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Building the Knowledge Capitals of the Future

Cover Story

Building the



of the Future

The planned

Masdar Institute

in Abu Dhabi

Cities worldwide are in a race to transform themselves into hubs of

science and technology expertise. Here’s a look at how a few plan to

achieve that goal—some with help from the Academy.

by Adrienne J. Burke


hotbeds, Mexico City wouldn’t be on it. Sure, the city has

become known since the 1980s as an international hub of financial

services. And it’s long been seen as a center of manufacturing.

But if Mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón has his way, that

image will soon change. Not only will Mexico’s capital become

known as the Knowledge Capital of Latin America, but it will,

in the near future, be respected as a global hub of scientific and

technological excellence.

Ebrard, who took office two years ago and recently joined

the New York Academy of Sciences President’s Council, aims to

trade in the smog-ridden region’s dependence on “old economy”

industries for a so-called “knowledge economy” by incubating a

sci-tech cluster in the sprawling city.

Toward that end, Ebrard has commissioned the new Institute

for Science and Technology to prompt collaborations between

academia and industry. He has established a government–

funded company, Capital En Crecimiento (City in Growth), to

bolster technology infrastructure and improve the skills of the

metro-area’s 22 million residents. And he has retained the USbased

RAND Corporation to identify Mexico City’s strengths in

science and technology development.

Ebrard has also entered a multi-year partnership with the

Academy, the first product of which was a week-long innovation

conference in September organized by NYAS and local officials

(for more on NYAS’ advisory role in Mexico and beyond, see

sidebar, p. 21). Jorge de los Santos, a NYAS member and former

director of business development and technology transfer

at Columbia University whom Ebrard recruited to run Capital

En Crecimiento, says he saw the Academy as a neutral body that

The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine • Autumn 2008 19

Cover Story

Left to right: Juan Enriquez advises governments on sci-tech development; Sam Pitroda chairs India’s National Knowledge Commission; Russell

Jones, founding president, Masdar Institute; Esther Orozco, general director, Mexico City’s Institute for Science & Technology

could help the Mayor “to have the private sector working with

universities on a common strategy and vision.” He adds that the

Mayor’s team is “working to create a knowledge hub because our

city needs to be good at something that is higher value-added

than a service economy.”

“A knowledge-based economy will empower people,” says

Ebrard. “It’s people producing and absorbing knowledge and

people creating and using technology that will add value to Mexico

City’s economy.”


Many economists share Ebrard’s anticipation of a future in which

scientific prowess is the key to superpower—or at least supercity—status.

Their predictions are at the root of a trend among

urban areas worldwide to ramp up capacity to compete for the

unofficial title of “Global Knowledge Capital.” Leaders in China,

India, and the United Arab Emirates are among those who believe

that economic vitality in the 21st century hinges on the ability

to generate and deliver scientific solutions to problems such as

climate change, energy, healthcare, housing, and transportation.

Juan Enriquez, author of the 2001 book As the Future Catches

You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life,

Work, Health & Wealth, advises a dozen national governments

on sci-tech economics. He describes a worldwide movement to

excel in scientific innovation. “There’s absolutely a race on to be

the capital of ideas, to get the best entrepreneurs and the smartest

people,” Enriquez says.

“In the past, you had competition for raw material, then for

money and resources,” says Mexico City’s De los Santos. “Now

the competition is for the human mind. All the cities are trying

to attract the best and brightest in the world.” The same way US

high-tech hotbeds like Boston and San Francisco have attracted

sharp minds from around the world in recent decades, top talent

from the US and elsewhere will migrate to cities that emerge as

leaders of the knowledge economy, he and others predict.

Ideas about how to nurture a knowledge economy have

been percolating since at least 1969, when management guru

Peter Drucker used the phrase in his book The Age of Discontinuity:

Guidelines to Our Changing Society. The concept is now

widespread enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. Contributors

define a knowledge economy as “strongly interdisciplinary,

involving economists, computer scientists, software engineers,

mathematicians, chemists, physicists, as well as cognitivists,

psychologists, and sociologists.” A knowledge employee, they

say, “works with his or her head not hands, and produces ideas,

knowledge, and information.”

A “cluster”—a concept popularized by Harvard Business

School Professor Michael Porter in his 1990 book, The Competitive

Advantage of Nations—is at the heart of a knowledge

economy. According to theories about clusters, whether they be

business clusters, industry clusters, or science clusters, when information

flows openly among stakeholders pursuing solutions

in the same field in a concentrated geographic area, innovation

happens sooner. Investors and talent move to the region, and the

economy thrives.


Silicon Valley—where an industry cropped up around a research

university, lured venture capital, and grew wildly as entrepreneurs

flooded the area—is commonly invoked as a model of a

cluster. But Silicon Valley’s tech roots can be traced to the 1956

choice of inventor William Shockley to locate his semiconductor

company near his ailing mother. Clusters emerging around

the world today are by deliberate design. In the view of New

York University President and NYAS Board Chair John Sexton,

few US cities today are pursuing knowledge economies with the

“purposefulness” of places like Mexico City.

