Tale of two shipbuilding citiesTwo cities have raced along the same track for 20 years. One overcame the collapse of its major industries and transformed itself into a completely new smart city, while the other is using the crisis in its major industries to springboard into a smart era.
Korea’s Ulsan and Sweden’s Malmo are similar and different in many ways. Ulsan this year marks the 20th anniversary of obtaining metropolitan city status, and Malmo, following the collapse of its existing industries over the past 20 years, is undergoing a new renaissance in industry.
In 2002, Hyundai Heavy Industries bought a Goliath gantry crane for $1 from Malmo, a city well known in Europe but unfamiliar to many Koreans. Malmo, through the tears of its citizens, saw the crane away, and from then on, the city served as a lesson to us of vigilance.
Some 15 years have passed since then, and while the tears of Malmo have been forgotten amid the shipbuilding boom in Ulsan, starting from last year, the symbolic phrase has emerged again. As a reminder of the circumstances in which Hyundai Heavy bought the Goliath crane, a gantry crane at the Masan shipyard was sold to a Romanian company in a fire sale.
Over the past year, many have told me to learn from Malmo’s experience. Each time, I have replied that Ulsan looks upon Malmo as a reflection as we walk our own path. But while Malmo and Ulsan resemble each other, we are also different.
We are alike in how we enjoyed a history of prosperity through shipbuilding and now worry about the future. We also share an unemployment problem resulting from the shipbuilding industry’s crisis.
As mayor of Malmo, Ilmar Reepalu led his city from decline to a rebound over the course of 19 years. Likewise, Ulsan is heading toward becoming a city of tomorrow. We share this in common.
But the path Ulsan is taking differs from that of Malmo. The Swedish city’s shipbuilding industry was all it had, but Ulsan has a foothold in plenty of other industries as well. The 20 years Malmo underwent to sever itself from the past and the 20 years Ulsan spent searching for newness as an extension of its past represents how we are both similar and different. It is about discontinuity and continuity.
Uslan now thirsts for newness. However, that newness is not like Malmo’s symbolic skyscraper, the Turning Torso, built upon the collapse of its shipbuilding industry, but rather in Ulsan’s shipyards, oil refineries, car plants and chemical factories. It is a thirst to find new livelihood 20 years from now, a thirst for an innovative city. When Ulsan’s oil refineries, shipyards and car factories were built 50 years ago, they were themselves a form of innovation. Factories were built on orchards, sandy beaches and fields of reed, which enabled production and the learning of skills.
Through that strength, Ulsan became the heart of Korea’s economic miracle and achieved an unprecedented annual export of $100 billion. With a foothold as the country’s leading economic power, Ulsan citizens gathered their will, overcame pollution and cultivated a city where quality of life improved.
However, the situation now is completely in contrast from then. The recession in front of our eyes is not just a recession but also a reminder that if preparation for the future is pushed off even a day, it will forever be delayed because we will soon be in an era where skills equate to competitiveness.
That is why Ulsan is pouring all its efforts into strengthening research and development. From the factories of Korea’s past, we now aim to foster Korea’s laboratories.
When Ulsan attained its status as a metropolitan city two decades ago, R&D infrastructure was virtually nonexistent, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it simply a production base. However, 20 years later, research institutes are trailblazing here, and an additional six research institutes are in the works to be built by 2020.
Of the 26 R&D infrastructure projects to be established in the next three years, 16 are concentrated under the current sixth government of the Ulsan Metropolitan City, which serves as evidence of how fiercely Ulsan is preparing for the future.
There are two prongs in this effort. First is to enable the automaking, shipbuilding, petrochemical and other pre-existing industries to become more cutting-edge, smart and sophisticated. Another is to foster new industries favored in the fourth industrial revolution that is drawing global attention, such as biochemistry and fine chemistry, 3-D printing, graphene and new materials, secondary batteries and energy storage systems, as well as genomics and biomedicine.
Some may ask what sort of results the R&D projects will bring about and when it will come to fruition. My answer to this is through Ulsan’s sweat and perseverance. Rather than reveling in the glory of its past, Ulsan has regarded more preciously the invitation to the future, and with sweat and perseverance, it has embraced this.
Ulsan’s 20th anniversary of obtaining metropolitan city status is verification of the value and worth of its history and also serves as a launching pad for another flight.
*The author is mayor of Ulsan Metropolitan City.