Andres Oppenheimer

Latin America, lagging in global economy, needs ‘innovation diplomacy’

A man wearing an ethnic minority cap rides past cartoon mascots outside a shopping mall in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The United Nations' intellectual property organization says Monday, Aug 15, 2016 that China has joined the world's top 25 most innovative economies for the first time.
A man wearing an ethnic minority cap rides past cartoon mascots outside a shopping mall in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The United Nations' intellectual property organization says Monday, Aug 15, 2016 that China has joined the world's top 25 most innovative economies for the first time. AP

A new global ranking shows that Europe and the United States continue to be the world leaders in innovation, and suggests that Latin America and other emerging regions will have to engage in “innovation diplomacy” to succeed in the new world economy.

Before we get into what “innovation diplomacy” means, let’s take a look at the Global Innovation Index released by Cornell University, the France-based INSEAD business school and the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization.

The ranking, which takes into account the ease of doing business, scientific publications and international patent registrations, says Switzerland is the world’s No. 1 innovation economy, followed by Sweden, Great Britain, the United States and Finland. Germany is No. 10, while China is No. 25, the first time it has gotten into the top 25.

Most Latin American countries, with the exceptions of Chile (44) and Costa Rica (45), are significantly behind: Mexico is ranked 61; Colombia, 63; Brazil, 69; Peru, 71; Dominican Republic, 76; Argentina, 81; Guatemala, 97; Ecuador, 100; Nicaragua, 116; and Venezuela, 120.

The ranking confirms the persistent innovation gap between developed and developing countries, at a time when countries that invent new products, such as tiny Singapore, South Korea and Israel, are increasingly richer, while much bigger countries that are rich in oil, grains and other raw materials, such as Brazil and Venezuela, are lagging behind.

But what’s most interesting about the study, if you have the patience to read through its boring technical jargon, is that it indicates that innovation is an increasingly globalized phenomenon. Many developing countries are lagging behind because they cling to “techno-nationalist” policies that preclude collaboration with other nations, it says.

During a recent visit to Oxford University in Great Britain, I was surprised by the fact that most of the experts I interviewed were not British, but came from other countries. The same can be said if you visit the research laboratories of any major U.S. university. They look like a microcosm of the United Nations, with people from all over the world.

By contrast, very few Latin American universities have joint degree programs with world class universities in the United States, Britain or other European countries, or even require that their graduates be fluent in English, the language of the innovation economy. According to all major rankings, the United States and Britain have the world’s best universities.

Most Latin American countries, in one of the most absurd symptoms of “techno-nationalism,” prohibit foreign universities from opening up branches in their territories. By comparison, one of the things that surprises me the most every time I visit China is that you can see some of the biggest U.S. and European universities there.

Which brings us to the report’s recommendation that developing countries step up their “innovation diplomacy,” which includes assigning government officials and funds to promote research and development partnerships with foreign universities and private companies.

The study cites the case of Great Britain, the world’s No. 3 innovation leader, which has one of the most internationalized systems of science and innovation. About 46 percent of Britain’s scientific publications have a foreign co-author, and an exceptionally high proportion of the country’s research is funded from abroad, it says.

Britain’s Foreign Office has a 90-member staff of Science and Innovation Attachés based in embassies and consulates in 28 countries and 47 cities around the world, the study says. In addition, Britain’s two-year-old Newton Fund invests about $97 million a year to support partnerships with 15 emerging economies in research and development activities.

Innovation, the new engine of economic prosperity, has become an increasingly globalized endeavor. It’s no coincidence that the top-ranked countries in the new innovation index happen to be the ones with more globalized universities, research centers and private companies.

For Latin American countries to excel at innovation, their governments should consider reassigning some of their diplomats and turn them into “innovation attachés” in some of the world’s leading research centers, with the mission of setting up educational and technological partnerships. It’s time to leave behind techno-nationalism, and embrace innovation globalism.

Watch the Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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