Palo Alto is a rustic California county, once commonly known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its apricots and apples, was transformed by a pipe dream of single visionary Leland Stanford into the birth-place of cutting edge technologies. Silicon valley now makes up the world’s 8th largest economy in the world, home to some of the most valuable companies like Apple, Microsoft, HP, Intel and more. It has been the benchmark for countries when it comes to cluster development for IT, manufacturing and idea creation. Its success has led to the creating of nearly two dozen valleys across the globe from Cambridge to Bangalore. Physics of cluster-development has become the new and pivotal science in economic policy-making. Though a fascinating venture and high-return investment the mere seeding of clusters and their germination requires a delicate balance of ingredients, blended in natural local recipes, the right environment and an enterprising cook.
Then the million-dollar question arises: could a country like Pakistan having a strategic location, abundant human and natural resources and a sizable diaspora conceive a ‘home-grown’ Silicon Valley? The answer might be ‘yes’ and ‘no’, depending on many factors. We might not have the right set of skilled workforce for high-tech clusters to emulate Bangalore, but that’s the point, others recipes don’t work when it comes to cluster development.
A change of strategy is in order. Instead of jumping onto an overambitious mode we need to capitalise on our existing strengths. Pakistan has already built pseudo-clusters all across its spine from IT and services in Karachi, automotive manufacturing at Port Qasim, agri-textile in Faisalabad, education in Lahore, sports and surgical equipment in Sialkot, small engineering in Gujranwala, heavy industries at Wah and even light weapons manufacturing at Landikotal. These are scattered strengths, each brewing with enormous potential this is where the focus should lie. These places already have the desired skill sets, resources and environment to foster respective strengths. So the next step is the relationship between industry and university research. A single resourceful and vibrant university is enough to trigger the whole transmutation process in its larger locality; the existence of Silicon Valley is because of the knowledge spill-over by the students and researchers of Stanford University. Pakistan possesses such institutions in business, engineering and applied sciences that if properly networked could produce a potent mix. What’s needed in each of them is a visionary like Frederick Terman, who transformed Stanford from an unknown county college into a world-class centre of thinking and excellence. This process takes decades but it can be fast-forwarded if the right person or persons take the first step to inspire and lead.
An American sophomore dreams of becoming the next Steve Jobs. And we need similar local personalities that our youth can aspire to.
Then comes the question of environment; yes there are problems and it’s not perfect for new businesses but again’ the world isn’t perfect either. Japan has all the technology but no natural resources, Australia has immense natural resources but no manpower, Iran has all the natural resources and manpower but no finance! And here it goes like; we are in the state of war and it’s not sane to open new ventures? We have enormous resources in water, minerals and human, they have none. We have strategic location and trade linkages with neighbours, they exist in total isolation. Thus Pakistan is still a blessed and resourceful land; it’s just that we’ve developed a national habit of complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves.
Even if the Planning Commission comes up with the best home-grown recipe, it boils down to master chef and we haven’t done well in that department. And the reason for that is undue bureaucratic intrusions. This does not encourage competition or growth and has to stop, for us to take our first step forward.
The writer is a policy consultant at the Planning Commission of Pakistan, devising the Innovation Strategy for New Growth Framework
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2011.
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