It is now six weeks since I arrived in Ecuador as part of an international team of researchers and activists that are working with the government to radically transform the nation’s economic model.
In what may be one of the most innovative change programs in Latin America, the administration of Rafael Correa is proposing to transition from a neo-liberal, free market economic model to what they are calling a social knowledge economy based on a combination of commons-based economics and the promotion of open knowledge systems. It’s heady stuff and the project is placing Ecuador at the forefront of global efforts to advance human knowledge as a commons and to apply this knowledge to the creation of a new economic model based on the commons, co-operative models of production, open-source systems of sharing, and free access to information.
Housed at the National Institute for Higher Learning (IAEN), the FLOK Society project (Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society) is conducting the research and developing the policy ideas that will underpin this effort. I and six other researchers form the team at the heart of this project. Supporting this effort is a motley, misfitted, but highly motivated pack of thinkers, hacktivists, political operators, digital geeks, and determined idealists from around the world who see in FLOK a chance at crafting a progressive vision of economics for the 21st Century and, even more enticing, a chance to put such a vision into effect. It is a project to imagine utopia for real world application.
But…what does all this mean? Is it a digital age fantasy or a prescription for transformative change? Is there a political will to drive the radical changes we are envisioning? Will our work move from vision to reality?
My intention in this blog series is to reflect on this effort, to share what I myself am learning in the process, and to explore what this really means for re-imagining a humane and sustainable economics in the Age of Google and in the context of the political puzzle that is Ecuador.
As we enter into 2014, in a time of deep cynicism, of entrenched and growing inequality, and amidst the ongoing global train wreck that is capitalism, what could be more fun?
So here we all are in Quito.
Set deep in the folds of the Andean highlands, the city of Quito extends along a narrow 35 km ribbon between the steep green slopes of Volcán Pichincha on the west and the Valle de los Chillos on the east – the beginning of a long descent to the Amazon basin. In the blue distance to the south rises the high, solemn, snow capped peak of Cotopaxi – the world’s highest active volcano.
It is only when one views the city from above, from the silent and desolate savanna slopes of Mount Pichincha, that the true remoteness of Quito becomes apparent. Until recently this valley, now covered over with office buildings, malls and cement housing blocks, was the site of a small but significant Spanish colonial outpost and the epicentre of the revolutionary ferment that gripped Latin America in the bloody, protracted struggle to free the continent of Spanish rule.
It was in Quito that Latin America’s first declaration of independence from Spain was announced in 1809. The intellectual leadership that interpreted and cultivated the political ideals of the Enlightenment for Latin America was here. Quito’s intellectual and political leadership was indispensible to the rise of anti-colonial sentiment for the rest of the continent. Today, the extraordinary revolutionary history of this small country remains largely unknown to the outside world. It lies buried beneath the concrete blocks and sprawling commercial malls that seem here, like everywhere else, to characterize the prevailing spirit of the country.
But Ecuador is nothing if not a land of contrasts and contradictions. The stark beauty and brooding silence of the Andean plateaus rising above Quito contrast sharply with the rampant development and noise that have overtaken the colonial charm of the old city. The drive for development and commerce is everywhere apparent. The Correa government is deeply committed to an extraction strategy based on oil, but it is also embarking on a bold experiment to change the governing principles of Ecuador’s economy.
So we must ask: how does one reconcile a policy of extractivismo with the aspiration to a social knowledge economy that promotes sustainability? This is just one of the contradictions that immediately strikes the observer. Another is the contrast between policies that promote open knowledge and social innovation and the highly controlling instincts of a government that has little tolerance for dissent and severely limits the autonomy and freedom of civil organizations.
This is an area I am becoming familiar with as my work here is focused on the creation of social institutions that can support an open knowledge society and a commons-based economics. The tension between state control on the one hand and the civic requirements for open knowledge on the other, constitutes one of the key contradictions between what the government says it wants and what it does in practice.
With respect to environmental protection and sustainability, the primary source of opposition now confronting Correa is rooted in the government’s decision to extract oil from the Yasuni national reserve in the Amazon basin. The area is home to the last remnants of uncontacted tribes in Ecuador and oil extraction here is like a death warrant for them. Moreover, wanton contamination of the area over the last 30 years by oil giants Texaco and Chevron has spawned bitter and widespread opposition to continued drilling. Huge tracts of the Amazonian rainforest have been poisoned or wiped out by indiscriminate and unscrupulous oil drilling.
How does one square such actions with the professed aim of sustainability?
And alongside its oil policies, the government’s commitment to protecting tribal knowledge from commercial exploitation at the hands of global corporations is without question a step in the right direction.
The contradictions abound.
It remains to be seen how the government juggles the need to raise cash for public programs through oil revenues while pursuing a groundbreaking economic path that, on the face of it, runs directly counter to this policy. Then again, nothing in Ecuador is straightforward. The political crosscurrents that display one facet of the government at one moment reveal something completely incongruous the next.
Ultimately, so far as the FLOK project is concerned, the real question may be not whether the government is serious about transforming it’s economic model according to its vision of a 21st century socialism. There are clearly progressive forces in the government that are committed to substantive, systemic change. It is also clear that there are determined opponents, both inside government and without, that will do everything in their power to defend the status quo and protect entrenched interests. Nothing new there.
The test will be whether the competing claims of commercial and industrial development and the satisfaction of consumer wants from an emerging middle class will outweigh the promise, and the attendant risks, of a model that is still formative and reliant on a vision that is still in need of a coherent framing theory and the empirical evidence of success.
That’s where we come in.