tech+ 2011

If I had received one Korean won each time the name of Steve Jobs was pronounced yesterday at the 2011 tech+ forum, I'd probably be a few million bucks richer today.

The thing is, the late Apple founder used to herald the convergence of humanities and technology, and that's precisely what this forum is all about : tech+ stands for technology, economy, culture, and human, wrapped up in / multiplied n-fold by resolute optimism (the final +).

While I'm at acronyms : the event was organized by the Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology (KIAT), and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE). Overall, 7,000 people showed up at Kyung Hee University's Grand Peace Palace, an impressive cathedral overlooking the splendid campus at its autumnal best.

Day 2 featured no less than 9 keynote speakers and a final wrap-up speech, but time flew seamlessly thanks to perfectly rhythmed transitions. A refreshing change from the usual verbose introductions : dynamic animations on a giant screen launching each speaker like a rock star.

Actually, the most convincing orator happened to be an expert in music : Stanford University's Ge Wang rocked the audience with his musical demos, winning more than a few hearts with his 'Ocarina' version of Arirang. The young Chinese professor delivered the ultimate stevejobsian show : same black top, same beard stubble, same voice pitch, and same gadgets (iPhone, iPad, imCool). Even his Center for Computer Research in Music and Accoustic (Stanford's CCRMA) echoes Steve's sense of Karma. But Ge Wang is a truly original and passionate individual, with an universe of his own (inhabited by such Zorgians as Smule, ChucK, MoPho, or SLOrk*). Bonus: unlike "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named", absolutely not arrogance whatsoever ! Bonus redux: an almost Mozartian touch (short high pitched laughters very reminiscent of Milos Forman's Amadeus). In a nutshell : the inspirational leader every innovating team loves to follow.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Hyundai Motors R&D VP's presentation was almost bad PR for the company. Since I've got the charisma of an anvil on stage, I can't blame him for not being as fun as Ge, but innovation is certainly not about repeating 'convergence' like a mantra without obviously understanding the word, and stamping it on every page of the company's catalog (I'm pretty sure these guys recycle always the same slides with a different keyword depending on the flavor of the month : 'well being', 'ubiquitous', 'premium'...?). Likewise, SK Planet's presentation reminded me of countless shows I attended fifteen years ago, introducing the next deja vu netco with a complete line-up of me-too applications (this time: Sundew, musicBunk, StyleTag, DishPal, Facecard, StarCall).

OK. I'm a more than demanding audience as far as innovation is concerned, but the least you expect is people really enjoying and believing in what they do. So everybody welcomed Yon Namgoong, another man of music and member of the Stevejobsian Adventist Church, and a true model for Korean students who massively attended the event: yes, you can succeed and have an impact, even if you didn't go all the way to the university. Yes, Korea needs to make more room for creative people with diverse backgrounds and a contagious eagerness to share. Yon was clearly more relevant when he developed interesting concepts bridging music with technology than when he interpreted corporate strategies, but did he have fun playing drum on stage !

Significantly, Ge and Yon delivered the same key messages through similar quotes about the evolution of technology : Ben Shneiderman for the hairy Chinese (old computing is about what computers can do / new computing is about what people can do), and the power shift for the bald Korean (power used to come from owning the tool, now it's about how you use it). Both pitches were clearly in the strike zone for the forum's "Technology@me" agenda.

Jay Elliot's job was basically to make sure we didn't forget to mention the late Jobs, and his qualities as a true leader in innovation. From a man who worked closely with him and other giants at IBM or Intel, a rather pleasant chat by the fireplace (i.e. Ge Wang's virtual lighter app for iPhone).

Neither Richard Florida nor Zhong Qui Wang brought disruptive insights either, but it's always useful to remind Korean corporations that stress can be counterproductive, and that staff shouldn't be considered as mere cost centers (and not only in R&D units). I guess Zhong must have an even tougher time trying to convince 'nouveau riche' Chinese entrepreneurs of the virtues of frugality and other Lao Tseuities...

What else ? I wish the 'creative space' presentations had reached deeper because there's so much to say about urbanism and architecture in a 'tech+' perspective for this country, but that leaves more threads to pull for future editions.

I don't know about Steve's second coming, but I'll be back.

mot-bile 2011 (also on Seoul Village : "tech+ 2011 - technology@me"

* respectively the company for which he serves as CTO, a sound programming language, the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, the Mobile Phone Orchestra.

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