North Koreans learn entrepreneurship in Singapore

“Yes, but what is innovation?”

“What percentage of newly planted trees survive in Singapore?”

“Why can’t I log in to this website?”

When you have 12 North Koreans spending two weeks on a Choson Exchange study trip on tech entrepreneurship to Singapore, the questions range wildly. In early March, we organised such a two-week programme.

The goal was to introduce to these budding entrepreneurs, scientists and policymakers the roles of a host of actors in the startup ecosystem. Given their familiarity with a heavy governmental role, we tackled the role of policy early. Volunteer workshop leaders emphasised the need for government bodies to incentivise a tech-business ecosystem, and in funding R&D and commercialisation in instances of market dislocation.

Augmented Reality App Demo

Augmented Reality App Demo

One of the workshop leaders actually drew up a couple of potential action plans for the DPRK to consider: a dedicated government-sponsored plot to host high-tech startups similar to Singapore’s own Block 71, and overseas internships or study exchanges for North Korean university students in countries such as Sweden or China. These were pretty well received on the whole and the feasibility of these plans was debated for the better portion of an hour before the group turned its attention to the more philosophical topic of what exactly the term “innovation” defines.

If anything, though, a more pressing issue was less policy-related and more about the general approach towards commercialising products. A few members of our team noted that the participants tended towards creating a product and then trying to sell it  – one gentleman was considering the development of an online marketplace for cosmetics seemingly without really consulting many women about their preferences. As one of our workshop leaders put it, “making something for the users without even talking to the users” is not a problem unique to North Korea, but one they need to consider given the historical lack of market focus among people used to state planning.

When one of our volunteers introduced the Lean Canvas model for building startups, initial hesitation gave way to a full embrace of its philosophy of “lean”. It provided a useful template, helping mapping out key steps from identifying a problem and targetting customers to establishing unfair advantage and communication channels. More than one workshop leader pointed out that the group’s ideas often made the common mistake of jumping straight to the solution without identifying the problem and market.

Just a couple of days after first seeing it, they were referring to the template while practicing idea pitching in front of an investment manager. The concept kept resurfacing and seemed to increasingly structure their ideas as the study trip went on.

If one looks at the bigger picture, North Korea has a long way to go in comprehending investor confidence, pricing and competition. They also desperately need better communication links with the outside world. But while the policies they operate under are still largely out of their hands, these twelve have a new-found understanding of business planning that will be easy for them to explain to colleagues and friends back home.

Whether they pinned down the meaning of “innovation” is another matter.

This article initially appeared on the tech website e27