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October 2002    Main Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 66

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Colombia: A Nation in Innovation Swift Motion

Debra M. Amidon

"Innovators can hold a situation in chaos for long periods of time
without having to reach resolution…won’t give up…
have a long-term commitment to their dream…
innovators introduce a maximum of tension into the thinking process,
unifying concepts that often appear to be opposed,
solving problems which appear impossible."

(George Land and Beth Jarmon, Breakpoint and Beyond)

It was impossible to resist an invitation from Juan Carlos Salazar to visit Bogot´, Colombia, as guest of the National Planning Department for their 1st National Conference on Innovation (1er Encuentro Nacional de Innovación). Opened by the former officials Vice President, Gustavo Bell, and the planning director, Dr. Juan Carlos Echeverry Garzon. Representatives from 500, public, private R&D development centers, enterprises and entrepreneurs engaged in intensive panels and workshops convened to explore the status of current initiatives and architect the foundation for activity with the new government administration.

A National Innovation System had actually been launched several years previous through their Science and Technology arm Colciencias under the able leadership of Margarita Garrido, Director General). Now was the opportunity for timely and thoughtful review, so the conference focused the first day on innovations in several industrial sectors and the second day was devoted to developing action plans.

The outcome of the discussions underlined the tremendous potential of the country to launch a sound innovation strategy as a sine que non for entering the knowledge economy, but all efforts should be made to formalize the networking of the plethora of Colombian institutions involved in one way or another in fostering technological innovation.

To prepare for the meeting, I was invited to review a recent presentation from the World Economic Forum on “Benchmarking Colombia's Competitiveness. With data from 4,601 respondents from 75 countries, the bad news is that Columbia ranked low in perceived confidence in public officials, sophistication of financial markets, macroeconomic stability et al. However, the good news is that Colombia as a nation was repeatedly outranking their peer nations in South America in terms of:

  • exports and regional sales;
  • local market competition;
  • uniqueness of products/services in international markets;
  • product development, distribution and marketing;
  • international brands;
  • locally developed product designs;
  • customer satisfaction;
  • quality of management schools;
  • pioneering technology;
  • public access to the Internet;
  • quality of competition in the telecommunications and ISP sectors;
  • government on-line applications;
  • laws related to ICT use;
  • efficacy of corporate boards;
  • technology based entrepreneurship.

In fact, the sophistication of company operations and strategy sub-index, Colombia ranked 36th out of the 75 countries surveyed. They ranked 33rd in terms of corporate boards, 29th in terms of management schools and 19th in terms of locally based competition. They are well positioned to shift from a factor-driven economy through an investment-driven economy and into an innovation-driven economy - the true unique value-added.

The National Innovation System

Launched in 1996, the NIS is comprised of Technology Development Centers, Regional Productivity Centers and the Technology-Based Incubator. Leonardo Pineda Serna, CEO of Quibit Cluster, and international consultant on Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation, and member of the board of the country incubator had managed an electronic nation-wide dialogue for several weeks in advance of the meeting to review the status of current progress. The conclusions were clear: There is a need for a sound definition of innovation; there is a need to better define what constitutes an innovation network; what ought to be the function of a national initiative; and what management concepts and techniques need to be employed to ensure innovation success.

In short, the innovation backbone for the Knowledge Economy is necessary to create wealth for the nation. Entrepreneurs need to better understand how to manage their innovation process as a milestone for their success. Enterprises must realize the true value of networking for managing strategic alliances that build social capital. New managerial standards are likely to emerge. Effectively managed knowledge strategy could be a platform for world peace.

At the meeting, a Working Proposal for managing the SNIC (Del Sistema Nacional de Innovation de Colombia) was carefully reviewed by facilitated work groups. Five objectives outlined the foundation:
(1) A society that is open to innovation reaps the benefits;
(2) A legal framework - complete with budget for technology development;
(3) More coherence in the formulation of policies and strategies;
(4) Promotion of an innovation culture;
(5) Better reach with technology to reach a better coherence between the supply and demand of technology by improving the networking links among the academcia, financial and the productive sectors.

By and large it seems evident that the Colombian NIS has played a key role in fostering technology development, but it is also true that is the time to reformulate the ways and means the system is operating.

Manizales - The Knowledge City

Manizales has been in the last two centuries a coffee growing region of Colombia, the world famous mild coffee sort. Because of the world coffee crisis, the region is suffering the consequences of the highly dependence of this commodity for securing economic growth. However, the Region Caldas, and most specially its capital city has other advantages over other Colombian areas, such as the highest literacy rate, the largest number of top universities by population size, and dedicated and motivated young entrepreneur class. This most new political class is fully aware that the present conditions must be changed. This new wind of change is being promoted by INFIMANIZALES, the public funding development institution under the leadership of a young technocrat Luis Roberto Rivas Montoya, Gerente General.

At the seminar, Leonardo Pineda outlined the evolution of similar technocities in the United States, such as Route 128, Silicon Valley, RTI in Raleigh, North Carolina and MCC and SEMATECH in Austin Texas. He also described some of the characteristics of CBIRD - the Cross-border Institute for Regional Management - an experimental project operating without a border with designated territory that cuts across both Mexico and the United States.

In addition to this event sponsored by UNDP United Nations Development Program, Dr. Lorenzo Guadamuz Sandoval presented the Education Program of the government and based on this experience he proposed some line of actions for Manizales, such as a large Telecenter, to attend communities with no or little access to Internet.

