The Unlikely Appeal of Disruptive Urbanpreneurs

This post is part of our Thriving Cities discussion series, following the sixth edition of the NewCities Summit in Incheon Songdo, South Korea in June 2017.

“Entrepreneurship is as old as our species,” said Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent, as she opened the discussion on how a startup community benefits the city as a whole and how to foster a culture of entrepreneurship within cities.

The panel collectively shifted the startup-focused conversation away from the well known narrative of technology companies in Silicon Valley to more comprehensively define the notion of a startup: solving a problem.

Any feat of entrepreneurship is undeniably a great challenge. The President of N3N and Co-founder and Partner at Sparklabs, Jimmy Kim, said commitment to the cause is an incredibly important part of the equation: “It’s not about making billions of dollars, it is about how passionate you are about the problem you are trying to solve.”

Olopade said entrepreneurship is not only a great challenge, but also a great risk, suggesting an openness to failure and appetite for risk are integral to a supportive entrepreneurial environment. She added understanding the target audience is an important part of the equation: “Knowing your problem is knowing the people who have that problem,” she said. “When successful, this problem and solution cycle overturns benefits for each party involved.”

Ultimately, the customer benefits when their problem is solved, the entrepreneur benefits when their business succeeds, and the forum where this process takes place benefits from both. Thus, cities now compete to host entrepreneurs in hopes of reaping these rewards.

As CEO of the Global Innovation Fund, Alix Zwane brought a financial perspective to the conversation, highlighting not all city budgets are created equal. “Even if you don’t have the means to become a Songdo, you can still take responsibility for managing the negative externalities that increase with growth,” Zwane said.

“Governments can reduce congestion costs associated with growth to foster a culture that is conducive to startups,” she added. She also called for more public-private partnerships, in hopes this may help ignite more blended financial models, creating even greater opportunities in innovation and experimentation.

Kim, whose company had its start in Songdo, explored the benefits of starting a business in a greenfield city: “Entrepreneurs move to cities where they can get a reference and visibility. This is why Songdo was the perfect fit for us.” As a new city, Songdo also had the distinct advantage it was free from legacy issues some large cities may face. In many places, existing narratives, connections and problems may be obstacles for entrepreneurs.