Information and communication technology (ICT) has always had the potential to be a disruptor and game changer for Pakistan’s economy. However, by and large, Pakistan’s ICT industry before the Covid-19 outbreak has not lived up to its potential for greater and disruptive economic impact beyond communication. By and large, digital services remain largely an experimental market in the hands of startups, with large domestic investment still waiting on the sidelines.

But the Covid-19 outbreak could well be the trigger that leads to it permeating into all sectors of the economy. The preference for social distancing is the new normal. There is widespread agreement that the easiest way to address this is by integrating ICT into the service delivery process. This applies to all transactions and the implications are huge.

There are two ways Pakistan can choose to address this need and opportunity. First is the developing world’s characteristic approach of taking baby steps in emulation of the developed world. The government does very little. The private sector investments bring in imported solutions designed and priced for the more affluent and literate societies. This means that these end up being used only in the elite segments and are mostly unaffordable and inaccessible to the masses for very long periods of time.

Expecting incubator startups to create enterprises that innovate and commercialise in industrial 4.0 technologies is not credible given Pakistan’s weak research and development profile outside of defence

The second could be a leadership approach where the government leverages this new normal for economic development and growth. It develops an ambitious national vision around this paradigm shift that attract and facilitate large investments into our economy. It is a hybrid approach that incorporates the best elements of centralised planning and free-market enterprise. The government has always been a key driver of ICT cities in the developed world. Government programs have been a major factor in the growth of Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, Tel Aviv, Tallinn, Bangalore, Toronto, Melbourne to where today they drive the global ICT industry.

The destinies of nations are set by visionaries. It is their ambitious vision which draws the best and the brightest around them, which gives them the means to execute that vision. Pakistan’s vision around ICT has to date been uninspiring. It has not attracted the best and brightest who leave the country in droves every year. To stop this brain drain and to attract back our qualified expats who can help take this industry to new heights, we need to set and pursue goals worthy of an ambitious nuclear-armed nation with one of the largest pool of working-age youth in the world.

To create an inspiring vision is not that difficult. Many Pakistani expats have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from both venture capitalist and institutional investors and would love to share their expertise for the good of their motherland. The compelling vision does not need to be innovative. But it needs to be ambitious and show massive changes in cost and quality of service delivery which has disruptive implications to the economy. It is this disruption and the opportunity that it offers, that attracts investors.

Any ICT vision will start with accelerated digital infrastructure adoption. Current broadband penetration in Pakistan is around 40 per cent of its population and lags regional benchmarks. Every consumer cannot afford broadband so penetration will not reach 100pc in a short time, even with the required infrastructure investment. But if one can see paradigm shifts in societal norms as a result of the pandemic, things get interesting.

With the help of industry associations like the Ilm Association representing Pakistan’s edtech industry, the government can enter into private-public partnerships that result in providing constitutionally mandated services like education and healthcare to every one of Pakistan’s 33 million households at global standards and at a much lower cost than that of physical infrastructure. The byproduct of such projects is that Pakistan broadband penetration profile starts to lead the world instead of lagging it.

The ICT vision can provide millions of jobs if coupled with a massive industrialisation scheme that directs enterprise creation towards existing local problems and opportunities of large size and the use of technology conducive to local manufacturing and market skillsets. This builds on the recent trend of larger international investments in low-tech enterprises like Bykea, Finja, Pak Vitae, Airlift, Cheetah.pk and others.

Expecting incubator startups to create enterprises that innovate and commercialise in industrial 4.0 technologies is not credible given Pakistan’s weak research and development profile outside of defence. High-tech enterprise creation needs to be linked to academia and specialised centres of excellence established in leading universities. A good example is the recently announced Pak-Austria Fachhochschule in Haripur. In conjunction with three Austrian and five Chinese universities, it will have post-graduate centres of excellence in railway engineering, mining, agricultural sciences, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

The nations that are leading the wave in the use of digital technology to improve citizen lives have formed a collaboration network called Digital Nations. A goal to join this prestigious group would send a message to the world that Pakistan is serious about its e-government program. There are plenty of resources to draw from. In recent times the global model for digital government services is Estonia (e-Estonia).

All this is possible but this requires handing ICT planning to visionary marketers and technocrats rather than career administrators who manage growth conservatively to not upset the status quo.

In summary, Covid-19 offers an unprecedented opportunity for formulating a vision that the world can admire and support with funding. This opportunity is there for the taking and an ambitious nation that wants to change its destiny would make this attempt, multiple times if necessary. In the words of Einstein, “If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got”.

The writer is a corporate and development sector consultant. He can be reached at zqazilbash@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 26th, 2020