Pakistan’s future: innovation

Friday / Dec 25 2015

Newspaper : The News

In this knowledge-driven world, only countries that invest in their real wealth – their children – can progress. Others are relegated to the fate of beggars and borrowers, living on the little charity that organisations such as the World Bank or IMF may bestow on them. Drowning in debt, our leaders would have us believe that all is rosy.

The hard facts are in fact quite the opposite, and the day draws closer when the ‘nuclear noose’ will be tightened – give up the nuclear weapons or choose bankruptcy. Oblivious to this impending disaster we continue to borrow more and more – more debt to pay off older debts. About $50 billion has been borrowed during the last decade but what have we to show for it except declining manufacturing productivity, the weakening rupee against the dollar, increasing poverty and lower levels of literacy and health?

Last week I had the opportunity of participating in the 26th general conference of The World Academy of Sciences in Vienna where a prize, instituted in my name, was awarded to a scientist from Uzbekistan. The conference was inaugurated by the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer. In his inaugural address, President Fischer highlighted an important policy decision of Austria to appoint their Federal Minister of Science, Dr Reinhold Mitterlehner, as the deputy prime minister of Austria to give him the political clout necessary to implement science and technology programmes. They also appointed him as the federal minister of economy so that he would then be able to give the highest national financial priority to science and technology.

A similar and an even more powerful approach has been adopted by South Korea where three deputy prime ministers have been appointed in the South Korean system of governance. They were the ministers of finance and economy, education and human resources development and science and technology. Through this mechanism, education, science and finance have been given the highest political power in national plans. The results have been positive, with South Korea becoming one of the most powerful economic giants of the world.

Pakistan needs to follow the examples of Korea and Austria by having a single federal minister of science, technology and education who would also serve as the federal minister of finance and economic affairs and have the status of a deputy prime minister. This would pave the way for Pakistan to develop into a strong knowledge economy.

Recently Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India held a conference at his official residence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, in which the heads of 114 ‘central’ institutions, including the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), were invited. In his opening speech President Mukherjee emphasised in the strongest possible terms that India cannot aspire to be a world power without having world class universities.

“Innovation”, the president said, “is the currency of the future” – and universities must be at the heart of that.” He elaborated on this and said: “Innovation converts research into wealth. Unless we recognise this reality and start working in a focused manner on creating a strong innovation culture in our country now, we will be left behind in the march to modernity.”

Land, labour and natural resources were responsible for national wealth in the last century. That time has now gone and it is the quality of the ‘human capital’ that is now the most important factor for socio-economic development. At the heart of this lies the nurturing of individuals to unleash the creative talents from early ages through schools, colleges, universities and then through training in industrial and commercial environments.

The second factor necessary for fostering innovation is ‘collaboration’ – collaboration between many different experts in various allied fields so that an idea can be translated into a commercial product through various stages of product development.

The third key factor is ‘access to latest knowledge’. This involves the need to know the current frontiers in any field, the ability to recognise what is truly novel and an environment in which a product or process can be developed and proven to work. A highly competitive and charged research environment like this, where the latest databases are available and there is a critical mass of high quality manpower with the ability to understand, absorb and extend the knowledge to new frontiers becomes vital.

The third key factor is ‘access to latest knowledge’. This involves the need to know the current frontiers in any field, the ability to recognise what is truly novel and an environment in which a product or process can be developed and proven to work. A highly competitive and charged research environment like this, where the latest databases are available and there is a critical mass of high quality manpower with the ability to understand, absorb and extend the knowledge to new frontiers becomes vital.

The process of globalisation has posed many challenges. It has also created new opportunities, particularly for creative industries, such as IT, publishing, media, crafts, film, TV, radio, photography, advertising, marketing, music, architecture and design. In previous centuries, the process of globalisation was limited to trade across continents through sea routes.

During the last 50 years we have witnessed a second phase of globalisation that involves the outsourcing of manufacturing. This was done by Japan when it outsourced many of its manufacturing plants to Korea and Thailand in the 1960s. We have also witnessed the massive outsourcing of manufacturing of a range of products from the west to China in the last four decades.

The next stage of globalisation will be driven by curiosity led research by brilliant experts at the top of the value chain, not by those at the bottom. In the new kind of globalisation that we are now seeing, ideas can come from anywhere and be applied everywhere.

We are undergoing a huge innovative change in the field of education from a ‘closed box’ approach to an ‘open cluster swarm’ approach. This also involves a change from ‘fixed time/place’ educational systems to ‘flexible time/place’ educational systems.

Fortunately, Pakistan is a leader in keeping up with this particular change in the higher education sector through two revolutionary programs being conducted under my supervision. One is the launching of an Integrated version of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) by the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) at the University of Karachi. This provides the courses available at MIT, Harvard University, Stanford University, and Khan Academy free of charge to students.

The other is the programme of live interactive courses also being conducted by the ICCBS through which lectures delivered through video conferencing by leading professors from the west are beamed to universities across Pakistan. About 4000 such lectures have been held during the last five years and a Chinese language teaching programme is presently being conducted for common citizens through live video conferencing and webinars.

It is a pity that our leaders lack the vision that has propelled South Korea, Austria, Singapore and China into the 21st century, the same vision that is now transforming India.


The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).