Experts list several features crucial to knowledge economy

success: commitment by the government; a major research university

anchor; a critical mass of skilled employees; a technology

infrastructure; business, labor, and intellectual property policies

that facilitate rapid growth; and an easy flow of knowledge

among and between sectors. Mexico City is just one of many regions

following that formula.

In China, the State Council in 2006 approved a 20-year “outline”

for science and technology expansion. It calls for a near doubling

of R&D investment, banking policies and fiscal incentives

to support sci-tech startups and venture capitalists, a system for

evaluating researchers and research institutes, intellectual property

rights strategy, improved government support of industry,

and “an enhanced capacity to build creative personnel.”

Mao Zhong Ying, science and technology counselor for

China’s Consulate General in New York, says China will focus

its cluster building efforts on four scientific subjects: protein


esearch, nanoscience, growth and reproduction, and quantum

modulation research. “In those technologies, we are at the same

point as Western countries,” Mao says, explaining one of the

principles that economists say will enable cities in lesser developed

countries to compete with US and European cities: “These

are brand new technologies, so we need to focus on these to realize

the benefits of leapfrog development.”

Still, Mao concedes, China has a long way to go training its

young people to be innovative and bridging private and public

sector researchers.

Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu, and Guangdong are

presently the country’s most promising centers of knowledge,

Mao says. All five have strengths in biotechnology. And local

government policies in those cities support R&D investment, enable

industry access to academic research, and promote quality

science and engineering university education. They’re policies

designed to support a shift from a “made in China” period to an

“innovated in China” period, he says.

Three years ago in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

formed a National Knowledge Commission to identify strategies

for transforming his country into a knowledge society. The highlevel,

seven-person team’s recommendation to improve access to

education will result in a $65 billion expenditure on education in

the next four years.

Telecommunications inventor and entrepreneur Sam Pitroda,

who chairs the commission, considers human capital the key

to a knowledge economy. In the 1980s, the telecom revolution

he launched in India succeeded only because thousands of Indians

were trained to work on network management and fiber optics.

“Knowledge,” he says, “will be the next driver for India. The

first challenge is to expand the knowledge base, improve access

to knowledge, and improve the quality of knowledge. We have

200,000 students appearing for entrance exams, and only 2,000

get into good technology colleges. So we need more engineering

or biomedical colleges.”

Pitroda argues that turning manufacturing or service-based

economies into knowledge capitals also requires a complete rethinking

of urban infrastructures. “In the past we built cities and

suburbs based on the idea of manufacturing plants,” he says.

“The idea now is to focus on knowledge as the key driver to restructure


Indian cities Bangalore and Hyderabad have become famous

for their IT booms, but aren’t knowledge economy models.

“The cities haven’t transformed,” Pitroda says. “They’re crowded

and the infrastructure is not in tune because nobody thought it

through.” True knowledge capitals must be designed with a sustainable

plan, he says. “Start from scratch and go vertical.” He advocates

building clusters that “bring large numbers of people together

in a setting where they live, work, and innovate together.”


Masdar City in Abu Dhabi could be a utopian version of what

Pitroda describes. The $22 billion, eight-year project launched in

2006 by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

is constructing an entire town focused on engineering solutions

to problems in energy, security, climate change, and sustainable

human development. The “green” city, designed by Foster + Partners

to be entirely solar- and wind-powered with zero carbon

NYAS as Global Cluster Advisor

The New York Academy of Sciences’ reputation as a world-leading

scientific event host and neutral convener of meetings among industry,

academia, government, and NGOs has special value in the

Knowledge Century. People charged with sci-tech development

around the world are increasingly calling upon NYAS for guidance.

When the New York State Foundation for Science and Technology

Innovation wanted to identify technological areas of importance

to New York, it called on the Academy for help. After presenting its

analysis of the state’s R&D strengths to stakeholders, the Academy

helped NYSTAR identify clean technology as a growth area. Later,

the Academy reconvened the group to examine specific strengths,

opportunities, and models of clean-tech development.

Leaders of the UK’s Global Medical Excellence Cluster also

sought guidance from the Academy in breaking down the walls that

prevented flow of knowledge among their research institutions. Rick

Trainor, president of King’s College, says the GMEC community of

six universities, two hospitals, three corporations, and the London

Development Agency wanted to promote collaboration, and was attracted

to the Academy’s track record for nurturing partnerships.

“The Academy was neutral, it was interdisciplinary, and it was coming

from another metropolis with a track record for bringing academic

institutions there together,” Trainor says.

