Can Technology Help Puerto Rico See Beyond The Next Horizon?

Giovanni Rodriguez , CONTRIBUTOR

49c81df6e01b3c7a10307b78d7b7ed06Early this morning, I got a group text on Facebook FB -2.94% Messenger from my DC-based Puerto Rican friend Gretchen Sierra Zorita. The message: a link to a page alerting/reminding citizens that Puerto Rico is running out of cash and will need to make bond payments of roughly $1 billion unless Congress addresses the debt this week in its omnibus appropriations bill. The message was startling, not just because I care about PR — I’ve written several times before about the challenges the island is facing — but because earlier in the week I met live with the founder of a new economic initiative in PR, dubbed Parallel18 (disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor), that is looking to address the challenges in the long term. So I awoke this Sunday with a fuzzy picture in my mind’s eye: the famous Horizons graph that was invented by the folks at McKinsey to help organizations address their challenges today and in the future.

Invented by management gurus in the late 1990s, the Horizons framework gives leaders an approach for navigating around the clear and present dangers, while addressing other challenges near and far. Emphasis on while. For the biggest contribution of McKinsey Horizons is that it asks you to think about all three timeframes at once.


The First Horizon

For PR, the first horizon, we should all now see, is January 1, and it would not only be unmanagerly but irresponsible to let PR default. Though Puerto Rico is an island (more precise, a small archipelago), no island today is an island thanks to the multinational investments that help float national economies. I’ve heard several people say that the island could be the next Iceland, whose economy melted as fast as PR’s might sink, sending ripples to distant shores. So the bill this week is important to watch. For without an emergency response, we can’t even look at the future.

The Second Horizon

And there are two future horizons, each with its own challenges. The first comes post-crisis, and that’s where Parrallel18 comes into view. Led by Sebastian Vidal, the former executive director of Startup Chile, the new initiative scored funding from the PR government and others to inject financial and social capital into the island ecosystem. The first cohort of startups will get $40K each, and offices in PR for five months. To qualify, you only need to base part of your operations in PR. And while you are there, you’ll be able to enjoy numerous business incentives unknown to many business people the subject of a future article). Objective: to help create companies, jobs, and other opportunities and restart the old narrative about America’s strategic near-shore partner.

The Last/Lost Horizon

But Vidal also sees the role that startups might have in helping to infuse hope not just capital in the larger Puerto Rican economy. On several visits to PR over the last five years, I began to see a challenge that other Latin American economies are facing: to a large extent, the economy is stuck in the past. PR feels stuck of course, economically; the stagnation is not new, but its current form is called crisis. PR also feels stuck technologically, despite the recent emergence of a creative startup culture; as a Silicon Valley investor I know recently said about Mexico, there are entire industries in PR just waiting to be digitized, and modernized. But most important, to me, PR feels stuck philosophically. Too many people here, on the mainland, have given up on the island, or forget (or do not even know) that PR is part of the whole. As I said, no island today is an island. And PR is part of US (with capitals). I believe that the hope that comes with tech culture might actually make a difference, and help connect everyone who can play a part in PR’s recovery. But in the meantime, the first horizon is looming (thanks, Gretchen), and I’m getting ready to write my congressman.

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