Radical optimism: the balance between utopia and pragmatism


What has been achieved on campus during this period shows the valuable role played by the City of Knowledge in our country and abroad.  This innovative community has multiplied its scope, visibility, and impact in the world of science, R+D+i, humanities, international cooperation, entrepreneurship, technology, training and culture, in search for solutions for the complex problems this pandemic poses, but it also prepares to anticipate future problems. In an intimate and honest interview, some of its managers shared the ingredients of their recipe for success in the design and implementation of a crisis management plan, which at the time of this interview is at the stage of an ongoing return to the campus.

The speed and depth of the changes that the world has faced during 2020 is unprecedented in our recent history. How could we be prepared for something like this?

The economic slowdown, the change in our home lives, confinement and social distancing have also brought changes for large and small organizations. But above all, they have been a reminder of how fragile life is and how much we must take care of it. While some think that the consequences will be temporary until a vaccine is found, others suggest that this is the end of life as we know it. With such polarized opinions about this global phenomenon, leaders from all over the world have chosen different ways of handling this crisis: some have bet on radical measures such as cutbacks, mass layoffs, and suspension of investments; while others, on the other hand, have turned a blind eye when it comes to change. In this sense, the organizations that have made a difference are those that have sought a balance between productivity and compassion, those that had the vision to anticipate, to be swift and empathetic both internally and outwardly.  

The City of Knowledge Foundation (FCdS) was able to find the balance between a precise administrative management and the ability to create value for its members, customers, and users by being a platform that enabled innovation and research during this period.

With more than 100 work meetings since March and a team which at the height of the crisis consisted of 16 people, the committee combined an alert message with the equipment at the facilities to create an environment of trust that was an example of good practices.

This organizational choreography is the product of a long chain of actions that goes back to the roots of the institution and that prepared the conditions for this moment. FCdS was conceived in the 1990s as a place to create solutions to face the challenges that were lingering ahead at the end of the last century: climate change, deteriorating environment, unequal societies, shortcomings in education and health, among others. “The trailblazers of the Foundation did not know there would be a pandemic, but they did know there would be great challenges, and they bet on knowledge as the path to find the answers that the challenges of the 21st century would require,” professor Jorge Arosemena, President of the City of Knowledge Foundation said.

Although there was no way to foresee an exceptional situation like the one we have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic, FCdS was in a position to respond quickly because it had a Crisis Management Handbook that was developed a few years ago with the idea to face any unexpected setbacks. This handbook became the roadmap that would allow us to act immediately, “it allowed us to have clear processes, clear roles, and clear responsibilities. Everyone knew what, how, and when they had to do it,” said Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President of the City of Knowledge Foundation, who has been leading the Crisis Management Committee over the past nine months.

“What was clear to us was that our priority is the stability, safety, and protection of the people at the expense of any investment, project, or previous planning.”
Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President of the City of Knowledge Foundation


The Crisis Management Committee has been in charge of implementing the protocols indicated by the health authorities in order for campus operations to continue. With more than 100 work meetings since March and a team which at the height of the crisis consisted of 16 people, the committee combined an alert message with the equipment at the facilities to create an environment of trust that was an example of good practices. According to Perurena, at first it was very clear that the old rules related to work and social life were disjointed, and that the new ones were not yet conceived, “what was clear to us was that our priority is the stability, safety, and protection of the people at the expense of any investment, project, or previous planning.”

Carlos Rodriguez, Organizational Development Manager of the City of Knowledge Foundation, and his team were the promoters of the action plan to ensure occupational safety and support the sustainability of the jobs. From his perspective, the management of the crisis was focused on the two main assets of the Foundation: “our people and our campus”. “We started by mapping the needs of each employee and their families, we implemented a risk matrix to determine who was in a vulnerable position and how we could help them, and we did ‘job mapping’ to identify new needs as a product of the biosafety standards.” Every crisis brings difficulties, but also opportunities. Rodriguez identified some of them: greater agility in internal processes, increased solidarity between colleagues and willingness to contribute from other roles to help everyone thrive. “It was interesting to discover new skills in people, both for the institution and for themselves. To date, we completed 15 internal personnel shifts that represent significant savings in money and contribute to the work continuity of our team.”

“If the team is not motivated, if they don’t feel like they are part of something bigger, they can become isolated, and it is understandable, you can’t even criticize that reaction. That is why during the first days I started calling each one of our employees to find out how they were doing.”

Professor Jorge Arosemena, Executive President of the City of Knowledge Foundation.

Through more than 40 communiqués, and two reports to the community and the country, we kept our audience informed about the multiple actions taken on campus to fight the health crisis. “City of Knowledge: Solutions in times of pandemic” in its two editions, includes the initiatives, actions, and achievements of our members in science, innovation, training, culture, business, technology, international cooperation, and sustainability.


