Ecuador bets big on future dream city

By Jim Wyss / The Miami Herald

Published Jul 20, 2014 at 12:02AM

UCURQUI, Ecuador — It’s the year 2043 and this burgeoning city of 100,000 is a high-tech mecca. Using rare plants from the Amazon, university researchers have cured many diseases; factories churn out nano-sponges that soak up oil spills around the world; local software designers are the envy of Palo Alto. Ecuador is now the Silicon Valley of the tropics, the Singapore of the Andes.

That’s the vision authorities see in the swirling dust kicked up by dozens of bulldozers and more than 2,000 construction workers at a remote site almost two hours from the capital.

It’s called Yachay, the City of Knowledge, and President Rafael Correa refers to it as the country’s moon shot — a $1.04 billion initiative to build a research university surrounded by labs, industrial parks and, ultimately, a city.

The project aims to attract the world’s brightest minds and most innovative companies, propelling this small and impoverished South American nation into the 21st century as a leader in engineering, clean energy, biotechnology and environmental sciences.

Correa calls it “the most important project for the country in the last 100 years,” even as some worry that the country is plowing money into a mirage.

Sarah Moser, a geography professor at McGill University in Montreal, is studying the new spate of master-planned cities sprouting around the globe. Some seem to hold promise, such as the $82 billion King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, which includes much-needed ports and infrastructure. But many have been gutted by corruption and mismanagement or have collapsed under the weight of their own ambition.

Dompak, an “eco-city” in Indonesia, for example, was supposed to be a new administrative capital and a model for sustainable growth. Although the project has burned through 75 percent of its budget, it’s only one-third complete. The environmentally friendly city is now plagued by illegal bauxite mining.

“I would argue, ‘Why don’t you spend the money on education and public transportation?’” Moser said of the schemes. “I see these plans as sort of real estate development to make the rich richer, and they always have a veneer of ‘eco-city’ or ‘smart-city’ to make it more palatable. But I also know that sometimes they can work.”

Hector Rodriguez is the general manger of Yachay, but his job description is somewhere between mayor and foreman of the 10,550-acre construction site. Sitting in his white button-down shirt and sunglasses on the steps of a refurbished sugar plantation that serves as an administration building, Rodriguez says Yachay is already showing signs of life.

More than 170 students have been recruited from across the country and are taking intensive math and English courses on campus as they prepare for formal studies next year.

Although Yachay is a 30-year project, Rodriguez says the country will start seeing results by 2017. By then the campus will be finished and teeming with 2,000 students, and there will be 200 companies on site, thriving off the academic research, he said. There will also be day-care centers, elementary schools and other signs of a city in the making.

“We’ll see a social fabric that speaks to the idea that Yachay is irreversible,” he said. “That this is Ecuador’s principal motor for creating an economy based on knowledge.”

In architectural renderings, Yachay looks gleaming and inevitable. But some question the wisdom of pumping more than a billion dollars into such an isolated area.

Planners say the site is strategically located in northern Ecuador — almost equidistant from the capital, the Colombian border and the nearest port. But to the layman, the site seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost two hours from Quito and a half-hour from a town of any size.

And that could be a problem. A 2012 study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that there were almost 150 technology and science parks in Latin America hoping to jump-start innovation and attract investment, but almost all of them were failing.

“The rare exceptions are those associated with research centers that are close to large urban areas and a critical mass of innovative companies,” the study found. Yachay has none of those attributes.

Rodriguez argues that Yachay needs virgin land to fulfill its mission. The city will have redundant Internet connections, electricity and water supplies — all prerequisites for high-tech companies — that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a city.

While the trend started in oil-rich nations in the Middle East and Asia, less likely places such as Senegal, Morocco and Ecuador are getting into the game.

These are countries “that really don’t have the money but think this is a requirement for development,” she said. “This is the beginning of a massive phenomenon.”

Since taking office in 2007, Correa, a charismatic socialist, has embraced ambitious plans and grand gestures. He’s defaulted on the country’s foreign debt, calling it illegitimate; offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange safe haven in London when many nations were treating him like a pariah; and embarked on one of the most innovative — but ultimately failed — cash-for-conservation programs.

But he has also made education a priority. The administration says it has put 4.3 times more money into education than previous governments and plans to spend almost $10 billion to build 900 schools and overhaul 4,600. The government has also shut down for-profit “garage” universities, increased teaching standards and introduced scholarships that have about 8,000 Ecuadoreans studying abroad.

Nelson Rodriguez Aguirre is the acting dean of Ecuador’s Central University, which has one of the nation’s largest engineering departments. He said that his and other national universities would welcome the money being plowed into Yachay, but didn’t view the new institution as a threat.

“We see it as an important project and part of the government’s plans to strengthen public universities,” he said. “Yachay is highly symbolic — it’s a landmark that the government has created that all schools of higher education need to aspire to.”

There are also more mundane issues. The only food available on campus comes from two fast food restaurants. Getting to the nearest grocery takes almost an hour round-trip. Vivek Wadhwa, a professor and researcher at Stanford and Duke and an influential lecturer on entrepreneurship, calls such centrally planned science parks and cities “snake oil.”

He said there have been hundreds of such efforts but none have succeeded. But these ideas don’t die because they’re lucrative.

“Consultants will make a lot of money, politicians will make a lot of money and real estate developers will make a lot of money, but it’s the taxpayers who will be left holding the bag,” he said.

Instead of building utopian cities, governments need to focus on educating their people and creating a business-friendly environment where entrepreneurship can thrive, he said.

“I have almost no doubt that this is going to be a failure,” Wadhwa said of Yachay. “It will be many years before people realize it’s a failure, but by that point (Correa) will be long gone.”

Correa has challenged naysayers and insists that Yachay will flip the equation in which developed nations value Ecuador only for its resources.

“We’re building a new nation here,” Correa said during the first day of class in March. “Ecuador is going into the future as a sovereign country that is basing its development on the only unlimited resource — human talent and knowledge.”