Wednesday May 22, 2024

The walk towards development

By Atta-ur-Rahman
April 24, 2024
Armed militants of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pose for a photograph in Orakzai Agency. — AFP/File
Armed militants of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pose for a photograph in Orakzai Agency. — AFP/File

Pakistan today is sinking into a dark hole, having to borrow money even to pay off the interest on loans taken, rather than the loan itself.

The key areas of focus of a different Pakistan should be the manufacture and export of high-tech, high value-added items, so that we can extricate ourselves from the growing debt snare in which we are trapped. This will require changing tracks and focusing on education, science, technology, and innovation with particular focus on social justice and inclusive socio-economic development.

Pakistan’s economic crisis is largely due to the myopic vision of our planners who should have single-mindedly focused on the manufacture and export of high-tech products such as engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, high-value software, automobiles, electronics, etc. Our export in these value-added sectors is a big fat zero. For this, the formulation and dynamic implementation of a farsighted action plan is necessary.

Pakistan undertook only one foresight-type exercise under my supervision during 2005/2006. The resulting 320-page document covering all important sectors of the national economy laid out 5-, 10- and 15-year strategies and plans for national development. It was approved by the cabinet in August 2007. An inter-ministerial committee was formed for its implementation, but it has since been gathering dust in government archives.

In today’s interconnected world, national development depends on the effective utilization of emerging technologies to address societal challenges, drive economic growth, and enhance global competitiveness.

‘Technology foresight’ exercises can serve as strategic tools that enable stakeholders to envision the potential trajectories of technological evolution and their ramifications on society and the economy. Technology foresight, a systematic approach to anticipating future technological trends and their implications, plays a pivotal role in guiding strategic decision-making and shaping socio-economic policies.

By enabling nations to anticipate disruptions, identify opportunities, and formulate proactive strategies, technology foresight can serve as a compass for navigating the complexities of the digital age.

Foresight exercises employ various methodologies to anticipate future trends, identify opportunities, and navigate uncertainties. Each method offers distinct advantages and may be tailored to suit specific objectives, contexts, and stakeholders. Perhaps the most important and widely used method is the Delphi method.

This is a structured approach that involves soliciting input from a panel of experts, belonging to subject specialists, private enterprises, and government officials through iterative rounds of surveys or questionnaires. These experts in specific fields provide qualitative and quantitative assessments of future trends, uncertainties, and potential developments.

The anonymity of responses encourages open participation and consensus-building, while facilitators synthesize and distil insights to identify emerging themes and patterns. By identifying technological trajectories, nations can strategically invest in research and development (R&D) initiatives, infrastructure, and human capital to capitalize on emerging opportunities and maintain competitiveness in global markets.

Technology foresight guides strategic investments in key sectors and technologies, maximizing the impact of limited resources and fostering economic diversification and resilience. By identifying priority areas for investment, such as digital infrastructure, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing, nations can stimulate innovation ecosystems and create high-quality jobs.

Foresight exercises also facilitate the development of robust innovation ecosystems by fostering collaboration among stakeholders, including government agencies, industry players, academia, and civil society.

Technology foresight exercises need to be combined with a number of other initiatives to yield optimum results. One of these is scenario planning. This involves developing multiple plausible future scenarios based on different assumptions, drivers, and trends.

These scenarios explore a range of possible outcomes and their implications, allowing decision-makers to prepare for diverse eventualities. Scenario planning encourages strategic thinking, fosters creativity, and helps stakeholders anticipate risks and opportunities in dynamic environments.

Another important part of future planning is technology road-mapping. This is a systematic approach to visualizing and planning the development and adoption of technologies over time. Roadmaps typically delineate technology trajectories, key milestones, dependencies, and resource requirements.

By aligning technological capabilities with strategic objectives, roadmapping helps organizations and industries prioritize investments, coordinate research efforts, and anticipate market trends.

These efforts should also involve trend analysis. This requires examining historical data and current developments to identify patterns, discontinuities, and emerging trends. This method encompasses quantitative analysis, qualitative assessment, and data mining techniques to discern underlying drivers and dynamics shaping future trajectories.

Trend analysis provides valuable insights for anticipating market shifts, technological advancements and societal changes. Environmental scanning can also be important. This entails systematically monitoring and analyzing external factors, such as political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTEL) trends.

By scanning the external environment, organizations and policymakers can identify potential opportunities, threats, and disruptive forces affecting their operations and strategies. All these efforts can be further greatly facilitated by simulation and modelling. These involve using computational techniques, such as agent-based modelling, system dynamics, and Monte Carlo simulation to simulate complex systems and explore future scenarios.

These methods allow stakeholders to experiment with different parameters, test hypotheses, and assess the potential impacts of policy interventions or technological innovations.

Nations that embrace technology foresight gain a competitive edge in global markets by positioning themselves as leaders in emerging technologies and industries. By proactively investing in research, talent development and technology commercialization, nations can attract foreign investment, talent and partnerships, enhancing their global relevance and influence.

The Singapore government has implemented technology foresight initiatives, such as the Future Economy Council and Research, Innovation, and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan, to drive innovation-led growth and address future challenges in areas such as smart cities, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing. Another good example is that of Finland.

Finland’s national foresight programme, Finland 2030, engages stakeholders from government, academia, industry, and civil society to identify long-term challenges and opportunities, guiding strategic investments in areas such as digitalization, sustainability, and education.

South Korea’s presidential committee on the fourth Industrial Revolution has harnessed technology foresight to inform policy-making and strategic planning in emerging areas such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and advanced robotics, aiming to maintain its leadership in the global technology landscape.

Germany’s socio-economic strategies have also been based on foresight exercises aimed at fostering industrial innovation and competitiveness. Initiatives like the High-Tech Strategy 2025 and the German National Innovation Dialogue have allowed prioritized investments in key technologies such as Industry 4.0, renewable energy, and mobility solutions.

It is high time Pakistan developed short-, medium- and long-term roadmaps with the government interacting closely with the major opposition parties and obtaining their approval for it in order to ensure the continuity of key programmes after a change in government. This is the only way forward.

The writer is a former federal minister, Unesco science laureate and founding chairperson of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). He can be reached at: