Will the next Google or Facebook come out of Pakistan?

Updated March 15, 2016

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—AFP/File
—AFP/File

“They keep asking me the wrong question,” said former president of Ryerson University Sheldon Levy.

“Instead of asking how many students got a job six months post-graduation, the government should ask how many students started their own business six months after.”

Technology is not merely changing the manner in which we impart higher education, it is transforming the very context of what education is or ought to be — it no longer suffices to design and impart curricula to produce future workers.

In the brave new technology-driven world where the real, and perhaps the only, currency is innovation, higher education should espouse to enable innovation and entrepreneurship rather than a circumscribed curriculum that mass-produces complacent workers.

I was reminded of Sheldon Levy’s words as I returned for a tour of DMZ — Ryerson University’s business incubator — that puts student innovators, venture capitalists and angel investors under one roof with one goal:

Create social solutions

Sheldon Levy founded DMZ in response to a request from students, who were searching for a collaborative space on campus.

The resulting space achieved much more than the founding aspirations.

Today, DMZ “helps start-ups succeed by connecting them with customers, advisers, influencers and other entrepreneurs. It’s a space and community that encourages, supports and fosters new technologies that transform lives and businesses.”

Universities in Pakistan have to catch up with the fast-transforming global higher-ed landscape. The current models, as are promoted by the Higher Education Commission, are designed to promote complacency and not foster innovation.

Take a look: How the HEC is wronging Pakistan's scholars

Universities in Pakistan have to transform into breeding grounds of creativity that would one day give birth to the next Google or Facebook. If the higher-ed culture in Pakistan does not evolve fast, most public-sector universities would at best become irrelevant or worse, hotbeds of extremism.

It is not to suggest that such innovative initiatives are absent from Pakistan. For start-ups, we recently learnt how 15 technology innovations are transforming every day life in Pakistan.

Another list of a dozen-plus tech incubators mentions collaborative spaces available in large Pakistani cities. Then there is the Lums Centre for Entrepreneurship that boasts of over $7 million in total valuation and grooming over 70 entrepreneurs.

See: HEC’s rankings

Nust and some other universities have similar initiatives with varying degrees of scope and success.

While the initiative and relative success of incubators at some leading universities is laudable, the question, however, is that of scale and scope. It appears that the vast majority of universities have not yet embarked on learning by doing paradigms and instead are focused on learning by rote.

Universities in Pakistan must embrace the experiential learning paradigm, and where the resources permit, they should launch incubators to put raw student talent in collaborative environments with industries and investors.


The system needs to be disrupted in a big way. The majority of Pakistanis are not the recipient of the prosperity that has remained concentrated in upper classes.


The big concern about innovation is about scale. For a nation of 180-million plus, souls that continues to experience malnutrition, poverty, and the burden of disease, innovation has to take place at a massive scale to address all facets of the common person’s daily life.

Innovation in technology and processes alike is therefore past due. Imagine the possibilities when young enthusiastic men and women focus their talents on finding solutions to improve access to affordable healthcare and justice?

Read: Innovate and Lead: Pakistani startups with brilliant ideas

At the same time, Pakistan needs innovative models of pedagogy to improve the quality of education at not just the elite schools, but at the subsidised public schools that educate the vast majority of learners.

For university administrators in Pakistan, Ryerson’s DMZ offers important lessons that lead to its success. I believe Ryerson’s generous Intellectual Property (IP) policy has a lot to do with the success at DMZ.

When the students and their mentors open their shop at the incubator, Ryerson University does not force them to sign away parts of their IP. In fact, the innovators keep 100 per cent of their IP.

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The university believes in fostering a climate of innovation and collaboration to promote the budding entrepreneurs who will remember how it enabled their success.

Zone-based learning

Another key element of Ryerson University's success is its zone-based learning paradigm that creates creative and collaborative spaces for pedagogy and learning.

Zones have been successful in breaking down the disciplinary and administrative silos designed to keep students in homogenous clusters preventing cross-pollination of ideas and experiences.

Finally, the DMZ incubator is not an extension of professors’ lab space, where they continue to dictate how research should be done.

Instead, DMZ is a student-led space where decisions about what to incubate and what to invest in are made independently of the faculty input.

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This has been critical for the success of DMZ, which is focused on producing disruptive technologies for the future that requires freethinking and risk taking.

Pakistan needs to be disrupted in a big way. The majority of Pakistanis are not the recipient of the prosperity that has remained concentrated in upper classes.

When universities in Pakistan become the hub for innovative business and social solutions, they will generate new models of shared prosperity.