Uruguay is looking to be a leader in innovation in Latin America through its efforts to distribute laptop computers to all of the country’s schoolchildren, said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child program.

Uruguay was the first country to implement the program created by Dr. Negroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, which aims to provide portable computers for children in the developing world in order to foster learning inside and outside of the classroom.

“Uruguay’s boldness has inspired other countries. I am personally grateful, and OLPC will spend every effort to work with Uruguay to make Uruguay the poster child for the rest of the world,” he said during a press conference at the Americas Innovation Forum in Punta del Este, Uruguay, March 30-April 1.

The forum was a follow-up to the Americas Competitiveness Forum that took place in Atlanta last year and is to be held for a second time in Atlanta in August of this year. The Uruguay forum brought more than 1,300 business and government leaders from the Western Hemisphere, along with presenters from Europe and Asia, to Uruguay to discuss ways to foster innovation in education, technology and business.

“Innovation is created in part by constructionism, or building things collaboratively, so the fact that we are having this regional meeting on innovation is important,” Dr. Negroponte told GlobalAtlanta during the Uruguay forum.

“The whole world should care about innovation in the developing world because a creative society is a productive one and more like the society we want our children and grandchildren to inherit,” he said. “Economic development and creativity have to happen at the same time,” he added.

Uruguay completed a pilot test of the laptop program in 2007 and began rolling out the plan throughout the country this year. Every elementary school child in Uruguay is expected to own a laptop computer by the end of 2009. Uruguayan President Tabare Vasquez announced on March 30 that the program would be extended to public high schools as well.

The laptop program is now being replicated in Peru, Haiti, Mongolia and Mexico, and is planned for Afghanistan, Rwanda and Cambodia. Other countries are also in discussions about adopting it, Dr. Negroponte said. His goal, though lofty, is to reach 500 million children — approximately half of the world’s primary school-aged children – in the next five years.

Uruguay moved quickly with its implementation of OLPC in part because it is a small country — 150,000 students will receive computers in the initial rollout, and some 400,000 children will eventually participate in the program. Large countries like China, which has an estimated 220 million primary school aged children, would obviously be slower to adopt such a program, Dr. Negroponte said.

Uruguay also has an infrastructure to support One Laptop Per Child, he said, citing the country’s National Technology Laboratories that are in charge of the program’s rollout. Uruguay’s telecommunications industry is also tightly coupled with the central government, which makes for easier implementation, he noted.

Uruguay is the largest exporter of software in Latin America, so “the tendency is already there, not only for innovative development but also for a sufficient boldness” to execute the program, he said.

But each country is different, Dr. Negroponte told GlobalAtlanta, saying that he has not yet seen any patterns in adoption of the program except for the presence of individual leadership and innovative thinkers in each country.

He said that the most important message about One Laptop Per Child is that the project is about learning, not about laptops. The goal is to bring primary education to every child in the world in a “way that leverages the children.”

“We need to look at the contributions children can make to their own education,” he said.

Children in the developing world tend to drop out of school because they find it boring, Dr. Negroponte said. He said he believes the laptop project will increase children’s confidence in their own creativity and place some responsibility in their hands for their own education. “They will surprise us,” he said.

The program has received considerable publicity in recent weeks, especially in light of recent rumors that Dr. Negroponte was stepping down from his role as chairman of the organization. During a press conference in Uruguay, he denounced the rumors, confirming that the non-profit program is seeking a CEO but that he will remain chairman.

One Laptop Per Child has an advantage in being non-profit because it can partner with organizations such as the United Nations and garner expertise from top technology corporations and institutes, Dr. Negroponte said. But the program is facing competition from Intel Corp., which recently announced its version of an inexpensive laptop for the developing world.

“Commercial interest at the scale of Intel is very damaging,” he said during a press conference in Uruguay. But he acknowledged that competition pushes down prices, which will help to eventually distribute computers to every child in the world.

Donors can contribute funds to purchase individual “XO” model laptops that the One Laptop Per Child program will send to developing countries. Organizations that purchase 100 or more can designate a particular country or institutional recipient of the computers.

The program is drawing interest from some groups in the United States, as well. The city of Birmingham, Ala., agreed in December to buy 15,000 of the laptops for children in first through eighth grades in city schools.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...