The Business Year

Jorge R. Arosemena

PANAMA - Economy

Next Gen

President, City of Knowledge Foundation


Jorge Ramón Arosemena Román is a Panamanian sociologist. He studied civil engineering in the University of Panama, and also earned a degree in Classics and Philosophy followed by an MA in Sociology from Saint Louis University in the US. He has worked as a Professor at the University of Panama, also holding the positions of General Secretary and Academic Vice-Rector at different times. In the public sector he has served as General Manager of the Panamanian Tourism Institute, Vice-Minister of the Presidency, and Minister of Education. Since 1997 he held the position of Executive Director of the City of Knowledge Foundation, a position in which he utilizes his extensive experience of international cooperation programs.

"Every year we accept only 10% of the companies that apply to join the technology park at the City of Knowledge."

The City of Knowledge is located in an area that used to be one of the US Army’s headquarters. How did this come about?

The original idea to create a City of Knowledge came from two prominent Panamanian businessmen, Fernando Eleta and Gabriel Lewis Galindo, who proposed to convert US Army Fort Clayton into an international center for knowledge exchange. This army base was the headquarters of the US Southern Command for several decades. In the context of the transference to Panama of what for almost a century was the Panama Canal Zone as a consequence of the Torrijos-Carter treaties, these two gentlemen conceived the idea of creating an international space to propitiate a platform to look for answers to the challenges of the 21st century. In 1998, President Ernesto Pérez Balladares attended the Summit of the Americas in Miami and he launched the idea of Panama being willing to replace soldiers and weapons with students, teachers, and books in something that was going to be named the City of Knowledge.

The non-profit organization that manages the park, the City of Knowledge Foundation, was created in 1995. What are its main objectives?

The main objectives were the launching of a platform conformed by prestigious universities and research centers, along with high-tech businesses and eventually international organizations. The presence of these actors, with the participation of local counterparts, should create added value in the pursuit of knowledge and its application to answer the key questions brought about by the 21st century. With that in mind, the first crucial decision led to the creation of a non-profit private foundation to facilitate continuity for this ambitious project. The model was organized around a board of trustees representing different sectors, including the academic-scientific community, the business community, the government, and labor unions. The presidents of the three main universities, the President of the Council of the Presidents of Universities, the National Secretary of Science, Technology, and Innovation, and a number of businessmen are part of the board of trustees of the foundation. We also have the ministers of Foreign Relations, Education, the Presidency, and of Finance and Economics, a representative of the National Assembly, our legislative body branch, as well as two representatives from organized labor unions.

In what ways does the City of Knowledge contribute to the development of the country?

The original concept was to attract universities from all over the world to Panama and to train people, not only from Panama, but also from neighboring countries. From day one, this project was conceived of as an internationally oriented project. The first idea was to create an international think tank, to invite all kinds of universities and people to discuss problems and projects, and to produce solutions. We soon realized that we should bring together two sectors that were traditionally apart, and often times opposed to each other: academia and the business community. The City of Knowledge Foundation signed an agreement with the government at the end of the term of Pérez Balladares. This effort translated into a law supported by all political parties at the end of last century, when the whole country was looking at the canal and wondering whether or not Panama could administer it efficiently; there was a certain unity of focus in the country. The Foundation has gained the respect of the community, the government, and we work directly with the business community and the universities, as well as the governmental agencies involved with the main areas covered. Because of its strategic geographical location, and despite being a small country, Panama has been playing a meaningful role on the international scene even before the term “globalization” became popular. That explains why the City of Knowledge was not conceived to look for answers only for Panama; it was conceived to search for answers for the region and the world.

“Every year we accept only 10% of the companies that apply to join the technology park at the City of Knowledge.”

What types of companies can set up in the City of Knowledge, and what economic benefits are offered to them?

Every year we accept only 10% of the companies that apply to join the technology park at the City of Knowledge because we are strict about our admission process. The benefits are tax exemptions; they can conduct international business from here, and they also have migratory status, guaranteed by City of Knowledge visas issued by the government of Panama. Once a company is affiliated to the City of Knowledge Technology Park, work permits are issued as another benefit. These are also offered by other projects in Panama, like Panama Pací­fico, among others.

How do you assess the level of innovation and infrastructure here in Panama and the government’s efforts to improve it?

At the City of Knowledge we created the first business incubator in the country. We have been committed to the promotion of entrepreneurship in Panama. We convene people who are well recognized as knowledgeable about information technologies and other disciplines to assess potential candidate businesses for the City of Knowledge. In 2013, we had about 98 applications and we only admitted nine companies. Once they are here, we supervise their commitment with innovation, research, and development, and if they do not fulfill what they committed to when they signed the affiliation agreement with us, then they are asked to leave. From 2010 to 2013, we audited 52 companies and eliminated 26. As of now, we have 83 companies, most of which are information companies at the technology park. They are basically IT and biotechnology companies that have established themselves to carry out research.

What is the importance of sustainability for the City of Knowledge?

From the beginning we wanted to create a community that would reflect the best practices within the umbrella of sustainability. If we are going to promote ourselves as a place that looks for answers for the 21st century, we have to commit ourselves and send a message. We promote sustainability in a range of ways—so much so that all the new buildings have to be certified according to the US LEED green building standards. The dormitories recently built received the highest level of LEED certification, platinum. Only four projects in all of Latin America are certified platinum. The Foundation has received international support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the EU, the World Bank, CAF, and more. We had a six-year program with the EU that was crucial for our development. The program helped us to transfer technology from Europe to Latin America, and trained our team about best practices for scientific technology parks in the UK, France, Spain, and Italy. In total, they sent 17 missions with around 100 experts in different fields such as innovation and entrepreneurship. Learning best practices in Europe, they helped us promote and attract companies and universities; they also helped us organize and redesign some buildings. The program was for ‚¬13.3 million, and the foundation provided ‚¬3.6 million as counterpart.

© The Business Year – May 2014



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