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Sunday April 21, 2024

The technology trap

By Mian Salimuddin
August 08, 2019

In his well researched book, 'Good - to - Great', Jim Collins relates that he was surprised to find fully 80 percent of the ‘Good - to - Great’ executives who were interviewed did not even mention technology as one of the top five factors in their transition from ‘Good to Great’.

Further analysis revealed that most of the ‘Good to Great’ companies never began with pioneering technology for the reason that you cannot make good use of technology until you know which technologies are relevant. These companies first hit the break-even point and in the process identified the technologies to provide momentum to their growth. It was never technology per se, but the pioneering application of carefully selected technologies that led their progression from ‘Good to Great’.

The Israelis in an effort to green the Negev Desert, evolved several agro technologies both to compensate for shortage of water and to ensure high crop yield. Today, Israel is a world leader in drip irrigation, water recycling, satellite imagery for determining plant health, bio pesticides, bio fertilizers, sensors to determine water needs, collecting and feeding dew directly to plants and robotics for crop picking. These have been sold worldwide particularly to China and South Africa. Much of India’s agricultural revolution is based on the adaptation of these technologies.

In both cases, the starting point was not the technology. Technology was adapted to fulfill a need that impacted the national economy, whether it were the companies in the US or low crop yield in India and Israel.

In Pakistan, however technology development follows a different trajectory. A hype is created through seminars and via the media by known scientists, engineers and academia. Huge funds are then allocated for projects involving these technologies. But when the time comes for their applications to solve national problems, we move on to the next technology and so on. This has been going on unabated since the early 1990s. It started with IT when Rs20 billion was wasted by the HEC with no visible outcomes. To cover up the failure, one demagogue even claimed that the Indian government felt threatened by the progress made by Pakistan in the field of science and technology.

From there we moved to nanotechnology with another Rs300 million going down the drain. This was followed by biotechnology and coal gasification technology where Rs4 billion was wasted without a single watt of electricity being produced.

The latest 'flavour of the month' is Knowledge Economy and Artificial Intelligence, heralded as usual through seminars and a media blitz. Unfortunately, we are treating technology as a ‘silver bullet’ which will solve all our industrial and economic problems in the shortest possible time with minimum effort. It is sad that eminent scientists and academia have patronized this senseless chase knowing fully well that without a deep understanding of how technology links to clear coherent goals and end results, technology simply accelerates your self-created demise. In fact, some of the apostles of technology need to be investigated for their role in wasting the nation’s money.

We are an agricultural country with a crop yield which is perhaps the lowest in the entire region. It is time our agriculture universities were asked to explain their results in enhancing crop yields. There is no point in counting the number of PhDs produced or the number research papers published. They should simply be asked to show results impacting the quality and quantity of crops in Pakistan. Future funding to these universities should be made dependent on the results produced in enhancing crop yield.

Similarly, we are blessed with huge mineral wealth, most of which is still lying unexplored or being mined in a most wasteful manner. Since our engineering universities have failed to produce mining engineers in quantity and quality, we are at the mercy of foreign companies for mining our most precious assets. No country in the world allows uncontrolled access to its strategic mineral resources.

Our problems at Saindak and Reko Diq are manifestations of this phenomenon. We do not have a single mining engineer of international repute to guide our decision makers in this respect. There is, therefore, a huge opportunity for us to become world leaders in mining, gold, copper, bauxite, marble, granite, and precious stones. For this to happen, however, we have to give up our obsession with emerging technologies and determine mature technologies which can be adapted to our conditions.

Thoughtless reliance on technology is a liability not an asset, as time and money wasted on IT, nano and coal gasification technology have demonstrated. Our biggest assets viz agriculture and minerals have not been impacted by these technologies.

Certainly technology is important – you can’t remain a laggard and hope to be great. But technology by itself is never a primary cause of greatness; its the application of the technology which is unique for each country that sets you on the trajectory of greatness.

Email: miansalimuddin@gmail.com