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[Kim Ji-hyun] Opportunities in ever-changing society

A woman of 40 is something of a rarity in the startup culture, and those who do exist are usually on the incubating side, and not the actual founding of companies.

So to me, a woman of 40, the local startup scene feels like a vibrant stage filled with young actors and actresses whose enthusiasm is almost contagious. And for the first few months that we started covering startups in earnest, I felt this truly was a place where new things could happen, where we really might have the honor of witnessing the creation of the next Samsung.

Then the reality hit us, and we saw that just like with any other sector or industry in Korea, startups face a giant wall of vested interests.

Recently, I had a talk on this matter with a colleague of mine and a startup adviser and former journalist who spent years living in both Seoul and California -- more specifically, Silicon Valley.

The conversation soon turned to the recent moves by Seoul City to sue Pool Us, a carpooling app, for violating laws on commuting hours. For those of you who may not have read the story, Pool Us recently introduced a new service where the user can decide when commuting hours are for them.

But Seoul City said the service would go against laws stating that car pool can be used only during “conventional” rush hours, meaning in the morning and the evening.

How backward is that? Here we are, talking about how workplaces and whole communities will become more and more remotely connected, and based on AI, with VR and AR making life even more surreal than ever, and the government wants to talk about when the rush hour is.

The bigger problem behind this, however, are the interests of Seoul cab drivers.

The livelihoods of these drivers are, of course, a critical issue, especially with the drivers claim they are already living in harsh financial conditions as it is, and they won’t stand for ride sharing or ride hailing services of any kind.

On Nov. 20, a discussion between the involved parties, including the cab drivers were supposed to take place, but it was postponed indefinitely after the drivers staged a temporary sit-in, sort of, at the meeting venue.

Japan was, is still, hostile toward ride hailing or sharing services. And change is quite uncommon there, where everything is about being prepared, and working by the manual.

However, when change does happen, it happens with a vengeance. When Sony decided it could no longer run as it used to, it underwent half a decade of restructuring. Like the ailing Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee once said, Sony change everything but their spouses.

And Tokyo is slowly but methodically preparing to accept new services. Taxis have become cheaper, and the industry itself is struggling to embrace change.

Earlier this year, Ichiro Kawanabe, president of Nihon Kotsu, Japan’s largest taxi operator whose motto happens to be, “The unchanging sincerity in this ever-changing society,” said he was opposed to deregulations for allowing ride hailing services, but he also proposed launching a taxi-sharing app this year.

For now, the company has launched an app that lets users select the pickup and drop off point, and can also see the full fare before hopping in. Kawanabe says, the industry has to undergo a complete restructuring in order to stay competitive.

This all seems to be a far cry from the situation in Korea, where every time change happens and we have to adjust, people stage demonstrations or engage in some sort of extreme action to maintain the status quo and protect their vested interests.

It’s okay to fear change, and even to abhor it. Change is not easy for anyone. But shutting out opportunities to communicate on what the change may bring, and how it can be altered for mutual benefits won’t help with anything. Who knows? Maybe you may even end up liking the changes. 

By Kim Ji-hyun

Jihyun Kim is the managing editor of The Investor.