And when Mexico City’s Mayor decided to bridge the public

and private research sectors in his city, he asked the Academy to

show him how. The result was a four-day science and innovation

conference in Mexico City in September, convened by the Academy

and the administration of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón. Some

300 corporate leaders, scientists, government officials, educators, investors,

and students attended. With tracks examining Mexico City’s

strengths in health, innovation, green energy, urban infrastructure,

and science education and careers, the gathering spurred discussion

about next steps toward developing a knowledge economy.

Advising groups outside of its hometown is quickly becoming a

new business for the Academy. To respond to requests from governments

for guidance on policies and investments in science-and-technology-based

innovation and economic development, the Academy

has developed an advisory program. “We’re leveraging our strengths

as a uniquely independent organization with a broad knowledge of

global science and a deep expertise in building communities that include

all stakeholders in science and technology,” says Rene Baston,

NYAS VP of business development. “The goal of our ‘cluster’ activities

is to develop and link knowledge centers around the world.”

What’s the value of this work to Academy members? “We’re advancing

science,” says Karin Pavese, director of innovation, physical

sciences, and engineering. “We’re translating one of the Academy’s

core competencies—to bridge disparate communities and build

robust networks—to other parts of the world.” And as scientists in

Mexico City and other emerging sci-tech clusters join the Academy,

all members benefit from being linked to a wider circle of scientific



emissions, will be anchored by a major new scientific engineering

university, the Masdar Institute, to welcome its first students

in September 2009.

The institute’s founding president, Russell Jones, former

The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine • Autumn 2008 21

Cover Story




United Kingdom





































Clusters of Scientists. Science and technology clusters are emerging in some surprising spots around the world. Clusters of scientists exist in

some unexpected places too. This map shows the 20 countries outside of the US with the largest numbers of NYAS members.

president of the University of Delaware, says three things persuaded

him to move with his wife to Abu Dhabi to take the

helm: A strategic decision had been made by the government to

build a cluster; the graduate-level-only university is being staffed

through a partnership with MIT; and research there will focus

on solving one of the world’s most important problems—alternative


Jones says the state-funded Masdar Initiative has a $15 billion

seed fund (projected to increase to $80 billion) to bring alternative

energy companies to the region. His university “is the human

capital piece” of the knowledge economy equation, training the

scientists and engineers who will staff and startup the alternative

energy companies that will fuel the Masdar City economy.


As host to some 20,000 scientists conducting three-quarters of

the nation’s research, Mexico City has a leg up on Abu Dhabi in

the human capital department. Mexico City is already “a hub for

producing human capital,” says Mayor Ebrard. “Graduate students

flock to our many universities and research institutes.”

But unlike Abu Dhabi, Mexico City doesn’t have the wealth to

build a knowledge city from the ground up. The Mayor’s various

initiatives are directed instead at improving upon what exists.

As General Director of the Mayor’s new Institute for Science

& Technology, Esther Orozco has dedicated a $17 million budget

to five distinct programs for improving Mexico City’s infrastructure

and assets. Teams from the institute have been assigned

to evaluate the region’s needs in water, energy, and food; sexual,

nutritional, and mental health, including addiction; digital connectivity;

small business incubation and competitiveness; and

science and technology education.

Orozco says the teams address those issues in partnership

with experts from government, industry, and academia. In just

over a year, their work has resulted in the installation of an optical

fiber network throughout the metropolitan area, which she

says will “close the digital gap” between Mexico City and more

developed cities by providing free internet to all residents. Orozco’s

education team has brought scientists to the city’s street fairs

to teach citizens how cell phones and other modern technologies

work. An interactive exhibit to educate kids about the effects of

drug use will soon open. And a team of scientists and engineers

working on the water program has mapped a system to automate

the handling of Mexico City’s deep sewage.

Meanwhile, another of the Mayor’s initiatives, Capital En

Crecimiento, is looking at additional infrastructure challenges.

Jorge de los Santos, CEO of the government-owned company,

says, “We’re like the Port Authority. We build tunnels, roads,

transportation hubs—anything we need to in order to enhance

the competitiveness and productivity of Mexico City.”

De los Santos is also working with the RAND Corporation

to identify the sectors Mexico City can dominate. “What

sectors should we be targeting to be the best in the world?” he

asks. Whether it be personalized medicine, digital design, financial

IT, or healthcare informatics, Capital En Crecimiento will

build communities within the city with R&D campuses, parks,

and housing where technology-focused clusters can grow. “Here

you would be able to live, work, study, research, and shop,” says

De los Santos, who predicts it will be three years before the first

such development is inhabitable.

Mayor Ebrard is nothing but optimistic for his city’s chance

to contend as a Global Knowledge Capital. “The East Asian tigers

of the 1980s, like Singapore and South Korea, and the rising giants

of this century’s first decade, India and China, all had economies

smaller than Mexico’s not too long ago,” he says. “India’s

mastery of software technology has transformed its economy

and raised its global competitiveness. They’ve made tremendous

leaps and we think we can too.”


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