Telecoms & IT

Knowledge City: Investigate! Innovate! Produce!

Yachay

The $1.04 billion initiative, Yachay University for Experimental Technology and Research—also known as Yachay Tech, or just Yachay—is meant to be a world-class, globally linked, and nationally transformative center for […]

The $1.04 billion initiative, Yachay University for Experimental Technology and Research—also known as Yachay Tech, or just Yachay—is meant to be a world-class, globally linked, and nationally transformative center for research and education. It will be a core element of the Yachay City of Knowledge, which the Ecuadorean government envisions as a forward looking, hi-tech, and vibrant metropolis developed around the idea of sustaining start-up incubators, world-class R&D units, and industrial production facilities.

A research university and planned city in Urcuquí­, in Imbabura Province, Yachay is to function as an academic, technological, entrepreneurial, and scientific hub. The campus extends over an area of approximately 12,000 acres and plans to host 4,000 students when it is fully up and running. Internationally recognized academic institutions such as Stanford, Cal Tech and Kansas State University are already deeply involved and plan to offer academic instruction in English as well as Spanish. Comparisons are being made to similar, admittedly better-known, innovation and ICT hubs such as Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, South Korea’s Incheon development, Dubai, and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in China. As far as the story goes, the original idea for Yachay was developed in 2013 after President Correa toured Asia, and was so impressed with the technologically advanced research and business clusters in the countries he had toured in South Korea and Singapore, that he wanted to import a similar model to Ecuador.

Yachay was designed from the outset to be a highly interdisciplinary institution and to have a world-class guiding concept and administrative/research structure. Also known as the Ciudad de Conocimiento, or City of Knowledge, the official motto— Investiga! Innova! Produce! (Research! Innovate! Produce!)—succinctly sums up the goals and aspirations of the wider project. Although Ecuador is rich in oil and gold deposits, President Rafael Correa wants to diversify and move his country away from an economy that is largely based on oil-extraction and mining. He wants to take Ecuador through an academic and technological revolution with Yachay; hence, his initiative to build a research university surrounded by labs, ICT facilities, industrial parks and, eventually, a full-service city. The university is strategically placed right at the heart of the Yachay City of Knowledge, an overarching idea that is meant to promote technology transfer, the stimulation of creative business innovation, and the sharing of knowledge, which is ultimately designed to address social development in Ecuador and the wider world. According to José Antonio Olivares, General Manager of IBM del Ecuador: “I have never seen any project like this in my 17 years working for IBM. We have to keep in mind not only the technological production of such an ambitious project, but its future educational contribution to a country such as Ecuador and a region like Latin America.”

Yachay is designed around what is known as a “triple helix” model, which blends together elements of the public sector, academia, and the private sector to create a network for interaction among scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs to create a self-reinforcing ecosystem of internationally recognized research, business innovation, creativity, and productivity. According to plans released in 2013, the university was meant to open in 1Q2014, and is in the process of doing so on a revised timeline. Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and China Telecom have already set up units in Yachay. The city is centered around the university, and it’s also meant to function as a special economic development zone. There will also be other public research institutions as well as industrial parks for knowledge-based industries such as ICT and biotech. There are also planned incubators for innovation and centers of research. Yachay is expected to play a fundamental role in the construction of a national innovation system. It is an incubator for higher education and public and private research institutes, but also for other associated knowledge-based industries. Hector Rodriguez, General Manager of Yachay, told TBY, “Yachay bridges basic and applied research, and the end product. We leverage human talent, superlative infrastructure, and the valuable incentives [such as lower transaction costs], to create a bank of innovative ideas. The state is a promoter of these initiatives; it has the will to advance into the knowledge-based economy, and the government has invested what was necessary to guarantee that workers’ skills are nurtured.”

Caltech in the US is helping to design the overall 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. Yachay will focus on five strategic areas: life sciences, IT, nanotechnology, energy, and petrochemicals. The government and senior administrators hope that world-class scientists and researchers will be drawn to this to this new Latin American take on the Silicon Valley model. One hope is that Yachay will be able develop and patent new medicines from the remarkably bio-diverse Amazon rain forest. Other nearby abundant natural resources are planned to aid in the development of cutting-edge solar power cells and new petrochemical technologies. It should also be a fertile ground for attracting talent from Latin America and across the world, and hopes to become Latin America’s first truly international academic cum business innovation institution.

The Yachay concept is however loaded with possible risks and pitfalls. “Money can buy infrastructure,” says Academic Secretary of the Board and Caltech Professor Jose Andrade, “but it can’t buy you excellence or international relations with strategic partners that make things happen.” A great test for Yachay will be in drawing in the type of global level talent needed to bring the idea into reality. Moreover, Yachay could also run the risk of being seen as a university catering mostly to the needs of the Ecuadoran (and beyond) elites, isolated and removed from the rest of the country, operating in a vacuum while much of the country is struggling to meet basic development goals. Many would also question as to why the significant amounts of money and energy being spent on building Yachay is not being invested into Ecuador’s existing—and often under funded—public universities.

Yet at its best, it aspires to develop a new and talented generation of technology experts and business leaders, which would enable the establishment of an effective knowledge-based economy in Ecuador and the wider region. The success of the City of Knowledge is critically dependent on the quality of both its people and the national—public and private—support provided, leading to the creation and development of a generation of human, business, and research talent. To this end, Yachay has the ambition and resources to create a new type of Andean revolution. Ecuador and the region are banking on its success, and the world is watching.

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