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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

From zombie maeul to seed village - from fake startup communities to real Communities-as-a-Startup

As far as train wrecks go, the demographic ones are the easiest to predict. And Korea's bullet train is not exactly slowing down.

Last year, the nation officially posted its first negative growth on record, but COVID-19 had little to do with it. Yes, the pandemic claimed over one thousand lives and that's far too many, but that's also only a fraction of what most countries experienced. Yes, it hindered Foreign influx, but it also drew many members of the Korean diaspora back to the motherland. Yes, it will also impact future births, but last year only prolonged distressing trends: 2020's record low fertility rate (0.84) was preceded by an already scary one (0.92 in 2019).

If you think 2020 was bad, 2021 starts even worse...

... and the previous years already showed how bballi bballi Korea was aging even before the pandemic

In this sub-zero-sum game, the only regions that progressed spectacularly, Sejong and Gyeonggi-do, did it often at the expense of Seoul: the former benefiting from the transfer of governmental administrations, the latter from suicidal real estate policies that further accelerated the capital's decline (now well below the 10 M threshold it passed for the first time in 1988). Yet in March 2021, even Gyeonggi-do posted its first population decrease since the 1980s.

All over the nation, more rural localities are facing extinction*, and Korea continues its urbanistic nonsense, adding more dwellings to an already overflowing market because decision makers don't know any other translation of 'make homes more affordable' (what it needs) than 'build new homes' (which it doesn't need). I'll just repost below part of the rant I wrote five years ago (see "Seoul summerscapes: death, taxes, and budongsan" - 20160917, and all previous posts related to demography):

Now, the pandemic did act a bit like a catalyst at some level. If, so far, the nation hasn't implemented a real lockdown (except for Daegu), many have experienced remote working or remote learning at home in confined conditions. Like everywhere, many are dreaming of individual homes, more private space, a greener environment, many are reassessing their priorities, the rat race. And like everywhere, more city dwellers are considering rural lives. 

Of course, if there's always been a market for the Larzac / flower power fringes, most people wouldn't give up a certain level of services. And the 'winning' regions end up losing their souls when they pour concrete over their pristine shores to lure more city slickers (e.g. Jeju).

Can and should all rural communities be saved? I don't think so. But rural desertification can and should be prevented where it makes sense in a sustainable way.

Spontaneous grassroots initiatives can work, but local authorities can also play a role. What matters is that no one should play it selfishly, or with a short-term vision. Regional and national authorities an also help, particularly in order to mutualize and share resources and to make sure that as few people as possible fall out of the grid on key services and infrastructures.

Take the digital divide, for instance. Broadband coverage being strategic, it has become rather common for regulators and local authorities to push for network sharing schemes between operators, just like SK Telecom, KT Mobile, and LG U+ did last week: the government selected 131 rural and coastal areas which will then be covered by all 3 players, even if it wouldn't have made economic sense for any of them otherwise.

That's a good example on how a macro approach can help prioritize and focus the efforts. Local authorities should also pool to help prevent the closure of such essential infrastructures as hospitals or schools, which often accelerate the down spiral and seal the fate of several localities.

Education is paramount, and recent innovations and changes of habits could help change the equation for endangered institutions. We know that remote learning can become part of the mix, but also that some level of physical presence is essential for pupils. In order to maintain schools with a good level of education, why not have for instance confirmed teachers teach in parallel in different classrooms, with a junior assistant in each? 

Some worry about the absence of cultural life, but in Korea, I've already seen artists move their studios to very rural settings, or an old, remote industrial site converted into an art residence. And more fundamentally, there is no such thing as a cultural desert where a community is alive. Involving existing communities guarantees a cultural continuum, a transmission of the knowledge of the land and its history, but this is the ideal opportunity to bring more diversity. In Europe, quite a few rural communities have been revived by Foreigners who came to love them, and felt the love in return. A dying Italian village was repopulated with refugees and there as well, essential services could reopen. 

To help tilt the balance in the right direction, authorities can subsidize essential services. It's good to make sure that within a certain radius there's at least one store that can also provide basic postal / logistical services (not just a mini local platform for the pervasive delivery services). Once you enter a virtuous cycle of organic revival, other infrastructures can be envisioned - e.v. charging station, mini shuttle operations...

You don't want to build something as artificial as these cult-like life-on-Mars simulator bubbles, but grow reasonably ambitious, sustainable, local, impact projects. Transform zombie villages into seed villages where you want to enjoy life and why not, have kids. 

I realize that the concept of 'seed village' is already used for something very different, less inclusive. I was also into startup references. When I observe Korea's and not just Seoul's startup ecosystem, I see a lot of zombie startups that don't make sense, have no business model or future, and only exist and survive because they know how to milk the blind cows of public subsidies (and more than a few private funds, mind you).

I strongly believe that every region claiming to be the next startup magnet (in other words, this being Korea, all regions) should devote a portion of its startup budget to not-necessarily-tech, communities-as-startups approaches. If they manage to build clusters that's great, but in parallel it would be nice for Korea to build a grid of such CaaS (not Containers as a Service but Communities as a Startup). A human network, a community of communities sharing best practices instead of local authorities competing with each others.

It shouldn't be just a Bring-your-own-job party for young entrepreneurs, but an attractive alternative for people of all backgrounds and vocations. And the perfect occasion to fulfill overlooked yet strategic land-oriented missions: for instance, Korea needs to improve its forest maintenance, and to reduce its agricultural goods / food dependency through a more sustainable farming.

Now seems the time to seriously give it a try.

Seoul Village 2021
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* see interesting data about the local extinction risk index in "Korea Is Aging Rapidly" (The Dongguk Post 20210412)

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