Riding shotgun with the man behind an Andean Silicon Valley

special report In part 3 of a Crave exclusive series, Eric Mack looks at how the team behind the first planned innovation hub in Latin America aims to push the country into the global tech spotlight.

Yachay project manager Ramiro Moncayo reviews a map of the area. Twitter/CiudadYachay

Editor's note: This is the third part of Crave's four-part series on Ecuador's attempt to become Latin America's hub for science, technology, and innovation. Read part 1, " Plotting the next Silicon Valley -- you'll never guess where ," and part 2, " New Silicon Valley in the Andes: Promise and paradox ."

QUITO, Ecuador--Right now, I'm one of the final things standing between Ramiro Moncayo and a vacation he's been waiting to take for years. It's just a few days before Christmas, and needless to say, he is very excited about the couple of days he is about to spend with his family on a holiday getaway.

Moncayo is the project manager for Yachay , the ambitious planned city that the equally ambitious government of Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa has been trying to shove into existence for a few years now.

Since taking office just a half decade ago and with the help of a fountain of oil revenues, Correa and company have modernized the nation's highways, created the third-fastest growing economy in Latin America, and more than tripled the number of Ecuadorian citizens connected to the Internet, according to the president's office.

Next up on the industrialization to-do list: Ecuador plans to create the first top-tier research university in Latin America and surround it with all the facilities and human capital needed to make this developing nation, which is roughly the size of the state of Colorado, a global player in science, technology, and innovation. (There is, however, some reason for skepticism, as I mention in part 2 of the series .)

Yachay is located north of Ecuador's capital city, which is only a four-hour flight from Miami. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET, Google Maps
Bringing Yachay to fruition is Moncayo's job, and he says the president he works for doesn't tolerate things happening at the normal pace of government bureaucracy. So, yeah, this guy doesn't take much time off from work.

Moncayo is giving me a ride back to my hotel room in the middle of Quito's cosmopolitan new town in his big silver 4x4 pickup truck.

"What can I say? I like big trucks," he says with a smile as we climb in.

Given his casual, friendly air, it's easy to imagine Moncayo in his previous life as a young academic who emigrated from Ecuador to attend Utah State University in Logan. While considering pursuing his Ph.D., he got some advice from a mentor at the university that set his life on a new trajectory.

"He told me 'You're always talking about your country and ways to improve it. Maybe that's where you really need to be," Moncayo recalls, while deftly navigating Quito's congested streets.

Once we're a ways down the road from the government office where I had just interviewed him and his boss -- Rene Ramirez, Ecuador's minister of higher education, technology, science, and innovation -- Moncayo consents to my prying into his vacation destination. He's gone out of his way to keep it a secret from his colleagues, lest he become the target of an impromptu conference call on a potential new partnership or hurdle for Yachay.

He tells me he's heading to Buenos Aires, a city with one of the most vibrant startup and tech scenes in Latin America.

When I ask him if he thinks there's a similar culture of entrepreneurship in Ecuador waiting to explode onto the international stage, his answer surprises me.

"You know, I'm not sure," he says.

Perhaps sensing that his response is not exactly what I was expecting, he hedges a bit and starts talking about the need to educate the public about what it means to be an entrepreneur, in the Silicon Valley startup sense of the word.

Moncayo and his boss, Rene Ramirez (in green jacket), minister of higher education, science, technology, and innovation, tour the site of Yachay under construction. Office of the President of Ecuador

This is something you hear a lot as a foreigner in Ecuador, especially when talking to the scores of Ecuadorians like Moncayo who have spent time living, working, or studying abroad in places like Spain, the United States, and the U.K., only to move back home in recent years.

They talk of the need to teach the Ecuadorian public how things are done in the rest of the industrialized world. Walking the streets or riding the buses in the major cities of Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil, it becomes clear that the government agrees.

Public-awareness campaigns encourage habits that we might take for granted -- things like giving pedestrians right of way, proper thawing of raw meats, and crossing streets at designated crosswalks. (There's actually an army of young mimes who enforce this last one through a campaign of playfully humiliating violators at busy intersections.) This has been one small way the government here has approached preparing the general populace for the new, modern Ecuador it's attempting to force into existence relatively overnight. In this respect, it's not entirely surprising Moncayo also might think this way about educating people here on Yachay.

But what's ironic about Moncayo's own uncertainty about the level of entrepreneurial spirit in this country is how clearly he and many of the Ecuadorians I came to know during my three months in the country epitomize it.

Yachay is perhaps the most ambitious and disruptive single project to be pursued seriously in Latin America in memory. (Similar projects can be found; there's a "City of Knowledge" in Panama that has opened its doors. However, the Panamanian version is run by a nonprofit, rather than a government, and is considerably smaller than the full vision for Yachay.) Moncayo and the teams above and below him are overworked but boundlessly enthusiastic about the task at hand.

And plenty of everyday Ecuadorians seem to me to have what it takes to fit into the Silicon Valley shuffle. Take the case of Carlos Landazuri Bravo, the 30-year-old Ecuadorian who helped me translate one of the interviews for this series. We met through the language school in Cuenca where I went looking for a Spanish tutor. We soon found we had a common interest in technology. He splits his time between tutoring in a handful of different languages, doing translation gigs, and working as an independent computer tech. It's clear some Ecuadorians know how to hustle.

But since our series began this week, some CNET readers have pointed out that not all of Ecuador's policies are exactly conducive to building up a technological society, like those that make imported technology so expensive (as I mention in part 1 , it is my research on this issue that originally leads me to discover Yachay).

During our time together in Quito, I ask Moncayo about the prohibitive costs of technology and he tells me the government is working on it. Of course, it's not his department, and the tariffs and taxes at the root of the issue seem to me a bureaucratic maze too convoluted to get into here. Yet, despite laws and rules that should render the Verizon smartphone I'm carrying completely nonfunctional, it works just fine ( for a price ), meaning some of the more unfriendly measures with regards to bringing tech into the country are not being enforced or implemented.

Locals near the future site of Yachay get an update on the project from Moncayo's team. Twitter/Daniel Suarez

While there certainly would be an adjustment period for Ecuador to integrate itself into the wider digital globe -- as well as a learning curve for some new residents of Yachay to adjust to the culture of a startup or a more Western multinational corporation -- Moncayo and Ecuador will have some help.

As I mention in part 2 of this series , a team already is forming to support Yachay. It includes business, research, and innovation leaders from South Korea, CalTech, Brazil, and North Carolina's research triangle. And Moncayo still has plenty of hustling of his own to do, complete with travel around Ecuador and the rest of the globe to sell the world on his vision.

But for now, he only has to drop me off and get home to pack for Argentina. I find myself experiencing the odd first-world problem of envying another man's travels while in the midst of my own enviable travels to his hometown.

I climb out of Moncayo's truck on a side street, sandwiched in by Quito's pervasive road construction projects. He tells me to e-mail him with any other questions about Yachay.

I actually think of a few the very next day, as he should be starting his self-imposed sequester from the project. I fire them off before I forget, and I'm happy to report that he didn't get back to me right away.

In part 4 of our series, it's time for a reality check.

 

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