Category Archives: Visioning, Dreaming, Imagining

A Week in Super-Fast Green-Growth South Korea

My first visit to South Korea introduced me to a remarkable country. Everyone I met, from the taxi driver to government officials, was unfailingly kind and courteous. I came away very impressed, on many levels. But the trip certainly started out in an interesting way …

South Korea is in a hurry. I felt this first-hand. It started with a car accident.

When riding in a taxi in a new country, especially when I notice that the drivers of vehicles on the superhighways seem a little on the cavalier side, I have often found it a good policy to sit in the back, put on my seatbelt (like a good Swede), and get my computer out. Best not to look at the actual driving.

For that reason, I really don’t know why my taxi ended up plowed into the side wall of the tunnel after smashing into the car ahead of us and sending another car into a spin. I was shaken up, but fine. I was still holding my computer, and I calmly saved my work, closed it, and got out of the smoke-filled car. The driver, whose air bag had deployed and saved his face, was saying something to me in Korean. I assumed it to be “Are you okay? Get out of the car!” and so I did that.

I sat up on the wall inside this tunnel and marveled at how most cars, in such a situation, just try to figure out how to get by and keep going — even though there was a car in the middle of the middle lane, facing the opposite direction, which seemed to me a clear signal that something was amiss.

There are many additional colorful details to this story, such as the ride in the tow truck or the sign language conversation with Korean police. But given that I was unhurt, and unable to tell anyone anything about what had actually happened, someone simply called a new taxi for me and I continued on to my meeting at South Korea’s Government Complex.

Since I had left early — to allow for trouble, which I certainly did experience — I ended up arriving exactly on time.

After the day of meetings (which were pleasant and productive), I was in no mood to take another taxi, so I rode the excellent subway system, two hours, changing four times, to get from south Seoul to Incheon. What landscape I saw was essentially the same everywhere: urban Asia. Small manufacturing operations. Shopping opportunities. Dense dwellings. The occasional hilly area (this is Korea after all), and some lovely parkland (Koreans appear to greatly appreciate parks).

The trains in Korea run so smoothly that most people who are standing do not even bother to hold on to anything. They just stand there. Many of the passengers were engrossed with their smart phones. Whenever I could sit, I pulled out my laptop and worked.

Back in Incheon, I got off the train a few stations early in order to walk home to the Sheraton Incheon hotel and get some exercise. The station guard who helped me get oriented was amazed that I was going to walk. The distance seemed to him improbably far. I knew it to be about 25 minutes, through another pleasant park, in the cool evening.

Incheon is a huge metroplex, very diverse and spread out, southwest of Seoul. Part of the city is old and historic, the site of Western culture’s main interface with the Korean culture in centuries past. Part is brand, spanking new, and has been built on land reclaimed from the sea in just the last few years.

In these newer parts of Incheon, one almost feels a sense of vertigo at the pace of growth. In just a few short years, tidal flats and low waters have been turned into “Tomorrow City” (the name of just one of the many futuristic building complexes) and many other tomorrow-ish things. The designers of these new parts have certainly been informed by “green”/sustainable ideas. My hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel in Korea. Across the street is “Central Park,” whose name, strategic location, and size are a clear reference to Manhattan’s Central Park. Incheon’s ambitions are similarly New York-ish: Korea’s tallest skyscraper was just finishing construction next to the hotel. And some of the nearby buildings look like support structures to the inter-planetary transportation device that is featured in the Jodie Foster movie about humanity’s first communication with people on other planets (“Contact”).

For this reason, the enormous Christian Bible exhibition (see photo), which occupied a huge portion of Central Park, and which had been partially destroyed by a typhoon and left in shambles for months, seemed all the more surreal. From my hotel window on the 14th floor, I looked out over Moses parting the red sea, a life-size replica of Jonah and the whale, a full-size (and that means enormous) model of Noah’s Ark, and dozens more. Everything was in bright colors. Everything was frayed; some things (such as a huge temple made entirely of porcelain plates) were partially, even dangerously, collapsed. A literal “stairway to heaven” invited one to climb up a winding road into the air, with no guardrails and certainly no certainty that one would return: in fact, if one did try to climb it, one would certainly end up falling to one’s heavenly doom (or perhaps, for the non-believers, doom of a more fiery kind).

Otherwise Incheon, or the part of it where I was living, was full of coffee shops and quick-marts, branded restaurants and high-rise luxury apartments. The roads appeared to be 12 lanes across, but there were never more than two lanes of traffic: Incheon is planning, Incheon is built, for future growth.

