QUITO, Ecuador--Imagine it's 2023. Things have shifted in the world of technology, and I'm not just talking about the elimination of the standard-transmission vehicle in favor of autonomous transport. Companies in Asia, the United States, and Europe still produce many of the world's major innovations in everything from energy efficiency and biotechnology to IT and consumer electronics, and many of those products are still made in China.
But there's also a new player on the scene that wasn't registering on anyone's radar in the tech world just a decade ago.
In this particular vision of the future, a small but rapidly growing number of innovations are born, nurtured, produced, and sent to market from a tiny but vivacious country sandwiched between the Pacific and the Amazon -- Ecuador.
Scientists and researchers flock to this new Latin American take on Silicon Valley to develop new medicines near the remarkably biodiverse Amazon rain forest. Other nearby abundant natural resources aid in the development of cutting-edge solar cells and new petrochemical technologies. And software and hardware designers take advantage of a network of incubators and an adjacent industrial park to see their next big things spring to life without ever having to make the long journey to and from an Asian factory.
--Jose Andrade, California Institute of Technology professor
That's the rather bold dream that's already under construction here in this rapidly developing nation of 15 million. Since taking office in 2007, Ecuador's socialist government, led by American- and European-educated economist Rafael Correa, has been on a spending spree -- modernizing highways, pouring money into schools, and increasing access to the Internet at blinding speed, among numerous other projects.
But perhaps the most ambitious initiative just getting under way in the northern fringes of Ecuador's highlands is Yachay, a planned "City of Knowledge" that the Correa administration hopes will one day compete and collaborate with Silicon Valley, South Korea, Japan, and the other great innovation centers of the world.
I had never heard of Yachay before I came to Ecuador late last year. I encountered it in a Google search while sitting in an apartment in Ecuador's third-largest city researching the insane retail prices for consumer electronics in Ecuador and much of the rest of Latin America. (Want last year's iPod Nano? That'll be $350 -- nearly the average monthly income here.) There's little reporting on the project in English, and the conceptual videos and promotional propaganda on the official government Web site seemed at first glance like pie in the sky on the scale of those suddenly ubiquitous schemes to mine asteroids.
So I booked a flight to Quito to get the direct scoop from the man with the plan, Rene Ramirez, Ecuador's minister of higher education, science, technology, and innovation.
Ramirez, at least from my perspective as an outsider, embodies many characteristics of the new, more modern Ecuador. Today's Ecuador has been rapidly emerging since the Correa administration began a relentless campaign to update and stabilize the country, which had for decades been thought of on the international stage as a bit of an economic basket case.
Ramirez sports a ponytail and bright red Bono-esque glasses. He understands and speaks English, but answers my queries in his native Spanish to be able to use more precise language.
While a translator repeats his detailed answers for me, he swipes away on his iPad, perhaps checking his Twitter feed, which boasts nearly 20,000 followers. It's not too difficult to imagine this guy giving a TED talk. Problem is, 18 minutes wouldn't be nearly enough for him to say everything he wants to about Yachay.
"What's it going to be?" Ramirez asks, surrounded by staff in a conference room at the offices of Ecuador's Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation here in the nation's capitol. "It is an entire, extensive city that is the first planned city of knowledge not only in Ecuador, but in all of Latin America...
"The city is going to be (centered around) a university, and it's also going to be a special economic development zone. Within the city there will be the experimental university...and there will also be other public research institutions -- all the centers of research and development, both international and domestic, and also there will be technological parks of knowledge. There will also be incubators and pre-incubators of the innovation that will be born in these centers of research."
And, of course, Ramirez says there will be everything else that goes with a city -- primary schools, housing in the style of New Urbanism, restaurants, nightlife. He imagines Yachay not only as a destination for big thinkers, makers, movers, and shakers, but for tourists as well. Think Palo Alto, Calif., meets Dubai, a logical addition to the standard Ecuadorian itinerary that includes the Galapagos Islands, Amazonian rain forest, and Andean highlands. Here's the official promotional video on Yachay from the Ecuadorian government (the actual description of the project begins 2:55 in):
The chunk of land Ecuador's government has already purchased for the project clocks in at just under 17 square miles, or the same size as Atlantic City -- a more appropriate comparison might be to the city of Palo Alto, which would be about the same size if all of its open space were stripped out. Of course, if Yachay takes off, there's room for growth in the surrounding Andean highlands.
Yachay isn't starting totally from scratch, though. On the site now are several dozen essentially abandoned buildings -- some are up to 200 years old, and the government refers to them as "patrimonial sites" -- in various states of disrepair that are now being preserved, rehabbed, and integrated into the university section of the development.
"There isn't really a place in South America that currently attracts a lot of students and scientists...There are good schools, but none of them are really hot," Jose Andrade, an associate professor in the engineering and applied sciences division at the California Institute of Technology, told me over the phone. Andrade is originally from Ecuador and has played a key role in CalTech's increasing involvement with the development of Yachay.
Andrade told me CalTech is helping out with the design of a plan for implementing Yachay University and the overall strategy that will help innovations developed within the "City of Knowledge" grow from research concepts to finished products, which could be manufactured in an attached industrial park.
If all goes according to plan, a number of products from solar cells to software and even pharmaceuticals could one day bear a "Hecho en Ecuador" stamp.
It could take decades for the full vision of Yachay -- a modern, vibrant metropolis centered around a top-tier international research university and peppered with startup incubators, R&D facilities, and factories that compete with those in China or Brazil -- to be realized, but Ecuador's government is wasting no time.
The Correa government hopes to mimic the economic miracles of Asian countries like Japan and South Korea that seized on an opportunity to export high-tech and other manufactured goods to the world, rapidly transforming themselves from war-torn and impoverished regions into global powerhouses. In fact, Ecuador's government has partnered with and plans to model Yachay on South Korea's up-and-coming Incheon Free Economic Zone.
"For the first time, there's a group of people that are thinking about technology and knowledge and having a university of excellence...that's unheard of in this country," Andrade said. "This project -- I am personally in love with it. It's one of the greatest things that I've seen in this country, ever."
As of right now, the location has been chosen; key partnerships are in place; and ground has been broken on the site of the new university that will be the focal point of Yachay, particularly in its early stages of development. Yachay's project manager told me matter of factly that he expects some classes to begin later this year.
Of course, holding a few classes in a university that's under construction is one thing. Convincing the world that this tiny country -- best known in the tech world for giving shelter to Wikileaks publisher and wanted man Julian Assange in its London embassy -- is the next big hub for innovation is quite another.
Tomorrow, as our series on Yachay continues, we travel to the Galapagos Islands to learn what the project could mean for the rest of Ecuador -- and the world. Thanks for translation help goes to Carlos Landazuri Bravo.