Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Latin America’s innovation tasks for 2015

Here are a few little-noticed actions that experts agree Latin American countries should take in 2015 to improve their innovation, science, technology and education systems, which are rated very poorly in international rankings and are key to their economic future.

Granted, there are other bigger steps — such as encouraging entrepreneurship, cutting red tape, combating corruption and firing underperforming teachers — that the many countries in the region needs to take to prosper in the new global economy, in which mental work is much more lucrative than manual labor.

But there are some smaller, lesser-known specific measures that countries in the region could take to create world-class innovations. Among them:

First, offer big prizes to innovators who invent products with great commercial potential. The U.S. government has a website — — where 45 U.S. departments and agencies, including NASA, offer up to $5 million awards for those who can solve specific technological challenges. There are also private foundations that offer big awards for technological innovation, such as the Ansari X Prize.

Founder Peter H. Diamandis told me there is a long history of prizes for innovations. In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 francs to whoever invented a way to preserve food for his army’s long marches, which led to the invention of the sealed food cans. In 1919, hotel mogul Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first pilot who could fly from Paris to New York, which was won by Charles A. Lindbergh in 1927.

Second, reform outdated bankruptcy laws that prevent entrepreneurs who failed in one project from starting another. Laws that often ban the founders of bankrupt companies from starting new ones for many years are one of the main obstacles to innovation in Latin America.

In 2014, Chile set the example by passing a new bankruptcy law that eliminates many of the burdens of insolvency. The idea of the new law is to allow entrepreneurs who go bankrupt “to get back on their feet quickly,” says Chilean Economy Minister Luis Felipe Céspedes.

A recent study from the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation shows that in some of the world’s most innovative countries — such as the United States, Japan, and South Korea — it takes an average of between six months and 1.5 years to resolve bankruptcy-related issues, while in most Latin American countries it takes between three and 5.3 years.

Third, teach innovation in schools. It can be done: just as kids study the alphabet, children should learn computer coding, and ways to think out of the box.

Experts agree that, in the age of the Google search, in which anybody can instantly know almost anything, what children know is much less important than what they do with what they know.

As Harvard University education specialist Tony Wagner says, innovation can be taught in schools. Instead of rewarding students with good grades for what they “know,” teachers have to start rewarding children with good grades for their ability to analyze and solve problems, take risks, and learn from their mistakes, he says.

Fourth, seriously consider a plan that President Barack Obama recently announced, under which starting in 2015 the U.S. government will rank universities among other things according to their graduates’ employability.

The logic behind the new ranking will be that, since the estimated 7,000 U.S. colleges receive about $150 billion a year in U.S. government funds, the government should hold higher education institutions accountable for preparing students for the job market.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny, author of “Educación 3.0: The struggle for talent in Latin America” and founder of the Kuepa vocational-technical high school system in the region, says ranking universities according to their performance in the job market would be a great idea in Latin America.

Noting that Latin American governments often subsidize universities even more than in the United States, and that large numbers of Latin American college graduates can’t find a job, Sanchez Zinny said that “Latin American governments should be the first interested in rating the universities according to their ability to prepare their graduates for the job market.”

My opinion: Granted, creating an ecosystem that promotes innovation is a complex task, that starts with having a vibrant private sector and a culture of admiration for entrepreneurs.

But all countries, including the United States, can learn from what others are doing to get ahead in the race for innovation, which will increasingly determine which countries prosper and which don’t. These four ideas should be considered by countries in the region this year.