How much of that growth is green? S. Korea is, after all, the leading country in the world in terms of “Green Growth,” the policy of directing public investment into low-carbon technologies. Incheon city officials promised to send me some of the technical specs on what is happening there, which I look forward to reviewing, with keen interest. Meanwhile, I found this fascinating article in the journal “Environment” which details a recent set of scientific debates and political conflicts between conflicting “green” goals in the Incheon area. An enormous tidal energy plant, for example, would be “low-carbon,” but would come at the cost of the tidal flats that serve as rich breeding grounds for marine biodiversity.

It is impossible to assess, from a first visit, what is actually happening in Incheon. How “green” is the growth? There are signs of green-ness (e.g. the LEED certification on the Sheraton hotel) visible to the trained eye, but otherwise one would have to look at actual data to know how to evaluate it. Fortunately, South Korea has an entire Global Green Growth Institute whose purpose, in part, is to study these things (http://www.gggi.org/About/About_01.php). And you can read more about the national Green Growth strategy of South Korea here:  http://www.greengrowth.go.kr/english/en_main/index.do

What I do know, about Incheon (my home for a week) and about S. Korea in general, is that the level of ambition — for growth, for green-ness, and also for being a promoter of Green Growth on the international stage — is impressive. The scale of what is happening there is enormous. And it is happening with extreme rapidity.

Whatever is happening in Incheon, it is very definitely the future of this part of the world, growing before our eyes. And that’s something that every serious student of sustainability should study and reflect on.

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Note: If you want to learn more of the basics of Incheon’s green city program, focused on the Songdo International City region where I was staying, here is Warren Karlenzig’s good blog post about a visit there in 2009. To see how the city describes itself, visit:  http://english.visitincheon.org/

Elation, Despair, and Professionalism

Yesterday and today, two days that could not be more different. Standing on stage at the royal theater in front of hundreds of people; sitting in the cottage behind my house that serves as my ‘Global Headquarters’. Moderating a panel of leaders and ambassadors; sorting receipts and dealing with corporate paperwork.

The purpose of this ‘blogging intensive’ is to make my professional life a bit more transparent, but that is proving tough already. Some details are boring; some of the ‘real’ stuff I just can’t write about publicly. And the time it takes to document is time not spent producing work on multiple projects.

Oh, yes there are multiple projects, so the most important decisions each day have to do with prioritization. Some things are urgent by default:  a magazine in the US needs a new photo, now, so I have to get one taken. Other things are long-term strategic … but if you put them off, you have no strategy. And then there are the in-between things, like the talk I’m giving at the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences next Thursday, a seminar on ‘Alarmism’ in scientific communication about global problems, or the keynote next Tuesday on sustainable production and consumption. Those are hard deadlines but still some days out, the ideas are still forming. Work on those will intensify in the coming days.

Then there is the constant stream of emails. Some are marketing related, some are clients wanting input, some are … well, we all know how the email inbox can quickly become the to-do list, if you’re not careful.

I have a master action list, where each current project is summarized, actions are listed, and prioritizations made. Usually, I actually use it.

But sometimes — especially a day like this, a Friday, sunny, after a strenuous week — you just have to put that aside, go stand in the forest, and think. It’s damned important, that thinking time. Feeling time. We tend not to talk about it, but I believe most people need those breaks where they appear not to be doing anything (or appear to be drinking coffee), but inside, the wheels are turning. I had a number of those moments today.

I admit that some of those moments are driven by something I’ve just read, something that brings up a feeling of heaviness about the great problems that sustainability concerns itself with. Today there was such a moment after reading — at someone’s emailed insistence — Wendell Berry’s latest short essay (actually a short speech, introducing Prince Charles at a conference on food — you can watch the videos here). He is speaking for local adaptation, and against global heroics. He and I debated, in print, this very point about 20 years ago; I have never understood why we cannot try to do both, to adapt locally, but work to change the global systems (energy, economics, patterns of production and consumption and trade) that make local adaptation all but impossible unless they are changed. Indeed, we must try to do both.

I am elated when I receive an offer from an intern to work 20 hours a week, without pay, on a project I care about. I despair when I read another article on the fate of the oceans in a warmed world, or the way transgenic material (that means, genes artificially inserted into basic food crops) has been proven absolutely impossible to contain and has escaped to corrupt “organic” and “wild” plant strains. But I’m a professional, a word that means that no matter what the emotional impact is of what occurs during the day, one continues to perform and produce. “The show must go on.”

This was a day of reflection and administration. In my next post, I’ll write about what is actually going on in my professional life just now.

To those who are following this “intensive” … good night.

Watching Egypt 1 – Private Worries, Public Hopes

It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt:  “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”

And of course, there was the fire.

The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.

Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.

Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.

The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.

For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days:  “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.

Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.

And these were just the pressures visible to anyone.  While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.

Were these the indicators of a sustainable future?  Not a chance.

I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.

Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.

But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)

And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.

When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes:  this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year.  These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.

And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs:

Democratic participation.