IN India, people ask you about China, and, in China, people ask you about India: Which country will become the more dominant economic power in the 21st century? I now have the answer: Mexico.
Impossible, you say? Well, yes, Mexico with only about 110 million people could never rival China or India in total economic clout. But here’s what I’ve learned from this visit to Mexico’s industrial/innovation center in Monterrey. Everything you’ve read about Mexico is true: drug cartels, crime syndicates, government corruption and weak rule of law hobble the nation. But that’s half the story. The reality is that Mexico today is more like a crazy blend of the movies “No Country for Old Men” and “The Social Network.”
Something happened here. It’s as if Mexicans subconsciously decided that their drug-related violence is a condition to be lived with and combated but not something to define them any longer. Mexico has signed 44 free trade agreements — more than any country in the world — which, according to The Financial Times, is more than twice as many as China and four times more than Brazil. Mexico has also greatly increased the number of engineers and skilled laborers graduating from its schools. Put all that together with massive cheap natural gas finds, and rising wage and transportation costs in China, and it is no surprise that Mexico now is taking manufacturing market share back from Asia and attracting more global investment than ever in autos, aerospace and household goods.
“Today, Mexico exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America put together,” The Financial Times reported on Sept. 19, 2012. “Chrysler, for example, is using Mexico as a base to supply some of its Fiat 500s to the Chinese market.” What struck me most here in Monterrey, though, is the number of tech start-ups that are emerging from Mexico’s young population — 50 percent of the country is under 29 — thanks to cheap, open source innovation tools and cloud computing.
“Mexico did not waste its crisis,” remarked Patrick Kane Zambrano, director of the Center for Citizen Integration, referring to the fact that when Mexican companies lost out to China in the 1990s, they had no choice but to get more productive. Zambrano’s Web site embodies the youthful zest here for using technology to both innovate and stimulate social activism. The center aggregates Twitter messages from citizens about everything from broken streetlights to “situations of risk” and plots them in real-time on a phone app map of Monterrey that warns residents what streets to avoid, alerts the police to shootings and counts in days or hours how quickly public officials fix the problems.