No innovation nation

New solutions require innovation. That is what we are missing here

No innovation nation

A few weeks ago, while browsing the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference’s archives, I came across a talk by Dr Manu Prakash of the Prakash Laboratory, at Stanford University, California, USA. Dr Prakash and his team have created ‘foldscope’, a microscope made of an A4 paper-plastic sheet with printed perforated parts that can be broken out, folded and assembled into a functioning microscope, thus the name foldscope. Besides the ingenious design, what caught my attention was that one foldscope costs only 50 cents (Rs50)!

Intrigued, I tweeted Prakash Labs and asked when they would commercialise. Manu Prakash tweeted right back and, to cut a long story short, sent me 35 foldscopes, free of cost, to test in Pakistan! They are also commercialising in a few months, so stay tuned. I have used one (Manu sent me the Beta version, good to study insects and small life forms), and it is brilliant! Imagine every child in Pakistani schools using a foldscope in the classroom to study Science! You can give a microscope in each hand, for a fraction of the cost of a textbook, in rich and poor schools alike. Ask a child to draw an ant before and after observing it through a foldscope/microscope and see the difference in the details of the drawing.

This is disruptive innovation! Manu and his team have created something that has the potential to radically transform how one studies in a cash-strapped Science classroom. Manu and his team initially designed the foldscope to diagnose malaria in developing countries.

So, then, why was the foldscope or any equally significant invention addressing a problem for a low-income context invented in Stanford, California where it is not even as badly needed, and not in a place like Pakistan where it is truly needed?

The answer may be found in Manu’s three takeaway words of his TED talk: Innovation, Passion and Compassion. What Manu accomplished, required knowledge of the problem, i.e. Malaria goes undiagnosed in several African countries due to unavailability of equipment, mostly because it is expensive. His passion for the cause and compassion led him to develop the foldscope with his team. Making it happen required teamwork, knowledge, and technical and entrepreneurial skills.

What are we missing? For a start, you can only start thinking about a solution if you are aware of the problem in the first place. Consider the curriculum taught to our children, including those who go to elite private schools. Many private schools teach foreign curricula that are often quite disconnected from our local context.

Reading the approved textbooks of Social Studies and Pakistan Studies leave the reader with the impression that unemployment, child labour, low literacy rate, and food shortages are no issues.

Public school curricula, particularly of subjects such as Pakistan Studies and Social Studies, where it is easy to introduce students to societal issues and problems, are no better. Reading the approved textbooks of these subjects leave the reader with the impression that high unemployment, child labour, low literacy rate, undernourishment, food shortages, water shortages, overpopulation, environmental pollution etc. are problems we do not have.

How can the majority of people be expected to even think about solving these problems when successive generations are brought up thinking that the conditions around them are the normal conditions? I will confess, that I myself learned only recently that approximately half of our agricultural produce rots and spoils before it can even make it to market. Why wasn’t I taught such a basic problem in school?

New solutions require innovation which in turn requires doing, tinkering, experimenting, failing (repeatedly), labouring, often with your hands. Therein, perhaps, lies our challenge. One would think that among the most adept and inclined towards tinkering would be engineers. Yet, as an engineering graduate of a public university myself I can say that for too many of my fellow graduates the ideal job after graduating was a 9 to 5 office job at WAPDA or any other slow moving government department, where they could sit behind a desk and occasionally sign off on some papers. Very few had a passion to achieve certain professional goals, and even fewer were driven by compassion. After all, it is hard to be passionate for a compassionate cause if you are unaware of at least a few causes.

The reason we shy away from manual work is a cultural hangover from pre-colonial and colonial times. There is a rather clear delineation between white collar "officers" and blue collar "staff," which means that our culture discourages those most educated and qualified from doing. Such a work culture makes it difficult for many Manus to emerge. No wonder then that up until the 80s a stable government job was just about every graduate’s dream in Pakistan.

These preferences began shifting in the 90s, when an increasing number of job seekers began preferring jobs with private businesses and multinational companies (MNCs) instead. Years later, the establishment of the HEC in 2002, and its much more liberal policy of granting charters to many new universities, meant an explosion in the number of university graduates. Throughout the 2000s businesses absorbed many of these graduates, while at the same time many government departments began the practice of replacing permanent employee positions with contractual hires. The result was many more unemployed people with university degrees, which in earlier years might have been hired as "officers" that were unable to find jobs either in the government or in business.

The global recession of 2008 reduced employment opportunities abroad for years, effectively closing another escape valve to let out the unemployed graduates. Enter the startup culture in Pakistan on a big scale. By their very nature, startups have very little resources to afford hiring people that do not actively contribute to the success of the business. Startups are mushrooming to the extent that anecdotal evidence suggests that at some Pakistani universities most students have been involved in at least one startup already by the time they graduate.

It appears to be increasingly the case that the stigma of tinkering and doing is receding, and much of that credit may go to the numerous startup competitions, national and Civic Hackathons, startup weeks at both national and regional levels and the support provided by the National ICT R&D Fund. Groups like The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), OPEN Islamabad, Islamabad Techies and the recently concluded UNIDO Cleantech competition provide access to experienced mentors. We are also seeing many more entries from Pakistan in similar international competitions. While this trend is encouraging, it is still largely confined to the technical community comprising engineers and computer scientists. What else needs to happen to include Pakistani society as a whole into this innovation movement?

The message and enabling skills to develop innovative and creative thinkers and problem solvers must reach everyone during school years. Our curriculum needs to be more localised so as to inform students of our societal challenges and problems, instead of sweeping them under the rug.

As of now, many private schools, in major cities in particular, prepare their students to go abroad, often at the cost of disconnecting them from local culture. Students need to be introduced to the basics of the scientific method (by argumentative reasoning), basic research skills (e.g. data collection for class surveys), entrepreneurial skills (e.g. letting them organise school bake sales), introductory computer programming skills (by using graphical programming languages designed for children e.g. Scratch).

Schools may consider providing students access to workshop time along the lines of community maker spaces that are popping up across the US. In the last five or so years, private schools have jumped onto the innovation bandwagon, and are now claiming to provide an ever growing plethora of enrichment activities.

However, there are questions about the quality and depth of these after-school and out-of-school enrichment activities, which is a whole other discussion. Only by providing children with technical skills (on which to base innovation) and awareness of the challenges of their society (passion) accompanied by a moral compass (compassion) can we hope to see the next fold-whatever innovation emerge out of Pakistan.

No innovation nation