What is now referred to as Latin America and Europe learned of each other’s existence five centuries ago. Since then, both regions have been intertwined in a fertile yet complex relationship. It is now time to rethink that relationship.
European genes, languages, and value systems lie at the heart of Latin America’s mestizo identity. Successive waves of technological innovation derived from European scientific thinking helped shape Latin America’s economies and societies. While old Eurocentric attitudes are vanishing rapidly as Latin America takes up its proper role in the world stage, deep bonds and affinities persist.
Less noticeably, but just as surely, Latin American contributions have helped shape Europe. Latin America’s vast natural riches fueled Europe’s prosperity and global expansion for centuries, turning the Latin American silver peso into the first global currency until its replacement by the British pound in the mid 19th century. Innovative Latin American writers and artists helped shape European avant-garde movements like Modernism, Abstraction, and Surrealism, among others. Admittedly, Latin American contributions to scientific progress have been less significant so far. But this is about to change.
As Latin America prepares to tackle the new challenges of the 21st century, it is coming to terms with its own regional realities. Latin America is larger than the US and China combined, and its biocapacity and biodiversity exceed that of any other region. With 600 million people (soon to reach 800 million) and income levels close to the global average of ten thousand dollars per capita (PPP), it is already the world’s fourth largest economy. The most prosperous region in the emerging world by a wide margin, Latin America has posted healthy economic growth rates in recent years thanks to democratic and liberalizing reforms that are helping it avoid the pitfalls that now plague industrialized countries. In fact, Latin America must avoid repeating the mistakes industrialized countries made to achieve a more sustainable level of prosperity. In other words: Latin America has no option but to become innovative.
Europe, on the other hand, must remain a global innovation hub if it is to sustain its current prosperity. Of course, a context of fiscal austerity and increasing market and financial turmoil, which places growing constraints on R&D funding, does not help. Resource use must be optimized everywhere (innovation activities included), drastically and in a hurry. To further complicate things, many world-changing products and services are likely to arise in emerging nations, where some 6 billion increasingly prosperous consumers must find innovative solutions to their problems. How will Europe identify and come up with cost-effective answers to innovation challenges that lie at the middle and bottom of social pyramids in the emerging world, to be able capture its share of the resulting riches?
One possible answer: by teaming up with Latin America, a region ideally positioned halfway between the industrial and the industrializing worlds. In many ways, Latin America is an ideal “pilot region” to develop and test innovative solutions to emerging world challenges. It is “ahead of the curve,” so it is bound to face these challenges earlier than other emerging regions. It also boasts the freest and most open markets outside the OECD, which of course facilitates innovation. Furthermore, it enjoys unique environmental advantages – solar energy and biodiversity, for example. No less importantly, it can bring to the table talented scientists and technologists, many of them trained in the US and Europe, capable of tackling these challenges at a fraction of the cost of their European counterparts.
Latin America needs to become more innovative, as fast as it possibly can. Europe, on the other hand, has a strong tradition of coming up with innovative institutions, processes, products, and services. It now needs to focus on “the other 6 billion innovation opportunities” if it wants to continue to prosper. These are the unmistakable markings of a trans-Atlantic innovation alliance.
The time has come to give it shape.
Raúl Rivera is the chairman of the Innovation Forum in Santiago de Chile, a non-profit that is promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is also the vice chairman of Fraunhofer Chile Research.