The question is how to find a new future. The answer likely lies in the distinct advantages South Korea already possesses. “This is by far the most educated population on the face of the planet,” Ms. Mateos y Lago said. “That has probably contributed to a development model that was more tilted towards high technologies than in other places.” And it has outpaced other countries in building lightning-fast, cheap Internet connections, which has “really helped us to build a data-intensive kind of society,” said Sirgoo Lee, co-chief executive officer of Kakao Corp.
Kakao is South Korea’s chatting and gaming heavyweight, and one of its digital stars, with an estimated value of $2.4-billion (U.S.) and plans for an initial public offering in 2015. It believes chat apps are as central to phones as search has been to the desktop Internet. And the company is going abroad, with roughly half its 140 million users now overseas. The biggest group lies in Indonesia, where in a year it has gained some 15 million people. The company is well aware it’s eating away at BlackBerry’s prospects in what has been one of the Canadian company’s brighter markets. In many ways, that’s the goal.
And Kakao has something Waterloo, Ont., doesn’t: the power of BigBang, a South Korean boy band the chat company has made the frontman of its overseas advertising. In the long list of factors underlying the country’s innovation success, pop music hardly rises to the top. But it has become surprisingly important. In Indonesia, where BigBang is popular, its five-member ensemble – once called the “gods of K-pop” – are paying surprising dividends for the country.
“The fact that our service is Korean really does appeal to the local population” in Indonesia, Mr. Lee said. “Korea symbolizes being hip, being innovative. They think that really shows who we are. So it’s a good match.”