Innovation is impossible

06 Mar 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE gadgets we hold in our hands inevitably create desires in our hearts. It is no surprise then, that in an age where items like iPhone and many attached products make connections instantaneous, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it easier to jeer and fear, every country in the global game is in search for the next big thing.

The refrain one hears on the streets and reads in the newspapers of India and China and of course in Pakistan itself is ‘if only the next Steve Jobs would be born here’. If not Steve (although he is the most frequently invoked role model), then there is hope for the next Bill Gates, perhaps even the next Mark Zuckerberg.

In the quest to achieve these desires, many living in countries like India and China and Pakistan send their children to the best schools they can find and eke out money for the extra lessons in maths and physics and chemistry that are required. In more recent days, coding has also become a craze; the language of computers, it is assumed, learned young may facilitate the creation of the next genius who will devise a computer that appears even more miraculous than the ones that exist today.

The assumption behind all of these efforts, dominant among the upper middle classes of China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond, is that copying the trajectory of geniuses past is likely a means to construct the geniuses of the future. The emphasis is on amassing these successes at as fast and admirable a rate as possible. The newspapers of Pakistan routinely carry stories about some Pakistani child who has managed to become the youngest programmer in this or that computer language or to have achieved a staggering number of As in an astounding number of ‘O’ and ‘A’ level subjects.

The social and cultural conditions in most nations waiting for their Steve Jobs promote an environment that contradicts the idea of innovation.

The newspapers of India are much the same, with the exception being that there is a wilder kind of glee. The Indians, given the outsourcing of various components of the tech boom, understandably imagine themselves to be much closer to this goal. With the world’s tech giants having their roosts in Bangalore and Gurgaon, it is fairly certain that the next tech genius or many future tech geniuses will be one born on the soil somewhere in between.

Nearly all these assumptions of all these countries are flawed, both on the level of what they believe is necessary to produce the innovators of tomorrow and regarding the cultural and social conditions required to make the innovations succeed.

As a matter of fact, the social and cultural conditions in most of the nations waiting for a Steve Jobs to be born in their midst actually promote and pursue conditions that are opposed to the idea of innovation itself. Most Asian countries promote conformity ie not questioning tradition, and competition without collaboration.

These are the exact opposite of the conditions identified by experts who are trying to study how conditions for innovation can be created — the promotion of collaboration within groups, active efforts that motivate the most creative and innovative people in society; an emphasis on speed and agility, and the ability to respond fast to changing conditions.

In addition to this, there must be an effort to surround innovators with mechanisms that work so that they can perform high-level tasks without spending their time figuring out how to fix the office copy machine. Finally, the best that a country has should be frequently and visibly rewarded to motivate others.

The absence of these, and one can see this happening in India and China in particular but also in Pakistan, means one of two things — either the operational and non-innovative teams of technology and information management companies will move their operations to these places, or the most innovative youth from these companies will be taken away by US colleges and universities. Of this latter group (ie the most innovative) those who find it simple to acclimatise to an environment that makes it as easy as possible for them to launch their companies will almost certainly never return.

Innovation, then, is not the product of a genius or even a hundred geniuses that happen to be born, accidentally, in the United States. The structures and institutions that facilitate them means that the best and the brightest do not have to waste their time and intellectual energy on ingratiating themselves with this or that boss or co-worker. In contrast, they are not being facilitated in Pakistan.

While we may take great pride in the next person who beats the ‘O’-level record, it is hard to find any laws against nepotism in the country. This means that those employed on the basis of merit are almost unheard of outside the multinational circuit. The culture of the family business and the daddy-boss further ensures that those with the real talent never actually get ahead, stymied as they are by structural and institutional obstacles.

Those who are coming up set their sights on going abroad as soon and as fast as possible. They see few or no examples of their culture or society rewarding individuals who actually want to change things. It is assumed, by and large, that change is bad and so are its proponents.

A healthy respect for tradition is a good thing, but the production of generation after generation that cannot think beyond the box into which they are born means that the possibility of transforming Pakistan is meagre at best and impossible at worst. The raw material, terribly brilliant individuals, may well be born in Pakistan, but without a drastic and deep change in the social and work culture of the country, it is unlikely that they will stay.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2019