The politics of innovation

Published: October 22, 2010

The writer is a business development analyst at a technology company in San Francisco, US anna.khan@tribune.com.pk

Earlier this month, Omnitek Engineering Corporation, a firm based in the US, announced that it had signed an agreement with Karachi-based Xperts Technologies LLC to use diesel-to-natural gas conversion technology for all trucks and buses in Pakistan. This signalled a clean and economical way to engender technology adoption in a relatively stagnant innovation market. The company may set a unique precedent in Pakistan, where opportunities of innovation are rare. The IT revolution was spurred by the world’s focus on IT-enabled growth and globalisation in the mid-to-late 90s. Although Pakistan attempted to co-opt some of this momentum, we lost a majority of the share. On the other hand, the Indian service sector accounted for more than half of India’s GDP in 1998-1999, marking a shift towards a developed economy — a direct result of Nehru’s long-term investments in technical education. The Pakistani government, in collusion with feudal leaders, avoided such change in fear of upending the landed mafia.

With the rise of new technology adoption in the Pakistani textile industry and the retrieval of ethanol as a product of the sugar industry, innovation is slowly pushing its way through a clogged and arcane technology pipeline. This is not enough. The government must push innovation to the masses, highlighting service sector jobs outside the industrial landscape.

In Pakistan, culture is informed by religious extremism and affects international perceptions. The Facebook and Wikipedia bans earlier this year portray us as technologically averse and our government as strikingly authoritarian. India markets itself as the exact opposite. It is the land of Gandhi, the abode of nonviolence, the birthplace of innovation. With India next door, no one is willing to tiptoe around sensitive barriers in Pakistan at the expense of their business.

AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that the movement of Indians to America is not an example of “brain drain” but of “brain circulation”. She found that foreign-born entrepreneurs were becoming “agents of globalisation” by investing in their native countries from abroad. In Pakistan, we have separated the local from the foreign-based. We internalise revulsion towards those who have built their base abroad — producing a dangerous “brain separation” that weakens and destroys our immigrant networks which are bolstered by national stability, but the embedded fear of volatility in Pakistan limits the potential for information exchange. Instability also prevents politicians from investing in domestic infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, Nawaz Sharif established a Pakistan 2010 programme to fuse a range of IT businesses with public policy. The programme was never implemented due to a military takeover.

The East India Company exercised power through the British army during the colonial era. Control is thus historically bound to the army, particularly in Pakistan’s state-military complex. We are weakened by this colonial curse while India has emerged as the healed warrior.

Although the US has ties with both India and Pakistan, India is perceived as America’s ideological and moral partner. When India captured a large share of foreign direct investment, IT development became a zero-sum game. The US had developed a strong relationship with the Indian IT sector, representing 63 per cent of its software exports.

The Pakistani government overlooked the socio-economic packaging of information technology and downplayed the pervasiveness of culture. But what if innovation is not a zero-sum game? What if it is fragile and fleeting and though once lost, can be captured again? If innovation is tied to a nation’s economic pulse, we must use technological development as our revolutionary centre point and continue to press for change.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2010.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Oct 22, 2010 - 3:02AM

    Good stuff! we can hope and prey that one day sanity and foresight will prevail!Recommend

  • Avijit
    Oct 22, 2010 - 3:32AM

    Great article! A mindset change is needed not just for Pakistan, but for entire South Asia – free flow of knowledge, culture, ideas, trade and investments. Hope the coming generations reject “Pakistan vs India” mentality, and adopt a “South Asia will not be left behind” way of thinking.Recommend

  • Magid
    Oct 22, 2010 - 10:46AM

    How exactly does the writer propose bringing an IT sector to Pakistan? For starters, shouldn’t we try to establish basic rule of law?Recommend

  • Addy
    Oct 22, 2010 - 12:40PM

    Brilliantly structured argument. However, I do think it is a little naïve to expect a largely oligarchic government to push modernisation to the masses. The ‘awaam’ needs to find initiative to inform, educate and modernise themselves. Even military dictators have buckled to popular pressure like in the case of Chief Justice Chaudhry. The people of Pakistan need to express a desire to modernise strongly – starting with a desire to have the freedom of information. A strong tradition of freedom of the press (and electronic media) is invaluable for forming that popular opinion. Hopefully, the antagonism towards the diaspora will die with a mature informed public. It did in India when the illiterate had access to fifteen 24X7 news channels on TV and radio.
    Maybe it is because I live in a part of the world known best for its optimism – I do believe there will be a young Pakistani one day who will have the vision to unshackle its populace and give them the freedom to invest themselves in creating infrastructure and finding industries that will lead them to prosperity. India has IT because Indian people value education and have forced their leaders to provide it to them. But, for a largely college-uneducated and non-English-speaking nation, Switzerland has done pretty well too. For prosperity, it is important for people to create value out of their values – only then is innovation not a zero sum game. Recommend

