Thursday May 23, 2024

The path forward

By Atta-ur-Rahman
October 11, 2023

The transition to a knowledge economy represents a paramount challenge and opportunity for nations around the world. In the case of Pakistan, this transition is not only essential but also a strategic imperative for sustainable socio-economic development.

We need to implement the comprehensive plan developed by me on the lines indicated below encompassing various facets of agricultural and industrial development to transform Pakistan into a technology-driven knowledge economy. The plan involves Science, Technology, Innovation, and Production (STIP) as the key pillars that will rest on the foundations of quality education and an ecosystem that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in the private sector.

To achieve a science and technology-driven knowledge economy, Pakistan must integrate STIP into its planning strategy for sustained and equitable socio-economic development. The national STIP policy should be the result of comprehensive consultations with all stakeholders, including private sector experts and opposition parties. A national consensus is essential to ensure its effectiveness. Action plans stemming from the STIP policy should be time-bound, involving all relevant government ministries and institutions responsible for science, technology, innovation, and production.

For this purpose, Foresight Technology Assessment and Forecasting Performance (TAFP) organizations should be established for guidance. Integration of such an approach across all government ministries and the private sector is vital. In this effort, the establishment of world-class STIP policy research institutes is imperative, fostering evidence-based policy research and science advisory functions. Key areas on which we must focus include Information Technology (with emphasis on Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics, Big Data, and the Internet of Things), advanced agriculture, mineral extraction and processing as well as alternative energy.

Solid foundations for such a national approach must involve a complete restructuring of our school, college and university education systems so that students are encouraged to think for themselves, solve real life problems, and not accept the printed word blindly. Critical thinking should be encouraged, and innovation promoted so that each student who passes out is a budding entrepreneur. This would involve a departure from conventional approaches to teaching.

The integration of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are now widely available would be an important step in providing quality education. In this connection a huge leap forward was achieved by us when we prepared and launched an integrated version of MOOCs that now provides 73,000 courses at school, college and university levels and that can be freely accessed at Quality benchmarks for colleges, technical education, and higher education should be established, with faculty promotions linked to performance evaluations.

The need for highly qualified technicians is growing the world over. With a population of about 240 million, of which 67 per cent are below the age of 30, Pakistan should strengthen its technical education by establishing an international quality assurance system in the thousands of technical training schools that exist in the government and private sectors in various provinces and ensure international quality certification of their skill sets. This step alone can bring in tens of billions of dollars in much needed foreign exchange through remittances of such professional technically trained people working in foreign countries.

A revolutionary programme to strengthen faculty in our universities was begun under my charge as chairman of the HEC in 2002 under which about 11,000 students were sent for foreign training in the subsequent 15 years. This programme of faculty development was strengthened by a project approved by the Knowledge Economy Task Force under my charge and given to the HEC for implementation. We need to continue this effort on an even grander scale so that we have at least a couple of our universities in the top 100 universities of the world within the next 15 years. We have none today.

The initiative to establish foreign engineering universities offering degrees to Pakistani students was begun by us in 2005 but abandoned by the government in 2008. It was restarted under my supervision and the Pak Austrian Fachhochschule in Haripur Hazara is a shining example of an excellent entrepreneurial university that is being developed in close collaboration with nine foreign universities (three from Austria, one from Germany and five from China). A similar university is also being developed in Sambrial, Sialkot.

A network of such entrepreneurial universities is needed so that Pakistan can quickly embark on transitioning to a strong knowledge economy. This effort should be accompanied by a programme to attract the Pakistani diaspora abroad back to our country to support our efforts to establish high-quality universities, research centers, and industry within Pakistan. Our defence establishments should outsource a significant portion of their requirements to universities and research centers, promoting local manufacture and export.

The private sector has a key role to play if we wish to develop a strong knowledge economy. Access to venture capital funds and innovation hubs should be facilitated, offering legal and financial support to startup companies. The government must promote private-sector research and development through technology upgrading and manpower training in private enterprises so that they can meet the quality benchmarks required by international markets for export of our manufactured goods.

Tax incentives, matching grants, and public procurement policies should reward high-tech industries and those addressing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). CPEC should also focus on manufacturing and exporting medium and high-tech products, accompanied by technical and vocational training institutions.

The government should underwrite risk-taking by private industry in the manufacture of high technology goods through special insurance schemes. A National Innovation Fund should be established to facilitate the adoption and adaptation of key technologies in public and private sectors. High-quality infrastructure for Metrology, Standards, Testing, and Quality (MSTQ) should be developed to ensure international standards and quality assessments.

Government procurement policies can play a huge role in bringing about such a transformation. Government purchases of software/hardware should prioritize local manufacturers, ensuring technology transfer. All development projects submitted for approval should include a mandatory element of technology development, thereby enhancing self-reliance and export capabilities.

In conclusion, Pakistan's journey to becoming a knowledge economy requires a multifaceted and holistic approach. The outlined recommendations, spanning STIP, education, technology transfer, and industrial development focused on the manufacture and export of high technology goods, offer a comprehensive roadmap. As Pakistan advances toward this transformative goal, it is essential to foster collaboration among government, private sector, academia, and the diaspora to unlock the nation's full potential and drive sustainable growth and development. The transition to a knowledge economy is not merely a choice; it is a necessity for Pakistan's prosperity and global competitiveness in the 21st century.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: