Investing in technology

Wednesday / Sep 09 2015

Newspaper : The News

Knowledge is now the single most important factor for socio-economic development. Countries that have realised this and invested heavily in developing their human resources to the highest possible levels have leaped forward, leaving others far behind.
Finland has a population about one-fourth of that of Karachi but just one company from this country has exports double those of the whole of Pakistan. Malaysia decided 30 years ago to spend at least 25 percent of its budget on education, which it has been doing for the last 30 years, giving other sectors much lower priority. The result is that Malaysia today accounts for 86.5 percent of the total high-tech exports of the Islamic world, and is ranked ninth in the world in this category, ahead of many European nations.
Korea decided to give the very highest priority to higher education. In 1960, about fice percent of the youth in Korea between ages of 17-23 were enrolled in higher education institutions (about the same as Pakistan in the year 2000) and Korean exports were only about $30 billion in the 1960s. By 2011, the percentage of Korean youth aged 25-34 having a graduate degree jumped to about 64 percent, the highest in the world. The result was a corresponding jump in its exports of high value products (electronics, engineering goods, automobiles, house hold appliances, steel, ship building etc) and services which have risen to $728 billion.
Similarly the annual exports of goods and services of a tiny country Singapore which has a population about a quarter that of Karachi (5 million), are a stupendous US $577 billion as compared to a paltry $31 billion of Pakistan, a country with 40 times the population of Singapore. There is not a single government of Pakistan that has ever taken this challenge of transitioning to a knowledge economy seriously.
The global trends in manufacturing and exports over the last three decades clearly show a sharp rise in high and medium technology goods and a sharp consistent decline in low technology goods and in natural resources. The big money lies in high technology and countries that have realised this have invested massively in knowledge-based economies leading to the manufacture and exports of electronics, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, biotech products, computers, software, automobiles, aircraft, defence equipment, alternative energy products and many other such items requiring highly specialized skills and world class research centres.
The secret lies in top class research and development combined with innovation and entrepreneurship. Stunning advances made in the last few decades in the fields of information technology, biotechnology, material sciences, health sciences, renewable energy and other disciplines are rapidly changing the face of the globe, leading several countries on the path of social and economic development – leaving others behind. The pace of knowledge generation and its impact on new product and process development and the emergence of new interdisciplinary areas, eg nanotechnology and post-genomic sciences, are providing opportunities for nations not traditionally recognised with science leadership to leapfrog many of the advanced G8 countries.
Information technology has transformed the world into a global village and is providing major opportunities for growth – eg through e-commerce. Access to mobile phones and the internet is opening up new opportunities for communication through wireless technologies in remote villages where no fixed phone lines exist. Business outsourcing from technologically advanced countries is paving the way to tap into the creative potential of our youth.
The economies of countries such as Ireland, China and India have been transformed significantly with the help of ICT technologies. ICT technologies differ from other technologies because they do not simply act as a source of revenue for business and government but accelerate the full process of development and innovation in many ways through improvement of communication and exchange of knowledge information. The intrinsic cross-cutting nature of ICT is resulting in improved productivity in industry and agriculture and is creating huge new opportunities for businesses around the world.
Biotechnology has emerged as a powerful medium for socio-economic development. A large number of biotechnologies are being developed – including recombinant vaccines, vaccines in drug delivery, molecular diagnostics, bioremediation, sequencing of genomes, bioinformatics development, genetically modified crops, recombinant therapeutic proteins etc. Multibillion dollar industries are being developed in many of these fields and countries such as Cuba, which are investing massively in such technologies, have begun to benefit in a major way.
New materials are having a major impact on a large number of industrial sectors including electronics, automobile, engineering, polymer and plastic, textiles, construction. Recent advances in nanotechnology are leading to exciting new concepts for the development of new materials for the engineering, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other sectors. Nanotechnology in health applications cover a wide variety of products involving the development of diagnostic tools, drugs and vaccine delivery, development of new types of surgical devices, treatment of various diseases, and detection of different pathogens.
Nanotechnology can also affect access to pure water and affect sanitation through development of nano- membranes and nano-clays as well as through water recycling and remediation including the use of nanoporous polymers to purify water and remove toxic metals. Similarly application of nanotechnology in renewable energy through the development of solar cells, hydrogen fuel cells and nano-photovoltaic devices as well as carbon nanotubes are rapidly developing.
New knowledge, particularly knowledge related to technology, drives economic systems. Economic agents, including firms and governments, are forced to adapt to technical change in order to survive in a competitive environment. While governments should act as facilitators, technology capabilities must accumulate in industrial enterprises. This will only be possible if we strengthen our universities and R&D organisations and create effective linkages between them and industry. It will be the increasing use of knowledge in the production processes and service industry, which will determine the growth of our GDP.
The new world order requires us to prepare our children to face the challenges of the global economy. This involves a substantially different type of education to be imparted, focused not only on the mastery of subject matters but also on the development of various other skills such as the ability to think critically, innovate, communicate effectively, work effectively in teams, develop entrepreneurship and risk-taking skills, and the ability to face and manage changes in a flexible manner.
There is a complete disconnect between our national development plans and the requirements of a knowledge-based ‘brain economy’. Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal is the only member of the present cabinet who understands what is needed. The tragedy is that the necessary financial support from the Ministry of Finance is missing. It is time for Pakistan to wake up from its present slumber as India marches forward, crossing the $100 billion mark in IT services and exports while it focuses on biotechnology and pharmaceuticals as the next big wave for its development.