Licensing Executives Society (LES)

Ernesto Cavelier, Abogado, convened an introductory meeting where executives from government, academia, industry and NGOs discussed the issues and opportunities related to intellectual capital protection and leverage. The group was able to learn of the programs and services of this organization founded in 1966 - now boasting 5,000 members and a program dedicated to the South America region. The first Pan American Conference scheduled for December in Brazil will bring together representatives from all the Andean countries. The core questions, of course, were how to develop a support infrastructure for the commercialization of Colombian-based technology.


Martha C. Rodriguez D., former Director, provided a briefing on the agency that is responsible for the ICT infrastructure of the country. She outlined the 6-prong strategy with
(1) the legal and regulatory framework,
(2) formal and informal training/education programs,
(3) putting companies on-line,
(4) Providing incentives for the IT industry,
(5) Managing the content in Spanish language, (6) Putting the Government on-line.

What began as an IT initiative has quickly evolved into one of creating a society of knowledge: The main objective of the Agenda is to promote the massive use and application of ICT and Internet technologies as a means to enter into the knowledge economy, modernizing public and private institutions and the corresponding appropriation of information by the community.

They have initiated a variety of creative programs used to incentivize use and serve as the portal for the Colombia IT industry. For instance, there is a program called Project INTELLIGENT - the first phase of 5,000 units in 10-12 cities and with 13 Colombian institutions. Students receive loans for their training and certification. If successful, they receive 60% off future courses. If they work in an incubator, they receive 20% more. Expectations are that there will be 25,000 certified over a period of 5 years…not to mention the businesses that may be incubated! There are similar programs to generate software-related companies, provide virtual education courses, link 860 companies to strengthen bi-lingual commerce and e-government.


This is and educational network that connects 18,000 PCs of public schools (primary and high schools) of the Capital City, Bogota. The Project was initiated in 1997, linking 16 offices and a headquarters into a learning system providing training for teachers, education information, and how to use technology. Around one million students access the network during school days.

Under the direction of Cecilia Maria Velez, former Secretary of education of the City of Bogota, and now the new Education Minister for Colombia, the program with an investment of $30 million, has created baseline evaluation program with 150 variables and seven performance indicators. The goals include increasing access, connectivity, use, public awareness and advancements on the pedagogical use of technology.


As a guest of Juan Carlos Botero, Executive Director of Incubar, one of the Incubators in Bogot´ we visited with young entrepreneurs developing businesses from knowledge exports, simulation and analysis to contemporary packaging. In a forum about what venture capitalists seek, we outlined that a new company today should be funded based upon their capacity for innovation - not funded for a specific technology. These kinds of structures have evolved in Colombia since 1994, and now there are about 13 incubators in the country, which illustrates different levels of success. To date, we can count over 250 new business develop by this new business models. We can find in this incubators young entrepreneurs, like the case of Mantix, a young company created by two brothers (one 21 years old, the other one 23) that changed their life from being delivery boys to entrepreneurs and now they are making sales of $30,000 and more. What is needed is more financial capital to provide the talent of Colombia to spread its influence - good ideas and deeds - throughout the region and the world.

Video and TV Studio

We visited Teleamiga, a local TV Network that works in Bogot´ in where we were in a program called Embrión that showcases new developments in entrepreneurship and innovation. In this space, they demonstrate to the audience what is going on in innovation in the world, which are the new trends, and what could people do to be more competitive in this Knowledge Economy. They have 3 shows based in these interviews, each one 30 minutes long. This is one way that the success stories of entrepreneurs can be widely disseminated to help build an entrepreneurial culture that spawns economic return for the nation.

The 7I’s Summary

In my own closing remarks after witnessing the scope and intensity of the conversations, I offered the following insights to the audience. We are only as strong as our weakest country; and so the world is dependent upon your success. This is what I heard:

  • Innovation definitions are important. Use them as a way to develop a common language and shared purpose.
  • Indicators will be new - beyond traditional financial metrics. Develop an understanding of the intangible, hidden and intellectual indicators to navigate future success.
  • Integration of existing efforts is essential. Develop a coherence and connectivity among initiatives in order to reap the full potential impact of efforts.
  • Intellectual Capital is as important to manage as a renewable resource - moreso than land, labor and capital. Develop strategies to harness the real-time learning capability of the nation across the functions sectors, and industries.
  • International economies of scale and in scope can help. Consider the world as your sandbox; Think globally and act locally.
  • Intelligence gathering about the competition. Develop a system to monitor the trends and progress of others…tracking where they are headed, not where they have been.
  • Individuals provide the foundation of action. The Knowledge Economy is not something that will be done to us; it is something we will do…together!

It seems as though Colombia has a real opportunity with the new government to develop a knowledge strategy for the nation that would help transform its economy and position it properly as a leader in Latin America and beyond. With an integrated initiative to harnesses their national innovation program, they may effectively protect their intellectual property, provide incentives for R&D tax credits, document modern progress indicators, promote entrepreneurial success and attract foreign capital to help (re) build their region.

Dr. George Kozmetsky has always talked about "courageous leadership", but the term may never apply elsewhere as it does for the talent inside this nation. Someone asked why I had visited the country when there were warnings for US travelers. I told the officials that I believed that the people in Colombia who are creating positive initiatives deserved our visible support. And the time is now…

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