0 8 min 1 yr

(First published on February 08, 2020)

Tired of politics? Let’s talk about something better. As the country signs one FTA after another with various states, the question that comes to my mind is simple. What are we going to export? Back in my school days, I had read in a Pakistan Studies textbook that Pakistan’s leading exports are textile products, leather garments, sports goods, surgery equipment, and raw agricultural commodities. Surprisingly enough, these are the key products we export today. And while we have abysmally failed to diversify our portfolio the supply side of these products is one crowded space. Why? Because there was hardly anything proprietary about these products. Better raw material, cheaper labour, better production techniques, and improved standardisation could easily snatch the market share from us. So, they did. And continue to do so. In the end, we clutch at one lifeline or the other. The European Union’s GSP Plus status will make us rich. The CPEC’s Special Economic Zones will kickstart an age of industrial revolution in the country. But so far, nothing has produced the kind of results that are worthy of the nation of over 200 million people.

There is no doubt in mind that Pakistan is essentially a capitalist country. Don’t let the religious talk deceive you. The profit motive, not piety, drives our lives. Innovation and creativity should be thriving here. But they are not. In 2019 Pakistan was ranked 105th out of 129 countries in the Global Innovation Index. Countries like Rwanda, Senegal and Honduras were found more innovative than us. Martin Prosperity Institute’s Global Creativity Index found Pakistan buried deep on the 111th position out of a list of 139 countries in 2015. Something is really gone awry. You struggle to find the authentic numbers for the registered commercial patents in the country every single year and even then fail. There is no ideas bazaar. No creative collective. Hardly any publications to guide you if you are a young inventor. No portals to showcase the achievements so far. Do you even know how to get a product patented? Why do you not see advertisements by lawyers with expertise in patenting procedures ready to help you out?

This can change of course. But it hasn’t for the last 73 years. What Pakistan needs is a structure, an ordering principle and more awareness. The drive to do something new will come when people know there are opportunities out there. When people have access to the required tools to innovate, there will be enough opportunities to learn and experiment and enough support to feel safe while taking risks. Similarly, successful businesses will have to invest more in research and development. In other countries when businessmen invest money in such education, they get tax breaks and incentives. That is a remarkable concession given that the human resource thus produced eventually ends up working for them. But in Pakistan, you will seldom hear of such ventures.

Consider this: According to PTA, the number of mobile phone users reached 161 million in 2019. Just look at the staggering number. Of these, 68 million are subscribed to 3G/4G connections which make them smartphones. But ask yourself how many of these phones are manufactured in Pakistan and more importantly by a Pakistani company. We are at a place where instead of manufacturing hardware we have failed to make a mark even on the software side. Yeah, here and there you find a few instances of some random apps being developed and used but there is no ecosystem to sustain countless simultaneous breakout innovations. This dearth of initiatives is staggering given that it doesn’t take much to create an app — a good computer and a good understanding of coding and operating systems; not a tough ask. All you have to have is a good idea along with these skills. Develop an app and place it in a good app store.

But in the Pakistani imaginarium an inspiration reaches very late. When most of our businesses haven’t got a hang of the dotcom tech, the world has already graduated to the dot apk age. I am sure that by the time we reach there, the world will be at a much different level.

I want to discuss how the government can make things better. But before that one has to revisit one good policy of the past and how with different governments it became a caricature of its former self. General Musharraf’s government allowed import of duty-free second-hand branded computers. It brought the cost of an average desktop computer within the range of a low-income family. Although the technology was not what it is today, it offered a great opportunity for students across the country. The later governments would hand out free laptops and tablets to college and university students incurring significant cost to the exchequer. But the outcome and the reach were far less significant. Desktops are not great for mobility, but they are far more customisable, sturdy and durable. Instead of freebies, bringing down costs through duty exemptions was a better approach.

The government can fix many of these loopholes. The first missing link is the connection between universities and businesses. Our universities are still not customised enough to produce innovators. The second missing link is an ideas market. The third important factor absent is venture capitalism. Every startup needs seed money and eventually more capital to scale business. Under the previous government, we saw a youth loan scheme. But it was a hodgepodge of ideas. First, you pitched your idea and no matter how innovative it was you were at the mercy of a balloting process. The fourth critical component needed is easily accessible — copyright laws. Fifth includes substantial R&D facilities and labs available in the country. And sixth, more imaginative and congenial insurance policies. Instead of spending its own dime the government can easily introduce targeted policies, incentives and subsidies to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. No big deal.

In the end, it all comes down to an individual’s ability to capitalise on such a climate. Business innovator and creativity expert Professor Alf Rehn has recently written a brilliant book called Innovation for the Fatigued. In this book, he distinguishes deep innovation from shallow innovation, the kind commonplace in our offices, full of bombastic jargon and limited in imagination, which in the end produces a copy of a copy of another copy. The deeper, lasting innovation is possible only through the knowledge of the fundamentals. Where you build things from the scratch, with a clean slate, and don’t just go through motions to impress your corporate bosses. You cannot be innovative about money without knowing the basic facts about it. Nor technology or for that matter anything else. This calls for a shift in our academic culture too.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2020.

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