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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Place of Learning for Reformers

Notes from the Antigua Forum

Imagine you’re the president, your state’s governor, chair of the most powerful committee in Congress—or best friend and trusted advisor to one of these leaders. 

What would you reform? Would it be Social Security, healthcare, the legal system, or something else?

Now here’s a harder question: Exactly how would you do it?

Thinking about how to make the world a better place—then doing something about it—is the role of the entrepreneur. A special type of entrepreneur deals in reform that expands liberty and economic opportunity. Like the entrepreneur in the market, this type of entrepreneur constantly looks for ways to innovate and add value for others. 

But the reform entrepreneur is confronted by potentially paralyzing questions: Which reform will bring the greatest benefit? Which will be most likely to endure? Is it better to reform what’s already in place or build something from scratch? Is now the time to act? What are the competing ideas out there? What vested interests might oppose the reform? What’s the best way to communicate the benefits to the public? 

Learning how to answer these questions is the secret to successful reform—because everyone wants to change the world, but few know what to do when the opportunity arrives. 


Not Just Another Conference

The Antigua Forum was launched to fill this knowledge gap. A project of Guatemala’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM), the Antigua Forum serves as a “place of learning” for those who want to improve human well-being through market-liberal reform. It provides real answers to the practical, “how to” questions of reform. 

Who attends?

Participants aren’t simply those who want to make the world a better place—they’re people who are actually doing something about it. Some are highly leveraged political reformers who work as legislators, government ministers, and trusted advisers. Others are “disruptors” who work outside traditional political institutions—a popular example is innovation at private schools whereas established interests focus on public schools. A few participants are experts on communications, strategy, and other tools of the successful reformer.  

And they come from all over the world. The first two annual gatherings took place in 2012 and 2013. Participants represented 29 countries from every region of the world, from Canada, China, and Chile, to Malaysia, Mexico, and Morocco. The United States, too. 

What makes it work?

The Antigua Forum is unique, and uniquely productive. The secret is the mix of highly leveraged participants and a highly effective learning environment, where the focus is on how to achieve reform.  

Familiar with the traditional conference? That’s not the Antigua Forum. Reformers who want help from other smart people at the event must “pitch” for the opportunity to put together a small workgroup. Experts who have “been there and done that” share their knowledge where they think it can do the most good.  

Sure, there are a few presentations, but they’re a lot shorter than those at a traditional conference—no more than five minutes—and the emphasis is always on the practical. Most reformers could benefit from a tip or two on how to sell their brilliant idea. And everyone can learn from failure, even if no one wants to talk about it. At the Antigua Forum, reformers talk about it, so future failures can be few and far between. 

The result is real learning, even unexpected learning. The most articulate reformer knows more than he or she realizes. Knowledge is tacit, and memory—even of key events in one’s life—is incomplete. A candid dialogue among trusted colleagues can uncover questions and yield unanticipated lessons. 

Remember the most productive conversation you ever had at a conference? It probably didn’t happen when your would-be teacher was on a panel, or during the Q&A. More likely, your greatest learning happened in a 10-minute conversation during the coffee break. The Antigua Forum fosters such interactions. It’s a conference of coffee breaks, deep discussions, and spontaneous spurts of genius—with everything focused on reform. 


What comes of it?

The most thrilling conversation on reform is meaningless if it doesn’t yield real results. The Antigua Forum helps reformers get results.

Discussions are channeled to develop actionable prototypes for reform. Participants with a project in hand are encouraged to analyze the reform challenge, evaluate solutions, pick the best approach, then come up with a plan to make it happen.

In addition, the Antigua Forum produces publications on reform, such as case studies and other practical tools. The first case study (2012) analyzes Guatemala’s successful, market-based telecom reform of 1996. An upcoming study will look at sweeping reforms adopted in the Republic of Georgia in the last decade. 

Over time, the Antigua Forum is building something more: a community of reformers who can turn to each other for advice and encouragement. 

In just two years, Antigua Forum alumni have applied their learning to advance tangible reforms in their home countries. Participants from Honduras applied what they learned at the gathering to overcome obstacles to a startup cities project in their own country. Another participant took what he learned from the reformers in Honduras to change the constitution in the Republic of Georgia, which now allows for startup cities there.

This year, a group of reformers in Texas adopted the event’s format to produce its most effective meeting yet. The learning continues, along with reforms that improve people’s lives.

They're just getting started.

  • Wayne A. Leighton is Professor of Economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) in Guatemala, Executive Director of the Antigua Forum, Senior Expert at Navigant Economics, LLC, and and co-author (with Ed López) of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change