Thursday April 18, 2024

Economic development and the university

By Dr Akmal Hussain
October 09, 2018

Development research over the last three decades has established two propositions that have major implications for redefining the role of a university.

First, a distinguishing feature between developed and underdeveloped countries is that the former are able to sustain a substantial growth in per capita incomes over the long run, while the latter are unable to do so (Douglas North et al). Second, growth is essentially endogenous and its key determinant is the depth and range of innovations in that society (Aghion et al).

Pakistan, in this sense, is a typical underdeveloped country: it has a stop-go pattern of economic growth, and hence an inability to achieve substantial improvement in the material conditions of its people. At the same time, underdevelopment in our country is reinforced by the failure so far to establish an infrastructure for indigenous innovations.

An innovation infrastructure has five main features: One, world-class universities – whose faculties are contributing to knowledge at the cutting edge in various fields, and are training students for original thinking – the latest analytical techniques and the use of their creative imagination for complex problem solving. Two, while ensuring the autonomy and funding of independent theoretical work, there should also be an institutionalised link between those engaged in research on either policy or technological change on the one hand, and government and private sector on the other.

Three, adequate funding for universities to enable their faculty and graduate students to undertake independent research without having to rely on consultancy contracts where the employer determines the terms of reference of the research. Four, academic freedom within universities, and the fundamental right in society in general, to pose and pursue questions based on reason. Creativity requires freedom. Therefore, scholarship and innovation cannot flourish in an atmosphere of fear. And, five, an institutional structure that ensures open competition amongst all enterprises and that incentivises research within the firm for the development of new products, processes and services and reconfiguring the trajectory of technological change in an environmentally sustainable direction.

Over the last few decades, a few seeds of change have been sown in the academic world which, if nurtured, could develop into world-class universities and a key element in the innovation infrastructure of Pakistan. An example is the Information Technology University in Lahore. Within the first six years of its existence, led by Vice Chancellor Umar Saif, this university has established a world-class faculty that has produced a large corpus of research in prestigious international publications. At the same time, ITU is conducting research-based teaching and has made significant contributions to devising IT-supported solutions to economic, social and governance problems.

A recent example is the Citizen Feedback Monitoring Programme (CFMP) initiated by Professor Saif in the Punjab Information Technology Board. The CFMP involves a monitoring net via robotic calls and SMS, and establishes a feedback mechanism between citizens and government for the more efficient provision of public services. The data obtained from citizens feedback is then used for evidence based policy making. In this regard, the CFMP team generates monthly district-wise and service-wise performance reports to enable government officials responsible for the provision of each public service to improve policy making. The CFMP now covers 26 public services in all 36 districts of Punjab.

Another example is the Food@Home project, which addresses a major challenge in the agriculture of Pakistan and other developing countries: the inability to predict crop yields, leading to unanticipated supply shortages, hurriedly ordered grain imports at high prices and financial losses of farmers. The Food@Home project combines multispectral high-resolution satellite imagery with recent advances in machine learning to make region-specific crop models for accurate crop yield as well as crop health predictions. This technological breakthrough can result in a freely available global map of crops and their yields, updated weekly. This information can be made available on smart phones and thereby used by farmers, policymakers, banks and insurance companies. It is a pioneering contribution towards stabilising the supply of food crops in developing countries which are suffering from sharp fluctuations in agriculture output consequent upon global warming.

Over the last two years, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences has been established at ITU. Degree courses in development studies and economics have been designed, keeping in view two major trends in the subject over the last decade. First, the failure of mainstream economics to adequately explain and predict some of the central questions of our time, such as the environmental crisis, the world economic crisis of 2008, growing inequality and widespread violence. Consequently, some of the leading universities of the world are moving towards a paradigm change, involving a more interdisciplinary approach to both economics and development.

The second trend is the development of computer-based big data techniques and the use of machine learning. These techniques are used to design evidence-based policies for solving development problems, such as mapping slums, more efficient provision of public services, disease control and law enforcement. Both these trends, an interdisciplinary approach and evidence based policymaking, are being combined to equip students to participate in the exciting venture of helping change the paradigm of their subject and to discover innovative solutions to development challenges. The faculty members in this school in the first two years of its existence have produced world class publications. Some of them have also contributed to policymaking through official reports.

We are living in an historic moment, when existence itself is being threatened by the crisis in the life support systems of the planet; where the social fabric of societies is being ruptured by growing inequality; states are being undermined by bigotry, hate and violence. Addressing this multifaceted crisis requires universities to produce fundamental new research and to train students to rethink, innovate and create. Sustaining economic growth, while conserving the physical environment, will require countries to build an innovation infrastructure in which such universities can be a key element.

The writer is dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Information Technology University Lahore.