Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
We’re in Seoul, looking for the people who make South Korea’s fast-paced capital run.
Seoul moves at a dizzying speed. And it stops for no one. Pause in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street in this South Korean city of some 10 million, and fellow pedestrians will brush past you without so much as a glance from their phones. The streets and crosswalks are a mobility hodgepodge of bikes, cars, buses, and people. One prominent part of the city’s complex traffic ecosystem: food delivery guys whizzing by on their motorbikes. Thanks to South Korea’s on-demand culture, driven largely by the abundance of mobile apps, the meals must be fast and hot.
Or, when it comes to Seoul staples like Yakult yogurts—a probiotic drink from Japan—icy cold. Food delivery culture is deeply ingrained in Seoul, and it far predates the smartphone era. In the 1970s, when refrigeration was still largely reserved for the wealthy, middle-aged women—or ajummas—were hired to deliver the drinks in residential neighborhoods. They’d go door-to-door, selling the tiny bottles of Yakult out of heavy insulated carts for just a few cents each.
These days, their delivery jobs have been given a technological update to keep up with the pace of the city.
Some 13,000 Yakult ajummas, clad in their pink and beige uniforms, make up the all-female fleet today. Many have swapped their clunky carts for sleek motorized yogurtmobiles that can carry more than 3,000 bottles and cruise at up to five miles an hour. The women drive while standing on a step at the end of the electric cart, as adding seats to the vehicles would subject the industry to stricter safety regulations.
From sunrise to the mid-afternoon, yogurtmobiles snake through alleyways, delivering yogurt to workers inside convenience stores and coffeeshops; other ajummas park outside subway stations to serve crowds of hurried commuters. Nowadays, the carts sell much more than yogurt—coffee, juice, even fully-prepared meal kits—and residents can track down the nearest ajumma via Yakult’s real-time Find-An-Auntie map.
The exuberant embrace of technology in Seoul, and in South Korean society in general, is something of a marvel, the envy of many a Big Data evangelist in U.S. cities. This is a once-rural nation that urbanized at a breakneck pace; it was just 65 year ago that the Korean War left the southern part of the peninsula one of the world’s poorest countries. Today, South Korea boasts not only a massive electronics and automotive industry that contributes to its $1.4 trillion GDP, but also blazing fast internet, an elaborate subway system, and a pioneering built-from-scratch “smart city.” In fact, Seoul owes much of its place in the world economy—and now its role as a stage for high-stakes world diplomacy—to this tech-fueled transformation.
At the same time, too, often overlooked are the humans that make this complex, data-driven society work. In a new CityLab series, Seoul Stories, we’ll pursue the soul (sorry) of one of the most tech-saturated urban places on earth. In part, these are stories about youth and aging, and the two generations of South Koreans who face a ticking demographic time bomb that technology alone cannot defuse: This is the fastest-aging society in the developed world. On one side of this process are the now-elderly citizens who built the city after the war, only to be left behind by their own success. On the other are the youthful Seoulites who have so far resisted the government’s pleas to start their own families. Inevitably, Seoul’s nuclear-armed neighbor, North Korea, casts its own shadow over this society—especially now, as the two Koreas engage in a delicate diplomatic dance over the prospect of peace and possible reunification.
I’m here in Seoul for a few weeks with a group of student journalists from the University of Montana School of Journalism. As newcomers, it’s hard for us not to marvel at the glitz, gadgetry, and scale of this vast and fast-paced metropolis. But we’re also remembering our commitment to pay attention to the actual backbone of the city—the maintainers who, as CityLab’s Laura Bliss wrote, make the world turn. That’s the ajummas behind every yogurtmobile, who earn just a quarter of what they sell, and the aunties selling fresh gimbap, a kind of rice roll that’s a staple breakfast for early commuters, and the drivers and conductors who ferry millions of commuters every day. That’s also the men and women who sweep the ground at the break of dawn, and essentially make yesterday’s trash disappear overnight.
For all the fawning over the gadgetry that make this fast-paced city run, South Korea’s capital is by no means a techno-utopia: Like so many cities in the U.S. and in Europe, it struggles with issues like inequality, housing affordability, and pollution. Yet like those cities, it’s full of people in search of solutions—sometimes through harnessing that technological prowess, but more often by employing a bit of human ingenuity.