Thursday May 23, 2024

Innovation for development

By Atta-ur-Rahman
October 25, 2023
A representational image shows a person wearing a convocation dress in an educational institution. — Unsplash/File
A representational image shows a person wearing a convocation dress in an educational institution. — Unsplash/File

Innovation has long been recognized as a cornerstone of economic development and prosperity. It drives productivity, competitiveness, and job creation, while simultaneously addressing societal challenges and improving the overall quality of life.

Quality education, the ability to carry out high-level and innovative scientific research, technology development, and mechanisms to translate research to commercial development are all important in this context. These mechanisms include incentives to the private sector, access to technology parks, and enabling legal frameworks to resolve Intellectual Property Right disputes. There is much to learn for Pakistan from specific experiences of several other nations.

Education plays a fundamental role in fostering innovation. A well-educated workforce not only possesses the necessary skills and knowledge but also has the critical thinking abilities to drive innovative solutions to complex problems. Several countries have demonstrated the positive impact of education on innovation.

Finland consistently ranks among the top countries in global education performance. Its comprehensive education system emphasizes creativity, problem-solving, and independent thinking. As a result, Finland has a strong tradition of innovation, particularly in the technology sector. Companies like Nokia, Rovio (creator of Angry Birds), and Supercell (creator of Clash of Clans) all hail from Finland. Finland's approach to education, emphasizing early childhood development and teacher quality, has contributed significantly to its innovative prowess.

Another excellent example of how education impacts innovation-led socio-economic development is that of Singapore which has transformed itself into a hub for innovation through a combination of world-class education and strategic investments. The government's commitment to nurturing a skilled workforce has resulted in a robust education system, attracting top talent from around the world. Institutions like the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University consistently rank among the best globally. The emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects in the education system has positioned Singapore as a leader in innovation, with a burgeoning tech start-up scene.

Besides quality education, innovation-led socio-economic development relies heavily on scientific research and technological advancement. Countries that invest in cutting-edge research, development, and infrastructure are better poised to drive economic growth. The remarkable economic development of South Korea, often referred to as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’, is closely tied to its emphasis on science and technology.

The government's support for research and development, combined with a highly educated workforce, has propelled South Korea to the forefront of technological innovation. Samsung, LG, and Hyundai are just a few examples of globally renowned South Korean companies that are products of this culture of innovation.

Socio-economic development must be led by private sector-led innovation. Private-sector engagement in innovation is vital for economic development. Our government can encourage this involvement through various incentives. There are several models that we can emulate. Germany's ‘Mittelstand’ (medium-sized enterprises) is often cited as a prime example of private sector innovation.

The German government's support for research and development, combined with strong intellectual property protection, encourages businesses to invest in innovation. As a result, Germany is known for its advanced manufacturing and technological innovation, making it a global leader in industries such as automotive engineering and precision machinery.

China's rapid economic rise is also partially attributed to its emphasis on private-sector innovation. The government's ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative, alongside significant investments in research and development, has driven innovation in industries such as artificial intelligence, renewable energy, and biotechnology. Chinese companies like Huawei and Tencent have become global giants, thanks to a combination of government support and entrepreneurial drive.

Technology parks have played a central role in these efforts. Technology parks and innovation clusters are physical locations where businesses, research institutions, and entrepreneurs can collaborate and innovate. They play a pivotal role in fostering innovation and economic development. Silicon Valley in California is arguably the most iconic technology park globally. Its concentration of tech companies, venture capital, and research institutions has created a dynamic ecosystem for innovation.

Companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, all born in Silicon Valley, have reshaped industries and fueled economic growth. The region's culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit has been a driving force behind its success. The Technology Park at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey and the Science Park at Cambridge are other excellent examples. The presence of numerous information technology companies, research institutions, and a highly skilled workforce has transformed Bengaluru in India into a global technology hub. This thriving ecosystem has contributed significantly to India's economic growth and its emergence as a technology leader.

Another important aspect of the magic formula for socio-economic development today is the existence of an innovation-friendly legal framework that is essential for creating a conducive environment for businesses to thrive. Two critical aspects of this framework are the ease of doing business and the resolution of intellectual property rights (IPR) disputes. Singapore consistently ranks as one of the easiest places to do business globally. Its government has streamlined administrative procedures, reduced bureaucracy, and provided strong legal protections for businesses. This approach has attracted numerous multinational corporations and start-ups, enhancing economic development through innovation.

The United States' robust system for intellectual property rights protection has played a pivotal role in its innovation-driven economy. The US legal framework provides strong incentives for businesses to invest in research and development while ensuring that their innovations are protected. This framework has led to the creation of global technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon.

While promoting innovation for economic development is crucial, there are challenges and considerations that countries must address. The first of these is to encourage equitable and inclusive development. Rapid innovation can exacerbate income inequality, as certain segments of the population benefit more than others. It is essential for Pakistan to implement policies that ensure that the benefits of innovation are widely distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few.

Pakistan is blessed with a very large young population. About 67 per cent of our population of 240 million is below the age of 30. This is gradually becoming a huge burden as hundreds of thousands of highly qualified young men and women try to escape this country where they see no future to greener pastures abroad. This is a huge loss to our nation since therein lies our future.

Pakistan must invest in quality education, science, technology, innovation and in supporting the private sector for the manufacture and export of high-tech high value-added products if we are to emerge from the deep hole that we have dug for ourselves. The only answer lies in installing a ‘technocrat democracy’ in which we are led not by corrupt politicians but by the brightest technical experts in the country so that we can quickly migrate to a technology-driven knowledge economy.

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