he most recent edition of the Americas IT Forum took place in Guatemala, bringing together thought leaders and innovators from different fields and countries across North and South America. The discussion ranged from technological issues and marketing trends affecting business on all levels to innovation and technology-led economic development. A novel concept in intertwined topics and in blending together people from different backgrounds, the Forum proved to work.
Perhaps it was the combination of both microeconomic and macroeconomic themes, and an injection of entrepreneurial energy that set the tone during those two days. This was also the first time that the Forum opened up participation for startups in addition to its traditional focus on larger organizations. These things made the conversation focus on international expansion of business, and how established companies as well as young startups can benefit from global markets.
The main take-away for enterprises: Apply the new rules for international expansion the same way you apply the rules for launching a tech startup.
The main take-away for corporate real estate and economic development professionals: Treat projects with the rules of a tech startup, and reap benefits around the same time frame — usually a few years instead of a few decades.
Guatemala as a location proved once again that size doesn't matter. Even the smallest countries in the region present solid cases for high-tech investment and innovation. Mark Arend, Editor-in-Chief of Site Selection magazine, presented a session on whether Latin America could create competitive technology centers. In quoting the firm 2thinknow's executive director Christopher Hire, he mentioned how inner-city-driven economic development projects can have successful results within two to five years.
This resonated well with Latin America, a region that clearly lagged behind in the past in terms of investing strongly in IT parks and R&D centers when compared to North American, European and especially Asian counterparts, but that today stands a good chance of spawning an entirely new and fast-paced form of economic development using city innovation.
Not far from the conference venue, and part of the same region, you have the example of Costa Rica, which has become home to one of Intel's main global manufacturing facilities. Another country that is home to a strong Intel presence is Vietnam, with 88 million people, as compared to the 4 million who live in Costa Rica. In fact, the six Central American nations and the two dozen plus Caribbean island-nations have a combined population less than that of Vietnam.
But the big difference is that Latin America has the highest rate of urbanization in the world. A third of the populations of Mexico and Guatemala live in their nations' capital cities. An astounding 84 percent of Brazilians live in urban areas and cities.
Guatemala City's Tech District
Marked by the recent announcement that Phase II of the Campus TEC was underway, Guatemala City is showing what city innovation projects can do for economic growth. If the equation says that city economic development projects can start seeing returns in years two to five, then Guatemala City is proving it at the Campus Tecnológico de la Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (Campus TEC).
The Campus TEC phase I building recently turned two years old. A very small scale project, especially when compared with global IT parks, the seven-story building today houses more than a dozen large Guatemalan local technology players, more than five dozen startups and small businesses, an incubator and a technology university extension.
Phase II will be a mixed-use urban demonstration project, with office tower, logistical warehousing and residential buildings all combined. The most interesting aspect of this is how they will make this project a reality right in the middle of the city. The new TEC will aim to house not only local tech companies and startups, but also be home to new multinational entrants taking advantage of the growing technology sector in this country. The project will act as a soft landing pad for larger firms who wish to establish a presence in the city before graduating to independent locations within the city, or in other parts of the country.