This personalized handling allowed a small group of employees to keep the campus running during the total quarantine, and they had to take on challenging new tasks:  they became the face of the Foundation. The safety team, the cold-water plant team, and the maintenance and operations team transformed into the customer service, communications, information, filming, and editing team. But, finding balance in the middle of a health crisis not only requires good planning and a committed team, but also a team of managers with the conviction to take it all the way.

“Together with other leaders at the Foundation, the professor and I provided a comprehensive support to the staff. That presence was very significant and helped a lot,” Perurena said. “My daily motivation came from seeing the field staff of the City of Knowledge be the first line of defense at the campus. The ones who didn’t have the highest hierarchy in the organizational structure were the ones who shouldered the operation and protected this space.”

For his part, Professor Arosemena has been focused on maintaining the meaning and spirit of teamwork. He has tried to personally call most of the employees considering that there is a family behind every person who works in the City of Knowledge.

“This is the time for the entrepreneurs and innovators, this is the time for people who understand that they have a role to play to contribute to a more democratic, prosperous and sustainable society.”

Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President of the City of Knowledge Foundation

“We have encouraged most of the people to feel proud to be part of the City Knowledge. It is important to feel that you are doing something that makes sense to you, to society, to others.”

Professor Jorge Arosemena, Executive President of the City of Knowledge Foundation

While the Crisis Management Committee maintained a permanent monitoring of the situation, it was constantly making decisions and charting the next steps in the face of a changing landscape.

Field colleagues cared for, maintained, and safeguarded the 120 hectares of the City of Knowledge, with dedication and passion, being the “First line” of the Foundation for months.

“Promoting change from a humanist, scientific, financial, and business perspective is not just to saying it, it is living it in the day-to-day, with its nuances, its right and wrongs. As an organization we have walked in that direction and our team has given an extraordinary example that makes me feel proud.”

In 1999, the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone were transferred into Panamanian hands and the City of Knowledge Foundation began its journey at the old military base. Perurena remembered those initial years in light of the current circumstances: “We received 120 hectares and here from Jorge Arosemena and down the line, we all had to do everything. That mystique and commitment is very real now, there is an analogy in ‘receiving the space again.’ Seeing the grass a little taller, seeing the animals again in the residences, going back to the beginning and everyone taking care of the space from the most basic tasks, regardless of your position or role, with that commitment to utopia. It is another kind of utopia that we have to make possible today, but it is still a utopia like when we began in 1999.”


Many sectors reduced or stopped their production during 2020, but scientific advances, solidarity and research cannot be stopped, we depend on them to ensure the well-being of our kind and our planet. “These circumstances have allowed the main players of innovation, which are the agencies and institutions that make up the City of Knowledge, to validate the importance of prioritizing science and research, and grant them resources, space and time,” Perurena said.

“People who have a purpose, a greater good to protect, whose priority is to make an impact, transform, and influence the world, are the ones who make a difference, and we continue to bet on those people.”

Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President of the City of Knowledge Foundation

With the support of each one of them, we guaranteed that during the quarantine months there were no security incidents and that the campus remained in operation at all times, so those who really had to work during the health crisis from our community, could carry out their duties. (Photo: INDICASAT).

“In our messages and signage there is some complicity with our community. We have a seat ‘reserved for the agouti’ and ‘follow the squirrel,’ for example. We wanted it to be simple but unique to our people.” Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President 0f the City of Knowledge Foundation.

When the pandemic was declared, the Foundation had years creating a scientific and academic infrastructure that would allow the generation of solutions from various areas. In this context, some of the institutions that are part of the campus, which have excelled in the fight against COVID-19 are: The Institute for Scientific Research and High Technology (INDICASAT AIP), National Secretariat of Science, Technology, and Innovation (SENACYT), The Regional Health Training and Simulation Center (CREASS) and the startup Silice that made available to the National Government the services of virtual assistants ROSA, PACO and NICO, platforms for the support and follow-up to the traceability processes, among many others.


Moving the rich programming from campus to the virtual world was one of the collateral challenges faced by the institution this year. The Global Agenda of Events of the Foundation quickly migrated to a virtual space, with training and dialogue spaces on various topics in partnership with campus actors. Mariana Núñez Haugland, Vice President of Communications of the City of Knowledge Foundation, says they focused their energy on keeping the community informed on a recurring basis, conveying the optimism and safety that the organization was applying to face the crisis. “We knew that our digital channels would be a vital vehicle to stay close to the community and our audiences. We turned to the development of content and campaigns that would contribute to contain the virus, on the one hand, and to the spread of knowledge, on the other.”

The acceleration to a digital transformation that the country was forced to undertake, was a pivotal factor in the growth of the impact of the City of Knowledge this year. In the words of Perurena: “We have multiplied the number of women we train through the Female Entrepreneurs Program, we can reach three times as many entrepreneurs, and so everything is growing. I am convinced that innovation cannot be scheduled via Zoom because it happens when you are on campus talking and sharing in person, but I do believe that these circumstances have given visibility to the work that was already being done and was maybe less known.”

