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Is it possible to become South Korea?

From the 5th National Congress of ÜSİMP, the University-Industry Collaboration Centers Platform…

The 5th National Congress of the University-Industry Collaboration Centers Platform (for short ÜSİMP in Turkish) took place on June 21-22, 2012 at the Sabancı University in cooperation with the Sabancı University, the TÜSİAD-Sabancı University Competition Forum, which I co-chair, and the Istanbul Chamber of Industry.

ÜSİMP is an extremely successful platform that aims to facilitate the expansion of university-industry collaboration, and the generation of ideas to increase the competitiveness of our country, and strives to ensure that this type of collaboration is carried out in a more professional fashion.

The main theme of the 5th congress of ÜSİMP was “Managing the University-Industry Collaboration Process”, and I had the privilege to chair the session “Strategic R&D Management in the Industry/University” which concurred with the R&D theme that I have been attaching so much importance to and investing time in for the competitiveness of our companies I have been leading for the last six years.

My guests in the session were Prof. Fazilet Vardar Sükan, Director of the Science and Technology Application and Research Center of Ege University, and Mr. Müjdat Altay, CEO of Netaş, one of the leading Information and Communication Technologies organizations in Turkey.

I would like to tell you about my assessment of Turkey’s dynamics and the place of R&D, and the comparison I made between Turkey and South Korea, which, having gone through the same experience earlier, has become a success story, as I shared it in this session.


Turkey and growth opportunities in R&D

What are the opportunities?

For Turkey to achieve its goal to be one of the top 10 economies in the world by 2023, it has to significantly increase added value and efficiency. Considering our current account deficit, it is obvious that the biggest opportunity for us to achieve this target lies in leaps to be made with R&D and innovative approaches.

The stable economic growth momentum, our young population advantage, and our focus to turn them into qualified labor force, as well as the fact that we are in a period of significant R&D investments, all show that we are at a historic fork in the road and in a time of opportunities to move up to a higher league in R&D. Managing R&D processes dynamically and in a way that they can benefit from collaborations becomes quite critical.

One of the goals set by our government in the 2023 vision is “to increase R&D spend from its current 0.8% of GDP to 3%.” 3% Corresponds to the expenditure level of those countries around the world that boast the highest level of R&D activity. It’s quite ambitious, but just like in South Korea’s success story, it is possible if the right strategies are used...

Güney Kore olmak mümkün mü?

Turkey’s ambitious target of 3% is very similar to the leap South Korea made between 1980 and 2000. Whereas GDP per capita in South Korea in 1965 was 1/3 of that in Turkey, today it is three times that of Turkey – a nine-fold increase in 50 years is indeed very impressive.

A comparison reveals the following:

From the 60s to the 80s, South Korea first starts with technology transfer. Turkey’s focus shifted to technology transfer in the 80s.

South Korea switched to technology-intensive industries in the 70s and 80s. Turkey, on the other hand, made this move at the beginning of the 2000s.

South Korea started to invest in R&D capacity in the 80s. Turkey focuses on the power of R&D in the 2000s.

In short, we are lagging 20 years behind… Our common point is that we had export-oriented industrial strategies in the same period. The biggest difference, however, is that South Korea's focus in its export composition already in the 90s was medium technology products, whereas Turkey has just started.

In closing, I remember what a friend of mine, the leader of a large organization that I could call “the Sabancı of South Korea”, once said to me.

When I asked him about South Korea’s success formula, he said, “Education comes first.” You know, they are ranking among the best in the quality of education… We, though, still have a long way to go… 

“We have an entrepreneurial culture,” he said – starting with copying, but now targeting global leadership thanks to R&D… In that sense, I wonder how we can turn the “short-term view” in entrepreneurship in our culture into a long-term perspective!

Finally, he said, “We achieved clustering and scale in industry with the government’s support.”

It looks very hard, however, seeing how the Koreans made it to this day from their times of hardship in the 50s, one can’t help but admire them, and ask oneself, why shouldn’t we be able to do it despite all our weaknesses. What do you think?

Kind regards,

Mehmet N. Pekarun