feels more comfort in organizing permanent demonstrations that in building a sustainable government platform.

As her neighbors opt for ever harder lines (Xi, Putin, Abe, Kim), Korea must avoid the return of ideology, the temptation of populism, and above all the trap of nationalism fueled by Japan's unleashed revisionists.

Economy: can the XXth century's « best follower » become a « leader » in the XXIth?

From state dirigisme to ultra-capitalism, the country went from one extreme to another without reforming its main structural hurdles: its hyper-competitive education system chain produces top performers, but destroys innovators and creative rule changers; its chaebol are unable to share value or to evolve in open ecosystems, and suck up the potential for SMEs and start-ups; and social dialogue is at a standstill (like France, Korea is blocked because she bought trade unions for social peace). Besides, even as it multiplies FTAs across the World, the nation knows how to deter major international players who want to succeed in its service sectors - after Walmart and Carrefour, Tesco just called it quits.

Avis' old « we try harder » campaign against Hertz remains a textbook marketing case where #2 outdoes itself to become #1, but once at the top struggles to take on true leadership. For Korea, who built her success by always doing better than others, the toughest part is now to make her own way. If she perfectly manages to do it in certain markets such as cosmetics, she has trouble in others, like a Samsung failing to succeed beyond hardware, in software and international platforms - what Apple did with iTunes and iOS. Korea doesn't always seem to leverage as well as she should her formidable window of opportunity vis-a-vis China, who uses her as a model while catching up in the technological race.

If Korea is less exposed to speculators since she's sitting on record currency reserves, her dependence on exports persists, her middle class suffer, her growth slows down, and her short-term stimulus policies further weaken her: regarding housing, protecting constructors comes before urban planning common sense and long-term needs, and regarding household consumption, debt levels break records among OECD members

With ever sinking birth rates, some Koreans fear a Japan-style 'lost decade'. Even their legendary capacity to bounce back seems dulled, like during these never ending post-Sewol doldrums. To face the challenges of this young millenium, the Korean model must evolve, and preferably without more crises. 

The wind of change and innovation seems to be - timidly - starting to blow. The best students are not anymore following the golden path of the day (engineering, law,...), but making their own combo program by picking from the different faculties of their universities. And when they graduate, they are not anymore rushing to guaranteed chaebol careers, but ready to take risks in start-ups. If the arrival of Google Campus and other foreign players and VCs contribute to a new techno bubble, it also opened new horizons to entrepreneurs in a market previously locked by local conglomerates.

Society: can Koreans rediscover the joys of community in times of diversity?

So today, leaving the system of accepting failure is not a taboo anymore. A little bit like after the IMF Crisis of 1997-98, which came as a wake up call after a century plagued by colonization, war, and the sacrifices of development: all of a sudden, life was about more than fighting for surviving or winning more, and Korea started gearing up for leisure, family life, and culture. Seoul quickly became that city more open to its citizens and to the World, at long last a popular tourist destination.

But infrastructures can't bring all answers to the challenges of today and tomorrow. You can't pretend you can tackle upcoming demographic shocks when you boast such suicide or youth unemployment rates, when you're struggling to get mixed children accepted, when you let three hundred kids drown, or a teenager join ISIS...

Humans are back at the center of the society, and the priority goes to sharing a better life in existing living environments: instead of erasing a whole neighborhood to build a New Town, authorities involve populations in micro urban regeneration projects, and instead of adding lifesavers to Suicide Bridge, they try to revive inter-generational dialogue. Korea invests massively in human resources and pedagogy to prepare for the demographic boom of multicultural families, and for the community to give its best in times of diversity.

This can't happen overnight in a country that already struggles to promote its cultural diversity beyond extremes (e.g. gugak vs k-pop), but the political will is there, and shared across the aisle.


Korea is neither booming nor declining, but in transit between a model on its last legs and new, more agile dynamics. She can make it faster than her neighbors, and her small size represents as much an asset as a handicap. She can always count on her formidable ability to evolve, digest, try, customize, 'bibimize', as well as on the intensity she gives to everything she dares, for worse or better.

Stephane MOT 2015

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Sejong-daero winner announced

For the site of the former IRS branch between the Anglican Cathedral and City Hall (see '"Sejongdaero" competition officially started'), Seoul opted for an American team, Terminal 7 Architects.

Their concept, 'Seoul Chronicle', keeps it simple, with a lawn discretely revealing the existence of underground levels - the piece de resistance in last July's brief. Gone from the surface are the pilars of a building that anyway didn't deserve any memorial. The actual stars become the Deoksugung walls and trees, the Cathedral, and passers-by.

So what has been swept under this new green blanket? 3 underground levels of whatever fits in, and more interestingly a vast space that could become a popular venue with its vertical garden and its spectacular urban slice exposing bare layers of Hanyang / Seoul.

As is often the case in this most central neighborhood, more artifacts are likely to be unearthed across the site during the work.

Overall, a rather minimalist approach that comes as a relief compared to "Seoul Tsunami City Hall, The Other Korean Wave" on the other side of Taepyeongno / Sejong-daero. Let's hope local authorities don't plan colorful LED dialogues between both landmarks: there's already enough cuttlefish chatting at night across the capital (City Hall, N-Tower, SMPA...).

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