Ecuador’s New Silicon Valley
Most Ecuador expats are well aware of the country’s impressive investment in public infrastructure. New highways, airports, parks, hospitals, and schools are hard to miss, as are such high-profile public transportation projects as the new light rail system in Cuenca and the Quito subway.
According to the United Nations Economic and Social Affairs office, Ecuador has the highest rate of public spending in the Western Hemisphere currently, at 16.6% of gross domestic product. In 2012, public spending totaled US$6.3 billion, a six-fold increase since 2007, says Ecuador’s Ministry of Planning and National Development.
Often overlooked among Ecuador’s public investments, however, is the initiative to improve its universities. According to President Rafael Correa, who earned his master’s degree in Belgium and a PhD at the University of Illinois, building a world-class university system is fundamental to improving the lives of Ecuadorians.
The centerpiece of Correa’s plan is a massive education and research center north of Quito known as Yachay, or City of Knowledge. The project, which began construction three years ago, is an 18-square-mile planned community that will eventually be home to a large university and a dozen technology and innovation parks.
The goal of the project, according to its developers, is nothing less than the creation of a South American equivalent of Silicon Valley, or the North Carolina Research Triangle. “The vision is very bold,” says Jose Andrade, an Ecuador native and professor at the California Institute of Technology, who is an advisor for the project.
“To be a leader in Latin American education and to be a player in world research, we have to build first-class facilities and attract first-class talent, and this is Ecuador’s first step in that direction.”
During the Yachay planning process, Ecuador has enlisted the help of educators not only in the United States but also in South Korea, Japan, China, and Italy. In one fact-finding trip, Correa visited the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina to talk to researchers, professors, and administrators. The trip was organized by David Murdock, president of Dole Foods, a major investor in Research Triangle projects and an advocate for Yachay.
Rene Ramirez, Ecuador’s secretary of higher education, research, and technology, says that Yachay will be not only an incubator for new technologies and ideas, but also a driver of the Ecuadorian economy. “The public and private research conducted here will be a major component in this country’s growth and development. We will encourage experimental and innovative thinking and provide the facilities and resources necessary to turn that thinking into real products and services.”
Ramirez adds that there will be special emphasis on the emerging field of nanotechnology but adds that Yachay will be multi-disciplinary. “This is not simply about science and technology. It will be a center of liberal arts education, too, and be a cultural resource for the entire country.”
Yachay will eventually be a collection of smaller universities, he says, each pursuing its own discipline.
Ramirez and Andrade say that construction is only half of the Yachay project. “It will be great to have the facilities but we must also recruit professors and researchers and most of these will come from outside of Ecuador,” says Andrade. Ramirez adds that Correa is committed to a world-wide search for top talent and that the recruitment process has already begun.
Yachay planners say the project will cost between US$5 billion and US$6 billion dollars and take at least a decade to build. Fresh off re-election, Correa says the project will be well on its way to realization by the time he leaves office in 2017. “Yachay is the most important thing I can leave to my country. We will not lose our focus.”
Despite the enthusiasm, there are plenty of Yachay skeptics. There are already Cities of Knowledge in Panama and Brazil that have fallen short of original expectations. Others say that the price tag is an unsustainable burden for a small country to bear and point out that proceeds from Ecuador’s oil production, which are funding much of the country’s infrastructure and educational projects, could drop off within the decade.
Correa says he understands that oil money is limited.
“This is exactly why we need to improve our education system now, especially our universities. By investing in education we are putting our money into the people and creating human capital. It is an investment that will make Ecuador prosperous long after the oil is gone.”
The debate, as well as the construction at Yachay, will continue. Meantime, Yachay University opens for classes the first week of October.
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