16 November 2014 ~ 0 Comentarios

Create or die

by Carlos Alberto Montaner


Why do we Latin Americans invent or innovate so little? Journalist Andrés Oppenheimer has reprised forcefully this galling question. He has raised it in an excellent book with an imperative title and a descriptive subtitle: "Create or Die!: Latin America’s hope and the 5 keys to innovation."

It seems to me an extraordinarily important topic, which affect the entire Hispanic world, not only Latin America. In the early 20th Century, Spanish philosophers José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno debated it passionately in various writings, from different angles. 

Spain was ostensibly slipping backward, with relation to the rest of Europe. Ortega maintained that the country’s decadence could be overcome by imitating Europe. “Spain is the problem, Europe the solution,” he said. Unamuno claimed that the Spanish genius was artistic, fundamentally literary, and capped his argument with a defiant cry: “Let them invent!”

If Unamuno had been an expert in economics instead of classic philology, he would have added a coda to his witticism: “Let them invent … and let them grow rich.” Some experts believe that 40 percent of a society’s economic growth is derived from its innovations and inventions turned into goods, or services poured into the market.

The data are alarming. Every year, South Korea copyrights 10 times more inventions than all of Latin America. With a population of less than 8 million, Israel patents more scientific discoveries or novel artifacts than 600 million Latin Americans.

No Latin American or Spanish university can be found among the world’s leading 100 universities, and only a handful appear among the first 500. And it’s not just about university studies; in the international PISA tests [Program for International Student Assessment], which measure and compare adolescents’ knowledge of mathematics, science and reading comprehension, Latin America appears at the end of the list, close to some African nations.

In the Hispanic world, we are towed by the innovative countries. We travel in their planes, cure ourselves with their medicines, work with their computers, amuse ourselves with their movies and video games, surf their Internet, talk on their telephones, peer into space thanks to the talent they have shown. In sum, we are an almost inert appendix of that curious and creative First World that daily molds our future and the way we lead our lives.

Oppenheimer’s book exudes admiration for the creators he visited while writing his book. He has spoken with them and has interviewed them to learn their testimonies firsthand, but his intention is not to shame Latin Americans over their intellectual prostration. On the contrary, the author offers solutions to these serious limitations. The work ends with five recommendations aimed at revitalizing innovative tendencies. It is worthwhile to point them out. They are loaded with common sense.

First, create a culture of innovation that distinguishes and venerates creators, as is done with athletes, to encourage the rise of such talented citizens. Every entrepreneur who becomes frustrated is a source of wealth and development that we all lose. If we agree that the key to prosperity is in the drive of exceptional persons, finding them and cultivating them should be a priority for the State.

Second, it is possible and indeed necessary to educate, so that inventors and innovators may emerge. Oppenheimer summarizes this argument with a chilling statistic: in relation to their population, Ireland and Finland have five times more engineering graduates than Argentina. The love of math and science begins in childhood. At that stage of life, young people can take up those studies as if they were games. 

Third, eliminate the laws that stifle entrepreneurs. In Latin America, the bureaucratic skein asphyxiates creative spirits. There are corrupt officials to be bribed. The bankruptcy laws bar or hinder those who fail from rising again, forgetting that the free economy is a trial-and-error system where each fall is part of a process of learning.

Fourth, nations must invest on research and development and foment risk capital. Israel is the one country in the world that devotes the largest percentage of its GNP to research and development. But that money must come, in greatest proportion, from private enterprises. Universities must be involved in the work of enterprises. Universities must not become anti-system institutions. That is suicidal.

Fifth, innovation must be globalized, which includes taking advantage of the possibility of studying in First World universities. With a population of only 50 million, South Korea has 71,000 students in the United States, most of them studying science, while all of Latin America has less than a half that number.

In sum, the road is long and hard, but the sooner we start, the better we’ll fare.

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