Defying gravity

Wednesday / Oct 02 2019

Newspaper : The News

At this critical juncture of national development, the only way forward is to migrate from its natural resource driven low-value economy to a strong knowledge economy.

This has been realized by Prime Minister Imran Khan who set up a National Task Force that he himself chairs and of which I happen to be the vice chairman. After its first historic meeting last January at which a number of important decisions were taken, the task force has rapidly formulated a number of important projects ranging from agriculture to nanotechnology, from artificial intelligence to engineering sciences, from blended education to technological parks. Some Rs200 billion worth of projects are currently under approval, with some already approved.

To build a strong knowledge economy, we must strengthen the dynamic interplay between the major pillars on which the edifice must stand. These are education, science, technology, innovation, industry, and enabling government policies. All of these thrive on merit-based competiveness on the efficiency of interaction between them. The magic of rapid socio-economic development starts to happen through the dynamic interplay between research, invention, innovation, and commercial production geared to meet the national needs and challenges.

Policies on education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship are all intricately interrelated. Entrepreneurship, its growth, survival and competitiveness is dependent on innovation. In a developing country such as Pakistan, we need to adopt the process of ‘incremental innovation’rsquo;. This involves sourcing, absorbing, adapting and diffusing already available international technologies and related available knowledge.

In this process private industry and businesses must play a key role, as incremental innovation depends on the absorptive capacity of firms. Only firms with advanced human skills and prior relevant accumulated knowledge are able to successfully convert external knowledge into incremental innovations. Through this process they are able to recognize the value of new information, assimilate and absorb it and then apply it for commercial benefits.

The World Economic Forum has categorized the developmental stages of economies across countries in three distinct categories: one, factor-based economies, where the production and services sector largely depend on low-cost labour and natural resource based inputs. Innovation contributes less than five percent in such factor-based economies. Pakistan, alas, has been trapped in this lowest rung of the ladder for the last seven decades because of myopic national leadership.

Two, efficiency-driven economies which require modern machinery, better technical and managerial skills and promotion of a culture of firm level learning, and three, innovation and knowledge-driven economies; These last two categories need heavy investment in human resource development, training of a critical number of scientists and engineers, promotion of firm level R&D and lifelong learning practices. Innovation contributes at least 30 percent to the economies of countries at this level.

The global innovation landscape is constantly shifting, depending on the leadership and its realization of the importance of knowledge, research and innovation in the process of socioeconomic development. In our own lives we have seen the emergence of Germany, Japan, Singapore, Korea and more recently China as economic powers. The path to progress has involved massive investments in education, particularly higher education, the acquisition and adaption of cutting edge foreign technologies for the production of high valued goods and services. This has led to the progressive evolution of some countries from resource-based to knowledge-based economies. This process has been catalyzed by public-private partnerships and by offering liberal public incentives for partnerships between local and international firms.

In Pakistan, public research funding should be linked not only to advancement of basic and strategic research but a certain proportion should be set aside for applied industrial research. This should include funding for design and development of prototypes and for stimulating R&D in private enterprises. Industrial clusters under CPEC can trigger rapid development. Chinese companies partnering with Pakistani firms in these industrial clusters should be offered incentives linked to efficient production, value addition, and process and product innovation and for growth in productivity. Incentives for skill development courses for industrial workers and for hiring high quality engineers should be given priority.

The agriculture sector in Pakistan supports two-thirds of the rural population and remains the largest income and employment generating sector of economy but accounts for only about 22 percent of total GDP. Despite the huge potential, Pakistan has not been able to exploit its immense agriculture sector. This has been largely due to incompetent and corrupt leadership which was responsible for under- investment in human resource development and agriculture research.

We should learn from China, whose agriculture reform programme lifted millions out of poverty and generated enough income for investment in industrial innovations. The programme began in the early 1980s for developing non-farm opportunities involving provision of a flexible, demand driven packages of services. This was not just making available the technology but also information, technical assistance, marketing support including developing supply networks and supply chains.

The agricultural development programme initiated by their Ministry of Science & Technology in 1986, was termed the ‘Spark’ Programme (derived from the Chinese proverb ‘a single spark can start a prairie fire’). It was intended to help transfer managerial and technological knowledge from more advanced sectors to rural enterprises in order to support continued growth and development in non-state rural enterprises.

Other fast-emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, energy storage systems, new materials including nanotechnology, industrial biotechnology, and next generation genomics, will have a huge disruptive impact on industry in the next decade. Pakistan must invest massively in these areas if it ever wishes to stand with dignity in the comity of nations.

In a country in which there is hardly any eminent scientist or engineer in parliament, this involves our being able to ‘defy gravity’ to emerge as a powerful nation. This is what we must do.