Entering the Jeju Creative Economy Innovation Center on the third floor of the Jeju Venture Maru building, it is hard to tell whether it is a workplace, coffee shop or playground.
Meeting rooms contain table-tennis tables and dart boards, swings hang in the communal zone, beanbags and cuddly toys congregate on the floor while animation characters cheekily grin from across the room.
Run by DaumKakao as part of the government’s public-private Creative Economy Initiative, the Jeju center is one of 17 across the country — one for each province — and when President Park Geun-hye personally cut the ribbon in June she dubbed it “Korea’s Silicon Beach” after the tech hub west of LA.
Center CEO Jeon Jeong Hwan says DaumKakao wants it to challenge and inspire local entrepreneurs in its very design; the traditional office layout has been ditched to maximize creativity and allow workers to revitalize and simply relax.
▲ Photo by Eric Hevesy
“The concept is adventure, and the intersecting keywords are connect, community and co-creation,” Jeon says. He then points to walking trails and oreum peaks on the floor. “The oreum summits also represent career upgrading,” he adds.
Jeon, who at 44 years of age is the youngest center CEO in the country, says there is plenty of succor for workaholics too, and he hopes it becomes a magnet for the tech professionals flocking to Jeju as it becomes a creative and cultural city.
Games rooms keep the creative juices flowing at the center. Photo by Eric Hevesy
“It is based on designing creative lives at the heart of East Asia. Developers or experts would take a break from their careers to relocate to Jeju for six months or a year and then be inspired by other digital nomads here,” Jeon said.
Creative talent is moving to Jeju in large numbers from diverse fields and the center sits at the intersection of art, culture and technology.
This is the perfect vantage point for Jeon who was not only trained in computer science and statistics at Seoul National University, but also arts at Korea National University of Arts. Perhaps reflecting this, renowned painter Lee Jungseop, who spent his most creative years in Seogwipo, is Jeon’s model Jeju settler.
“The convergence of art, culture and technology is my mission. We are not only looking to artists, but also developers, authors, and all kinds of people. We want to create an environment where they can gather and work together,” said Jeon.
The center resembles a coffee shop more than a work area. Photo by Eric Hevesy
The center aims to ensure the island’s infrastructure is as much of a pull as the natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle which stand out in a densely populated East Asian region.
Jeon envisions an interconnected island of digital nomads plugged into a smart network of guesthouses, and cultural and coworking spaces, essentially making the island itself an interactive office.
“Jeju is a unique place to be an international hub and a diverse creative class is gathering here. Up to now, these people have been coming here individually. We hope, by building an international network through this center, we can create something new.”
The problem isn’t so much a dearth of startups on Jeju, but a glut, leading to low profitability and high business mortality. The center hopes to add value to such businesses and also act as a control tower to increase access to smart technologies.
The center was opened by President Park herself. Photo by Eric Hevesy
DaumKakao is also sharing its global content-creator and human resource networks through the “human library” to offset the cabin fever some innovators and entrepreneurs experience away from Seoul. It is hoped this will help create a "cultural and creative fusion belt" on the island.
Other services available include funding through the DaumKakao News Funding service, an online crowdfunding platform, as well as mentoring, temporary accommodation and workstations.
In addition to the lone nomads, the big corporations are also herding.
Daum Communications (now DaumKakao after its 2014 merger with Kakao) officially relocated to Jeju Science Park in 2012. It is one of 18 tech companies that have relocated here and generated 1.4 trillion won in sales and 1,345 jobs according to government data.
Tourism is Jeju’s bread and butter, however, and Jeon said the center will push forward Jeju’s smart tourism infrastructure such as smartphone apps targeting Chinese visitors.
“Smart tourism would mean guiding tourists from the minute they land at the airport through their smartphones. We will immediately know their tastes so if they are a culture lover we will direct them to culture spaces on the island.”
Jeju’s tourism infrastructure is currently far from smart, however, and most tourist information remains in pamphlet form. The center will thus be crucial for providing a smart platform to provide real-time content and customized services to tourists.
These two areas — creative startups and smart tourism — are the core of the Jeju center, differentiating it from its 16 mainland siblings. The center has set its sights high, hoping to emulate Silicon Beach, California, home to 370,000 start-ups and IT giants such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
What Jeju glaringly lacks compared to such IT hubs is a global workforce, and Jeon also wants to change this.
“We want to bring foreign residents together with digital nomads here at the center. We want to build a platform for coworking and skills-sharing right here to accumulate superior global resources on the island.”
He stresses that all of the facilities are open to Jeju’s international community for shows, performances, exhibitions or just informal gatherings.
“I want this center to be the heart of Jeju’s foreign and creative communities.”
Second center planned by Amore for Seogwipo
A second center, due to open in September in Seogwipo, is being supported with 100 billion won from cosmetics specialist AmorePacific, which runs O’Sulloc Green Tea Museum (within which the center will be located).
The company will also set up a 10-billion-won conservation fund, Innisfree Foundation, and a 30-billion-won fund for SMEs and startups.
It is hoped the two centers can synergize the software, beauty and tourism industries on the island and “transform the island into a beauty industry hub,” said an Amore Pacific spokesperson.
The conglomerate hopes to create a “Green Beauty Valley” which will become a multiplex combining luxurious spa facilities with high-quality green tea and beauty industries.
DaumKakao designed the center to maximize comfort and increase creativity as seen in the games rooms and seating areas. Jeon Jeong Hwan says he also wants the center to be the heart of the foreign community. Photos by Eric Hevesy
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