This week we had our Morning Coffee with Isabelle Foster, Fulbright Research Scholar from Stanford University

Over the past few years, people have watched with interest as Chile and Colombia developed their startup ecosystems. Start-Up Chile and Ruta N Medellin—government programs from each country respectively—brought together the public and private sector to foment entrepreneurship and innovation in the region.

Now, enter Paraguay. The landlocked country of roughly 7 million people is taking bold steps to similarly integrate innovation into its strategic direction. The vision is to transform the country into an innovation hub, using new solutions and technology to improve the quality of life for citizens and inspire a sense of creative thinking and agency. The assumption is that this will augment the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the long-term. If successful, this strategy could help put Paraguay on the map, garnering greater recognition on the international stage.

So… How is Paraguay Riding this Wave?

In August 2019, President Mario Benítez passed the National Decree 2314 which calls for an approximately yearlong “National Innovation Strategy” or ENI (Estrategia Nacional de Innovación). ENI is charged with four major tasks, which include:

  1. Engaging citizens around the country to identify major challenges facing the community and select a few to address in particular;
  2. designing a roadmap for how the country will begin to address these chosen challenges;
  3. creating a governance entity responsible for executing these two initiatives that will ultimately house innovation in the government, and;
  4. identifying sources of funding for the operation of the new unit.

The ENI is currently organized by a small team within Paraguay’s Presidential Delivery Unit, which reports to the Minister of the Presidential Delivery Unit, Hugo Carcares. The ENI itself is driven by the Equipo Impulsor (“Driving Team”), which is comprised of 18 individuals from the civil society, the private sector, and the academic and scientific community who were selected during an open application process, alongside seven ministers from the government. 

These thought-leaders are actively involved in foundations, academic communities, and prominent NGOs. Therefore, they are all playing an instrumental role in shaping public awareness of the ENI. In a country where deep personal relationships are a fundamental part of daily life, having local connections with regional leaders who can promote the strategy has proven necessary.

Government Meeting on December 5, 2019 with Ministers and the Driving Team to discuss governance models for the new innovation entity. (Photo by Isabelle Foster)

What are the next steps?

The team has partnered with key leaders, organizations, and interested volunteers to lead workshops around Paraguay to surface major challenges facing citizens. Online workshops have been launched this week so that Paraguayans across the country and around the world can submit their thoughts. It will be interesting to see how the perspective of the Paraguayan diaspora converges or diverges from the input of current residents. 

These submissions are currently being analyzed to identify the major national themes and “mega-tendencies” (that is, international trends that intersect with local issues) in Paraguay. 

The initial analysis of responses has already revealed several central issues. Ideas such as greater economic diversification, more support for startups, and strengthened investment ecosystems have all been discussed.

Despite the various backgrounds of participants in the workshops, there has been rather rapid consensus on several themes. Economy and production, such as high-levels of informality and lack of seed capital, have been a key sticking point. At the same time, urbanism and weak planning for cities and their growth has been another common complaint.

Rather unsurprisingly, inefficient public services, as well as corruption, are consistently called out by the public. Given that the driving team is largely led by community members and that workshops are facilitated by volunteers (such as young professionals who studied abroad and now returned to Paraguay), participants at the workshops have been extremely honest and forthright. The selection of the final challenges and their roadmaps will be selected by the first half of 2020 and announced to the public.

Community workshop with the private sector to discuss challenges they have faced when creating and working in companies. (Photo by Isabelle Foster)

The creation of ENI marks the first time that the country has designed such a national strategy to explicitly integrate innovation into its operation and governance. This process will help strengthen social innovation, increasing citizen engagement.

Its will ultimately lie on the ability of the country to effectively mobilize resources and develop solid strategies for implementing interventions to address the selected challenge areas. Given the network, connections, and drive of teams behind the ENI, the future is looking very promising for Paraguay and innovation in the country.