Social entrepreneurship is the way. First, we need empathy

Social entrepreneurship programmes are being seen in South Korea as an opportunity for universities to contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as well as shore up the nation’s economic competitiveness. But first young people – tomorrow’s leaders – need to (re)discover empathy.

As the country’s population continues to age rapidly and birthrates continue to decline, South Korean universities, with an eye on sustainability, are recalibrating their programmes in a bid to appear more attractive to the country’s shrinking student-age population.

Several institutions have rolled out ‘convergence’ majors which involve collaboration by multiple departments. Others have given precedence to job-oriented programmes. Another approach is to prioritise education in ‘social entrepreneurship’ that cultivates problem-solving skills to address societal issues.

Experts also suggest that educating young people via a sustainability-aligned approach, through multidisciplinary courses and socially responsible work, could have a substantial impact on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and corporate competitiveness as young leaders enter society and the workplace.

For example, Hanyang University in Seoul has established the country’s first undergraduate degree in social innovation.

At graduate level, more than a dozen universities in South Korea – including Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Pusan National University and Daegu University – run masters or doctoral courses in social enterprise or social economy as an option in business or management degrees, while others run such courses under their departments of social welfare.

Shin Hyun-sang, a professor at Hanyang University, told University World News]/i]: “Even if universities don’t invest campus-wide in social innovation and the spirit of social entrepreneurship like Hanyang does, it seems that most Korean universities offer at least one related course.”

He pointed to a need to restore the social capital that has been eroded by relentless competition and individualism. Instilling empathy or understanding other people’s predicaments is a starting point, he said.

“In reality, emphasising the spirit of social entrepreneurship isn’t an immediate solution to the financial crises that universities often face,” Shin said. “However, without empathy, one can’t even get to that starting point to solve social problems nor to understand the SDGs.”

Why social entrepreneurship?

Experts emphasise the increasing need for problem-solving skills based on empathy. Shin identified the “breakdown of communities” as an underlying issue and noted that accelerated digitalisation and the lack of face-to-face interactions have left the younger generation in Korea relatively deficient in communication skills and empathy.

“In such a context, the rapid evolution of the social entrepreneurship mindset holds dual significance for both Korean society and university education.

“Firstly, it aims to equip individuals with an active mindset, capable of recognising societal problems, and exercising empathy to take action towards resolutions. Secondly, it promotes the acquisition of various problem-solving skills, encouraging creativity in envisioning strategies applicable to non-profit campaigns, business ventures, policy development and more.”

Sungkyunkwan University’s recently established department of social entrepreneurship and humanistic future studies also underscores the role of empathy and community-centred social entrepreneurship. It takes its cue from Spain's Mondragon Team Academy that has innovative entrepreneurship and team-based education as its core.

The university’s SeTA – Social Entrepreneurship Team Academy – programme is anchored in the ‘learning by doing’ philosophy, where students directly engage in identifying real societal issues and participate in resolving them by applying various business methods.

Lee Won-jun, an honorary professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and the driving force behind this initiative, said: “Now, more than ever, South Korea needs to foster collaborative and collective experiences in its youth.

“The emphasis should be on nurturing moral and emotional growth. This growth, intertwined with technical education and channelled towards community problem-solving, is imperative for both individual and societal progression.”

Teaching empathy

University educators generally agree that South Korean students, accustomed to an exam-oriented and competitive educational system, are often relatively deficient in empathy, which is often a basis for collaboration and communication.

While South Korean society is widely seen as being in need of solutions that emanate from a social entrepreneurship mindset, the reduced societal interaction experienced during the COVID-19 era has accelerated the urgency for students to rapidly recover and enhance their empathy skills.

New ways to teach empathy, one of the prerequisites for social entrepreneurship, have emerged.

Parag Mankeekar, an Ashoka Fellow who is also a medical doctor and anthropologist in India and has run his own computer game company, has devised the empathy-based computer game RealLives.

He believes young people can be trained to understand global problems and become more empathetic using technology, or what he calls ‘gamified’ technologies.

He described RealLives, an online simulation game application, as providing a foundation for budding social entrepreneurs, emphasising the broader context. “Given South Korea’s accelerated ageing trend and the emergent challenges surrounding multiculturalism, the tech-savvy Korean student population is ripe for innovative tools like RealLives,” he said.

The RealLives simulation

RealLives allows users to experientially explore answers to the question: “What kind of life would I be leading if I were born in another country?”

Participants in the simulation can indirectly experience the challenges they would encounter through exposure to different education and healthcare systems, unemployment, poverty and water scarcity if they were born in any of the 193 member countries of the United Nations.

The game integrates real-world databases from organisations like the UN, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Health Organization and the World Bank. It exposes students to how other people in different cultures and socio-economic categories live and how global challenges, such as those the SDGS aim to address, are affecting lives.

The range of choices is exceptionally broad, allowing players to experience a variety of unfamiliar professions including, but not limited to, American lawyers, Polish computer manufacturers, Bangladeshi small-scale farmers, Brazilian factory workers and Nigerian police officers.

By living a simulated life, albeit for just 45 minutes, players gain a better understanding of social issues and the importance of solving them together.

Describing her experience of the game, a Korean high school student said: “I was ‘born’ six times in North Korea, and in four of those ‘lives’, I couldn’t make it past one year and met my end. Amidst this, in my sixth life, I finally celebrated my 10th birthday in North Korea, and I didn’t want to let go of this life.

“Even though it was a virtual existence, I began to fear the concept of death. To stay alive, I turned a blind eye to corruption and supported the government in whatever I did. One day, when enough money had been saved, I made my way … to South Korea, having immigrated there illegally [via] China. People who stood against society were being apprehended, and prosperous households were beginning to crumble.”

Enhancing education

On 11 August, Mankeekar hosted a workshop at Hanyang University with students, educators from primary and secondary schools and universities, and other education experts. Discussions revolved around harnessing RealLives to enrich the Korean education experience by enhancing social entrepreneurship.

A middle school teacher who attended the event stated: “Through RealLives, students have had the opportunity to engage more deeply with other people’s lives, cultivate empathy, and enhance their imagination. Additionally, it has made mutual communication in other class sessions more comfortable. It has also had a positive effect on their expectations regarding the purpose of studying and their future roles.

“Without this game, we might not have made an effort to understand others’ lives properly. It felt so realistic, and we were deeply immersed. It felt like a new perspective had opened up for us,” said a student who took part.

A goal of social entrepreneurship or social innovation education is to enable students to act as ‘changemakers’ in society, even if it takes time, according to Mankeekar.

He also conducted a seminar on gamified education technology at Chonnam National University on 20 September with a focus on nurturing a deeper appreciation and empathy for diverse global cultures and lifestyles.

Hanyang’s Shin said such tools were timely and relevant. “At a time when social bonds seem more fractured than ever, leading to societal challenges, platforms like RealLives are indispensable.”

He added: “Experts regard social isolation and the breakdown of social networks as significant contributors to crime, depression and an increase in suicide rates in Korea. To fundamentally address this, it’s essential to restore the social capital that has been eroded by relentless competition and individualism.”