Absent innovation

15 Sep 2020

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The writer is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.

LOOK around at the leading economies in the world and you will find that all of them have a robust innovation ecosystem that is propelling their society, and the world at large, forward. These ecosystems are expanding our ability to deal with climate change, transforming how we communicate, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to improve lives, and much more.

The Global Innovation Index (GII) compares the innovation capacity of 131 countries, measuring them across 80 indicators to “explore a broad vision of innovation, including political environment, education, infrastructure and business sophistication”. Pakistan ranks 107 out of 131, coming in behind the likes of Rwanda, Tanzania and Nepal. Like many other global indices, this index offers a grim assessment of where Pakistan stands.

Pakistan fares even worse in the human capital and research capacity pillar, coming in at 118 out of 131. Countries like Zambia, Togo and Mozambique are ranked higher. One could look at Bangladesh’s ranking of 129 and argue that Pakistan isn’t that worse off. However, doing so would ignore the fact that compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh has developed a more solid foundation for human capital development in recent years — over 93 per cent of Bangladeshis aged 15 to 24 years old are literate compared to 75pc of Pakistanis, according to Unesco.

Pakistan is ranked 119 in the infrastructure pillar, behind the likes of Uganda, Senegal and Botswana. This should not surprise anyone: Pakistan is a laggard in terms of broadband internet connectivity — the country has about 50 million 4G connections, which is about 30pc of total subscribers; the average for South Asia is 43pc. The country also has a significant gender divide: about 40pc of women own mobile phones compared to 93pc of men.

It is vital to expose students to modern technologies.

The index offers some bright spots, highlighting that Pakistan has the ability to compete with the rest of the world: it ranks 87 in business sophistication and 69 in knowledge and technology outputs. Export data backs this up: Pakistan earned almost $1.5 billion from July 2019 to June 2020. This is evidence that despite significant challenges pertaining to human capital and infrastructure, Pakistan can competitively provide technology services to the world.

To make progress, Pakistan’s academic, business and policymaking community must come together to execute a long-term innovation plan. Given the youth bulge, it is vital for the country to invest heavily in improving youth literacy and expose students to modern technologies and creative thinking. It is also vital for the government to place a greater emphasis on women’s education and incentivise their entry in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Investing in improving higher education institutions, particularly those focused in engineering and information technology, is a necessity. However, recent fiscal crises have led to cuts to the higher education department’s budget and the situation is unlikely to improve in the near-term.

One creative way to get around this short-term constraint is to accelerate the adoption of 4G internet across the country and boost mobile penetration. Reducing the taxation and regulatory burden on technologies, including new consumer hardware, can lower barriers for broadband internet access. This can allow citizens to connect with the rest of the world and take advantage of the distributed learning opportunities that are available for free on the internet.

Expanded access can be particularly empowering for young girls, many of whom face significant cultural and religious barriers when it comes to accessing higher education.

By empowering society to innovate, Pakistan can grasp the opportunity provided by transformational innovation to accelerate human and economic development. But to do so, the country must provide its youth the space and freedom to clean up the catastrophic mess that it has inherited.

But this will only remain a pipe dream for as long as people in positions of power believe that the internet is a corrupting influence that is eroding cultural values and undermining the youth’s religious beliefs. In such an environment, the preference to control the internet by banning apps and regulating content will overpower long-term innovation needs of society.

These generational attitudes have stifled innovation and creativity for decades in Pakistan. Old men in power continue to use their influence to constrain society’s intellectual and cultural growth. As a result, younger generations do not have the space to experiment, test new ideas, break down age-old traditions, and chart a new, more exciting path forward. The insistence on continuing with this failed experiment to control society, which has neither eliminated vices like corruption nor led to equitable economic development, is folly.

The writer is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.

Twitter: @uzairyounus

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2020