  • Noor Shahjahan
    Oct 22, 2010 - 2:12PM

    well-written nonsenseRecommend

  • Faisal Shanzer
    Oct 22, 2010 - 2:14PM

    Entrepreneurship in Pakistan is taking off really well actually. What are you on about!Recommend

  • Oct 22, 2010 - 2:52PM

    Grt stuff.,,,,,,,,,idea is good………..but can it be there? Not only FB and wikipedia, but you tube was alos banned……..and FB on black berry isnt active yet……….You forgot to mention the PTCL strike issues that stopped my net for 3 weeks…….almost…………Employyes werent coming nor taking an complaint call…………….Recommend

  • Sher Zaman
    Oct 22, 2010 - 3:31PM

    Innovation and technology will help us cross our limitations. Previous government played a good role in this regard and technology transfer was better than before. However, it was halted by the withdrawal of foreign investment. We need to encourage foreign investors to invest in Pakistan, so that our industry and services sector can relive once again.Recommend

  • fia khan mehmood
    Oct 22, 2010 - 5:39PM

    colonial curse or something Zia ulhaq and akhter rehman started and perpetuated? i believe you are quite familiar with those names

    his distorted islamism certainly avoided the change you ramble about. and you talk about feudal land lords? his sharia courts declared land reforms unislamic.

    the reason people are running away from pakistan is because of the mess they made, they are reason for terrorism and economic downturn today. curse of pakistan was them. colonials on the other hand are the reason we have any infrastructure in pakistan.Recommend

  • Z Khan
    Oct 22, 2010 - 6:15PM

    Even as a military man I fully endorse your argument. Pakistan’s outstanding youth talent is beeing wasted by poor polotical leadership.Recommend

  • sk
    Oct 23, 2010 - 12:54AM

    @fia khan mehmood

    that colonials are the only reason we have any infrastructure in Pakistan is laugh-worthy. it is true they built much of the infrastructure we have today, but that is only they decided to impinge on the progress of the subcontinent. please do not forget that this was the land of one of the first civilizations – South Asians and Muslims (both separately and together) contributed much to the very ‘civilized colonials’ we revere… who knows how far we could have been by now had we not been occupied for centuries?

    secondly, I am not a fan of Zia’s Islamization either. however, the ‘mujahideen’ were created to fight the Soviets occupying Afghanistan (yes, the US had a direct interest in keeping their enemy from expanding its reach. however, you may choose not to agree with this but several scholars have agreed that the Soviets have and still want a warm water port; several Pakistanis feared that the Soviets would attempt to occupy Pakistan through the still-porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. even if you do choose to believe the ‘mujahideen’ were created simply to please the US in its proxy war against the Soviets, how would you explain the fact that such training was not used in Indian-Held Kashmir till after Hamid Gul was appointed as head of the ISI? How would you explain the fact that the Taliban did not become a political force to reckon with till the 1990s when Benazir Bhutto and her government decided to support their hold over Kabul?

    thirdly, you can blame whomever you like for the economic downturn we are facing today. do keep in mind that the real economic slump came when our favorite feudal decided to impose land reforms while naming his lands to loyal tenants from whom he could retrieve the land later. Bhutto told my grandfather and other well-known Punjabi landlords to ‘do what I’m doing. name your lands after your tenants. you’ll save it from being distributed.’ you are correct that Zia’s sharia courts declared lands reforms un-Islamic, yet you fail to acknowledge that Bhutto’s land reform policy was an epic failure (please do not assume I am saying I agree that Zia’s sharia courts should have declared land reforms un-Islamic. I am simply asking you to be a little more nuanced in your thinking: yes, you can say Zia is responsible for the majority of today’s problems yet it’s irresponsible to disregard the failure of other governments altogether… ESPECIALLY when it comes to the economic problems we face). Recommend

  • Oct 23, 2010 - 3:03AM

    Great article, Anna!Recommend

  • Anoop
    Oct 24, 2010 - 2:53AM

    During the 1990s IT was the main driver of growth in India. But, that is also allowing other sectors to grow like manufacturing, design, R&D,etc. Innovation is happening in India but in a small way and for largescale innovation education system must be transformed which is happening but slowly. But, one indicator of Innovation is the Nano car, world’s cheapest. Recommend

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