The 21st century is challenging us to set out and sail through unfamiliar waters, which requires contemporary professionals to possess complex skills geared toward problem solving, making difficult decisions, thinking critically, and adapting to a fluctuating global landscape.  Addressing these new needs requires a paradigm shift in the educational system. Anticipating this shift, the City of Knowledge is working towards bringing about a change in mentality in society to think of new professions and jobs, guiding the processes to formalize creative industries and giving it the same priority that has historically been given to more traditional fields, to humanities, music, theatre, animation, visual arts, dance, gastronomy, and cinema.


Once the National Government gave the green light to resume work activities, a Reopening Committee was enabled to launch the plan to progressively return staff to campus. “We use creativity at the service of organizational efficiency creating back to campus manuals by area, supporting staff who required it, being flexible, and having a ‘drone view’ to ensure that the procedures we implemented were realistic, in line with our values and sustainable over time,” said Rodriguez, who oversaw the committee.

People who return to their jobs for the first time in months, faced another change in the COVID-19 context, that is why it was important to accompany this process with a powerful message of close and genuine support. For Irene Perurena, the greatest challenge on this front is learning to live with the current circumstances. “We know that Panama probably does not escape the world reality where it is necessary to release and collect, but in moments of release you have to participate and when it is time to collect you must do so. There are also nice moments where everything is for the first time, not just at work, because it will be the first Christmas, however it comes, it will be the first time to celebrate a different birthday, the first flag planting activity that will be different. The world of firsts is wonderful because everything is about to be discovered and done… everything is possible!”

Professor Arosemena added: “If there is anything that is clear to me, in this journey of the past few months, is that we have a team with a strong sense of solidarity. And when the idea arose to send a campus-wide message through an intervention in the public space, ‘among all of us’ we chose a valuable message that was painted by a group of 37 people on campus to remind us that it’s not about saving yourself and leaving others to fend for themselves, it is about walking together, and that practice among all of us does not stop at the Foundation, but it certainly starts there.”

With time and with the optimism that we would go back to campus gradually and in a segmented manner, the reopening committee drafted more than 10 manuals that would allow an orderly return, with social distancing, and ready for all our users.

An important milestone in the history of firsts was the modified flag planting activity, a way to continue the tradition of one of the star events of the City of Knowledge, which has been held for 16 years and is very special to the community as it seeks to commemorate ‘Operation Sovereignty’ where students risked their lives to plant flags in the Canal Zone. This year, also for the first time, a woman hoisted the flag.


The City of Knowledge Foundation has shown that it is possible to manage an organization from the point of radical optimism, integrating the long-term strategic vision with immediate concrete actions, the result is visible in the passion of the employees and the commitment of our allies. Organizational environment polls conducted among staff between April and October, showed that – despite the obstacles of the pandemic – employees expressed feeling more positive than negative emotions, and reported missing their colleagues, the outdoors, and campus as a space for sharing. “That organizational DNA has been our greatest lifesaver because we believe in utopias, we believe in dreams, we believe in principles, and we believe it in a way that is individual, the ones who come here know there is something bigger and that is extraordinary in times of crisis,” Perurena stressed. In addition to validating the internal strategy established at the beginning of the pandemic, the executives of the Foundation have also managed to extrapolate solidarity toward its members, allies, customers, and users to generate a true sense of community.

A short-term interinstitutional cooperation project that will contribute exponentially to the fight against COVID-19 globally is the creation, at the City of Knowledge, of a large research center specialized in vaccines in cooperation with SENACYT, the Ministry of Health, and some major companies in the pharmaceutical area. “This center will take care of the large-scale vaccine production for the world, it is a project that was already underway, but now it is more important than ever, ” Professor Arosemena said. Community life continues to flourish in person with the appropriate safety measures, and through webinars, lives, talks, and online academic opportunities. These initiatives, which to date amount to more than 240 events, have benefited more than 24,000 people, and have been facilitated from The City of Knowledge.

Irene Perurena said she will not get tired of repeating: “I cannot think of a better time in history to innovate, to seek solutions to the problems that affect us, and especially to collaborate. At the City of Knowledge, we will continue to bet on entrepreneurship and innovation with a special emphasis on female and youth entrepreneurship.”

Professor Arosemena added that it is also time to think with a long-term vision: “The next generations will have much more complex challenges and if we don’t face them as a group and we don’t all see the planet with loving eyes, we are all going to sink. I think it can be done, I am optimistic, if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have believed in making a City of Knowledge.”

“Let us look at the future with optimism, human beings have done a lot of damage to the planet, but they have the ability to make corrections, we have the right to make mistakes, what we cannot do is stay stuck in just regrets and criticisms, and not help solve the problems. Let us work together for a prosperous, equitable, democratic and sustainable future for Panama and the world.” Professor Jorge Arosemena, Executive President of the City of Knowledge Foundation

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