A lot of people have been throwing a lot of cold water lately on the notion of Miami as a high-tech “Silicon Beach.”
Even Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine this year called it “the dumbest idea in the world.”
Levine’s remark wasn’t all that bright, either. But on the eve of Miami’s first annual eMerge Americas conference – the week-long event starts Friday at various sites throughout the county and is expected to draw more than 3,000 visitors – it’s actually not a dumb idea to take two steps back and reassess Miami’s tech goals.
eMerge Americas, the brainchild of Miami tech investment guru Manny Medina, may well serve to remind us what South Florida’s more realistic role is. That is, not to be tropical competition for Silicon Valley but to assert itself, as Medina puts it, as the technology hub for Latin America and the Caribbean.
To better understand the difference – and just what kind of high-tech beach Miami should aspire to be – I spoke with veteran tech industry executive Diane Sanchez. She’s CEO of the Technology Foundation of the Americas, which Medina founded and which will host eMerge.
WLRN: Precisely because we’re hearing so many doubts these days about Miami’s high-tech potential, has eMerge Americas taken on an even greater importance?
SANCHEZ: What we’re doing is drawing a lot of attention to the resources and the ability we have to establish ourselves as a major technology hub in this region of the world. We have over 1,400 multinational [corporations] here, and that’s really what we’re focused on: How do we help the industries that we have extend our presence and our revenue stream beyond our physical borders?
WLRN: Technology hub of the Americas. What exactly does that mean?
SANCHEZ: It’s a hub-and-spoke type of concept. Be it healthcare, for instance, whether it’s medical records or telemedicine or medical tourism. If we establish standards out of Miami and establish even databases that can be enhanced in the region, that’s what we’re talking about as a hub. We’re the fifth largest communications hub in the world. [That’s] nothing small, and if you have the bandwidth and you have the technology, the rest is a matter of execution.
WLRN: But is being the high-tech capital of Latin America really enough to propel Miami into the high-tech big leagues in America – to become competitive with Silicon Valley and Boston and Austin and all the rest?
SANCHEZ: I don’t see us competing against what I call the other technopolises. We’re so unique, and that’s what’s really neat: If we’re smart enough, which I think we are now, we can really look at this and say, What does this region of the world need?
Healthcare needs are very different in Latin America than they are in Boston. If you look at what we’re going to do at eMerge Americas, our doctors and our institutions are looking at what countries need in Latin America or in South Florida that’s very unique to this region and at how we leverage our technology partners.
WLRN: On the other hand, is Miami a little too dependent on Latin America in this regard?
SANCHEZ: What we’re trying to do is reinforce an interdependency [between] us and the other countries, based on the more high-end services that we’re driving. Last year alone, the revenues in Latin America for e-commerce were $69 billion. They’re projecting in the next three years to be upward of $300 billion. Twitter’s No. 1 market in the world is Latin America right now.
WLRN: At the same time, there’s a sense that Miami has the same problem Latin America has: We need to get much more serious about things like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
SANCHEZ: We do have to make it a priority. We have a very diverse population here in Miami, and if we get this model right – getting more mainstream technology into our community – then we can actually make a big difference. But what are the skills that we need rather than just generally graduating computer science majors but not really focusing on certain industries? I don’t know if you know this, but the second largest [video] gaming market in the world is Latin America. You’re going to see at the conference that this is about graphic design and content that’s very unique to a market.
WLRN: What are you hoping Miami and Latin America will gain from this week-long gathering as it becomes a more established annual event?
SANCHEZ: I’ve sat with several of the panels of the mayors and speakers that are coming, and they’re so excited about collaboration – realizing that we as a community, as a hemisphere, have got to start working closer together. And I think Miami can make that happen.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.