Technology and Collective Dreams in a Torn Nation
By Federico J. Rivas
My parents tell me how lucky I was to be born in a hospital. It was late November of 1989 amidst the “final offensive”—one of the last but more gruesome clashes between armed guerrillas and military forces in the Salvadoran Civil War—and the odds were surely against making a safe trip. The guerrillas had stormed into the capital and established a strict 6 p.m. curfew enforced by checkpoints out on the streets. With the aid of a borrowed armored car, my mom was rushed safely into the hospital and I was born.
Two years later, peace was signed. And yet, while I don’t remember anything about the war, I also can’t say I have actual memories of a country at peace.
Today, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and, according to a recent poll, 79 percent of the population wishes they could leave the country. This can be interpreted as a majority of Salvadorans saying they have lost the ability to dream and build a future here. For me, as a member of the post-conflict generation, it’s hard to reconcile how a nation gifted with extravagant natural beauty and passionate, hard-working people, has become one of the most violent nations of the world.
As a twelve-year-old I decided to accept the challenge of becoming a businessman. I started my first company when I was a sixth-grader by selling campaign buttons to my classmates running for student council. Many years later in 2013, inspired by Giuseppe Tornatore’s film Cinema Paradiso, my brother Edwin and I decided to start building spaces of peace, and promoting access to culture by screening free open-air movies at public squares across El Salvador. Cinetour, our company, goes into some of the most disenfranchised communities across the country. We install in public squares a huge inflatable screen—larger than most movie theatre screens in the region—and show short educational videos on topics such as violence prevention, nutrition and moral values, followed by a family-rated movie.
We’ve now expanded to several countries across Central America thanks to the support of mass-consumption brands such as Unilever, which use the film screening to offer samplings and market their products. For three years, Cinetour has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to converge during weekends in spaces free of violence, in places where trust is restored: these events reignite creative processes in areas stigmatized by conflict, allowing people to dream, even for a moment, that there is more out there than just the plight of violence. In the same way that Hollywood dazzles and enables audiences to dream, we are challenging through our screens the barrage of negative news that permeates our day-to-day media. Cinetour has also increasingly become an important platform for publicizing NGOs such as Global Dignity and raising awareness about serious health issues affecting our country such as the Zika virus, dengue, and chikungunya.
Cinetour is successful, but we wanted to have a bigger impact. In the year 2013, as a student in a class taught at Harvard by Professor Fernando Reimers, I read Abundance, a book coauthored by Peter Diamandis of the X-PRIZE Foundation. Both this book and this class profoundly shifted the way I think about the world, giving me the gift of understanding that for the first time in history, small, committed teams are able to tackle large-scale problems.
Abundance argues that the world is better than ever before, and that exponential technologies can enable a future in which the basic needs of every man, woman and child are met. This struck a chord, because somehow I didn’t feel like this has happened for El Salvador. Perhaps my view has been affected by my disappointment with how governments have dealt so poorly with reducing violence, educating our population and advancing our competitiveness as a nation.
So I and a group of like-minded millennials started Estadio Ventures: the first innovation lab in the country to try to address our most pressing problems, including gang violence through violence prevention initiatives. We want to engage some of El Salvador’s brightest young minds in an isolated environment that rewards creativity and risk-taking by combining an innovation lab, accelerator and a co-working space.
Within our lab we experiment with a variety of commercially available exponential technologies including robotics, virtual reality, sensors, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. The promise of these technologies is that they eventually become democratized, widely distributed at a low cost. We are placing a bet that these trends will continue, while we build innovative solutions around these technologies to tackle some of our region’s most pressing problems. I was fortunate enough to be selected for this year’s World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, where the central topic was “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which suggests that these ideas and technologies may finally be getting the mainstream attention they deserve.
Solving our global society’s most pressing problems requires our perception of adversity to shift from a predominantly pessimistic outlook to one of optimism. Indeed, El Salvador is traversing one of the worst crises in its history. It is our calling to youth to propagate hope, to restore in older—and younger—generations the capacity to dream, and to foster collaboration—so we may rebuild—a social tissue which has inherited inequality, hatred, and political polarization. As entrepreneurs we must wield the tools of exponential technologies to imagine and build a future where all basic needs are met.
If within each crisis lies opportunity, El Salvador is a veritable gold mine. Its small territorial extension, the smallest country in the continental Americas, combined with a high population density, makes it the ideal real-world laboratory for creative out-of-the-box thinking and testing breakthrough ideas from which we can expand to neighboring countries and regions.
We millennials may be an idealistic bunch. Perhaps we are entitled, perhaps delusional, perhaps we haven’t had a taste of “reality” yet. But perhaps we also just happen to instinctively know the potential of technology and have the passion to shape the future. Time will tell. Whatever the case, I believe it is time to act. Indeed, we are lucky to be alive during this most exciting time. The computer science pioneer Alan Kay said it best: the best way to predict the future is to invent it. We are committed to improving the state of El Salvador, Latin America and (maybe, hopefully) the world.
Federico J. Rivas is Chief Executive Officer of International Media Group and co-founder of Estadio Ventures. He is curator of the Global Shapers San Salvador Hub, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. He holds a BA from Georgetown University and an MA from Harvard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org