Under President Rafael Correa, Ecuador is trying to move away from an economy that is largely based on oil-extraction and mining. Hundreds of millions of dollars earned through these ‘extractivist’ activities are currently invested in education, infrastructure and technology, with the ‘City of Knowledge’ as its crown jewel.
Running out of oil
This new city of knowledge is dubbed ‘Yachay’ after the Quichua word for knowledge and should bridge Ecuador’s rich traditions and biodiversity with international, state-of-the-art technology. “As a nation we want to really turn around the country’s development model and put technology at its center. As the Ecuadorian government we want to leave extractivism behind, and replace it with knowledge and innovation. We have to switch from non-renewable resources to renewables, like knowledge,” explained René Ramirez Gallegos, Secretary General of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT).
With some of the places with the highest biodiversity in the world within a two hours flight, great potential lies in the fields of biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals. The cure for cancer might be waiting in the jungle to be discovered and turned into a medicine. Therefore the protection of the environment is an integral part of Ecuador’s national strategy. Ecuador was even the first country that gave rights to nature in its constitution. Sadly, it seems to be a paper reality.
For years the Ecuadorian government pretended they wanted to preserve Yasuní Man and Biosphere Reserve, the place with the highest biodiversity in the world and home to two uncontacted indigenous tribes. Ironically, the subsoil is as rich as everything that grows on it, Ecuador’s largest oil reserves of the country are located right under this ´Garden of Eden´. After years of struggling for its preservation through inventive finance schemes that should have preserved the unique ecosystem while generating money from wealthy ´donor countries´, the Ecuadorian government decided to opt out and extract Yasuní´s oil.
Transforming the Banana Republic
With the last of Ecuador´s oil about to be extracted, the OPEC member is in dire need for an alternative source of income. The sole export of banana´s – although Ecuador is the world’s largest banana producer and exporter – isn’t generating enough money to build the needed schools, roads and hospitals the country so much needs. Ecuador decided to become a post-extractivist knowledge economy, and this time Ecuador puts its money where its mouth is.
Since a small country like Ecuador can’t be world-class in every field, Yachay will focus on five strategic areas: Life sciences, IT, nanotechnology, energy and petrochemicals. “Areas that help to industrialize our country”, Ramirez explained. “Yachay is a university that aims at the scientific frontier, but articulates this scientific frontier in purpose of what the country needs at this time. We look for the link between industry and the knowledge they need.”
An Ecuadorian Cornell NYC Tech
“Currently we are in the middle of a major reform in our higher education, of equal importance is innovation, they go hand-in-hand. When one of them isn’t functioning we won’t be able to advance in this chosen road,” said Ramirez. That is why industry and education go hand-in-hand, just like in Cornell NYC Tech.
“Yachay plays a fundamental role in the construction of a national innovation system. You shouldn’t see Yachay as just a physical place, a territory of knowledge. It is a detonator for higher education and public and private research institutes, but also for other industries. All these different kinds of institutes come together in Yachay and cross-pollinate each other. This way Yachay can attract foreign investments in large scale economic activities that we currently don’t have,” Ramirez explained.
“It has to be clear that Yachay aims to be a university of world-class. This implies that the university will attract the best scientists, the best academics and also the best students, from both Ecuador and the rest of the world. We expect to attract around 60 or 70 percent Ecuadorian students and around 30 percent from Latin America and the rest of the world. Currently we have 2000 professors enlisted of which 30 percent is Ecuadorian. We still have to decide who we will hire, but there is an overwhelming interest from other countries,” said the Secretary General joyfully.