Toward a New Guanacaste

June 22, 2007

Needless to say, Guanacaste ain’t no Silicon Valley.

But some believe it could be – including Franklin Chang, a visionary Costa Rican-born astronaut and entrepreneur.

Guanacaste has long been heralded as a booming tourist area – but there’s a dark side, too.Very little of the money entering the region winds up in the coffers of local residents – and government statistics consistently rank the area among the country’s poorest.

Most hotels and tourism developments belong to foreigners – and so do most management positions.

Unfortunately, most Ticos in the area are employed for menial tasks – better than nothing perhaps, but sad because potential exists for so much more.

Guanacaste has a hub – the increasingly popular airport in Liberia. It has world-class beaches just a few miles away, an educated population that’s absorbing English like a sponge, and an already bustling investment climate.

This in a country already considered a regional leader in software development.

Nearly a year ago, Chang set up a plasma rocket lab in the heart of Guanacaste that caught the nation’s attention.With about a dozen employees, almost all Ticos, and a constant flow of interns and students coming through the lab, it is shaping up as a tiny epicenter for scientific development here.

In a globalized world, the tech industry can set up shop just about anywhere it wants. So why not along the “Gold Coast” so Guanacaste can develop and diversify?

Of course, challenges do exist. The region lacks infrastructure, for one.

Though the international airport in Liberia is a bright spot, roads are marginal, water supplies are already compromised, and perhaps most important, access to speedy, dependable telecommunications is iffy, at best.

The government’s “border to border” plan to install 1,092 kilometers of fiber optic cable across the country is way behind schedule, and some estimate it will take another five years to complete. In the meantime, many residents and businesses in Guanacaste (and around the country!) can’t get online.

But there’s hope, a vision, and a leader.

Chang has taken the slogan for activism in an ever-shrinking world – “think globally, act locally” – and expanded it to “think galaxy-wide, act locally.”

He sees the biggest challenge for regional development to be education. As has been said by President Oscar Arias, the country needs three times more scientists and a third fewer lawyers.

In Costa Rica, a country where the gross domestic product (GDP) is rivaled by the budget of U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), not even one-half of a percent of the GDP is spent on science and technology.

We hope the lab can continue to forge relationships with the nations’ top universities, as StanfordUniversity played a major role in developing Silicon Valley by working with private companies to focus research there after World War II.

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) has already seen the potential, and talks of expanding its campus the region have taken root.

Guanacaste is a far cry from a Silicon Valley. As one tech pundit put it, Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become like Silicon Valley.

But if Guanacaste starts thinking ahead, it could shape its own future.

 

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