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Sunday December 05, 2021

A disruptive game changer

August 17, 2021

Pakistan exported $25 billion worth of goods during the current year, its highest ever since 2013-14.

For a country of 220 million people with an abundance of raw material and resources, this is peanuts compared to many other countries of lesser population: Malaysia and Turkey exported $188 billion and $157 billion of goods with populations of only 32 million and 84 million, Singapore with only 6 million people and no raw resources exported $372 billion, while Hong Kong with only 7 million people exported $496 billion.

South Korea with one fourth the population of Pakistan had exports of $577 billion. It is no secret that in countries without natural resources, hi-tech services and manufacturing play a major role in increased exports – leading to a high GDP.

The future belongs to the world of innovation and technological disruptions: artificial intelligence, 5G, internet of things, cloud and mobile computing, data mining, cryptocurrency, robotics and blockchain among others. Within the next 15 years, computers will become more intelligent than humans, culminating in an all-knowing singularity. By capitalizing on these technologies, many companies have become richer than developed countries. Through this transformation, IT companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have reached market capitalizations of above $1.5 trillion, and are today worth more than Italy, Canada, Russia, South Korea or Australia. This is the new technological disruptive world order.

Clearly, we are not adding value to our youth’s education and knowledge with hi-tech skills. One-third of our population is between 15 and 35 years old, and another 75 million under the age of 15 are ready to join the intellectual and technological work force over the next 15 years. For over three decades now, every university and college in Pakistan has been offering IT degrees, with thousands of institutes offering short certificate courses. In addition, we are training a large number of coders under the Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (PIAIC).

Despite these efforts, we have not made an impact on IT exports because our standard of IT training is not at par with that of the developed world, and as a result, less than 20 percent of our IT graduates are qualified to serve the export industry. There are only a few exceptions, NUST, LUMS, GIKI, and a few others which offer world class IT education. Second, most of our IT institutes are focused on low-tech IT including basic apps, programming, web development, computer graphics, SEO, network and security, and social media marketing among others. These services are not only highly competitive globally but are outsourced at most for $15 per hour, while hi-tech IT services fetch at least $40 per hour.

We cannot even compare ourselves to our next-door neighbor, with whom we started the journey together after Independence. In 2020-21, Pakistan IT exports were $2 billion, compared to $200 billion for India, which includes hi-tech IT. If our youth were trained as per global standards, including in hi-tech IT, we would perhaps have reached IT exports of at least $30 billion. While we lag behind by 15 times, India is already positioning itself to overtake the US with the largest population of hi-tech IT developers in the world by 2024.

What can we do to increase our IT exports to at least $30 billion over the next five years? The following concrete steps must be taken: foremost of all, we must establish world class IT institutes. They need not be four-year degree programs but must focus on offering ‘world-class’ six month to one-year hi-tech IT certification programmes. We need to produce at least 10,000 world-class hi-tech certified developers per year over the next five years (The PIAIC is a good start but it is too slow with only three hours of instructions per week for a whole year, with not very positive reviews).

Second: the government must establish IT Incubators (or software parks) in every university, which must be all networked together. These incubators should also conduct free marketing, branding, HR skills, business development, and project management workshops on a regular basis to IT professionals and companies.

Third: Seed money, grants, loans, bonus and cash rewards by the government for start-ups and exporters, and capital through private investors (venture capitalists and angel investors) should competitively be made available to the Incubator IT companies.

Fourth: the government through different forums like PSEB, PASHA, etc. should create an online database of all free-lancers and IT companies, and market them aggressively on social media platforms to become visible globally. Fifth: Overseas Pakistanis with exceptional marketing skills and PR network should be appointed as ‘IT ambassadors’ in top technology hubs of the world and assigned to seek business for our companies.

We are not too far behind the developed world if we take action today. The half-life of hi-tech is less than 18 months. It typically takes one year to learn any technology, and another one year to master it. If we can capitalize on this opportunity and the relevant resources are made available, we are in for a difference.

Pakistan can give other countries a run for the money and quickly move up the ladder of technologically advanced and prosperous countries by following the above line of action. We live in a new (disruptive) world order (see my previous article in these pages, ‘The new world order’ (July 20, 2021). Our youth must break their old-fashioned shackles, think out of the box, act now and fast, grab this opportunity of the new technological and disruptive world order, and lead Pakistan to the next age.

The writer is a former chairperson of the HEC.