Myopic Innovation

Innovation, somehow, begins with programming a computer and ends with a smartphone

Muhammad Hamid Zaman June 15, 2015
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Mention innovation, and you would get an earful on how innovative we all are. By looking at the growing list of start-ups, the dazzling innovation hubs and the brand new apps, the long waitlists of students trying to get into the IT programmes and the chest-thumping exercise of institutions in being the pioneers of e-governance, we are reminded that innovation, somehow, begins with programming a computer and ends with a smartphone. Others, who are unable to programme, can be very smart, perhaps, but not truly innovative. Some others would be generous enough to include other fields of sciences and engineering under the grand umbrella of innovation, but even that is really pushing the definition and must not extend any further.

Indeed, the growth of the tech start-up culture is promising, and transparency in governance is a step in the right direction, but if our definition of innovation is suffering from severe myopia, our ability to change things will be just as limited as the definition itself. Our inability to appreciate and acknowledge innovation in social and the financial sectors, in it being inclusive of new ideas and approaches from the humanities and social sciences, is creating a limited vision for the future that is both extremely constrained in its scope and far from sustainable. Whether it is strong arguments in favour of humanities and the social sciences for an inclusive, tolerant and understanding society, the well-founded arguments against the Higher Education Commission’s treatment of scholars outside natural and physical sciences, or the problems in the social sector that cannot be solved by just another app, our failure to recognise, respect and reward innovative thoughts and ideas is creating high barriers to our own development. For this one, it is hard to pin the blame on a foreign NGO or our eastward neighbours.

Our myopic definition of innovation is not only ostracising those who are outside the folds of engineering and the sciences, it is also affecting our ability to engage in policy debates in the international arena. The recent European Union meeting on innovation policy for economic and social impact, held in Helsinki last week, had exactly zero representation of scholars or researchers working in Pakistan, though both our northern and eastern neighbours, along with researchers from countries across the globe, were well represented. As I inquired further about the lack of Pakistani representation, I was told that the only interest from Pakistani colleagues was on technology and IT innovation, with little interest in innovation policy, social innovation or debates on inclusive innovation. The loss was certainly ours, where, not only did we not benefit from the richness of the debates, but we also lost out on the opportunity to learn from others who may have used the vehicles of innovation and innovation policy, to address social, economic and developmental challenges.

Now, we have two options, we can either dismiss this as a giant conspiracy against us, like we often do, or we can recognise this as a major weakness in our intellectual landscape, and do something to change it. Our current fixation with innovation as the domain of a single group within society shows that we are more interested in exclusion than inclusion, a trait not too unfamiliar in the domains of other social and political problems.

The fabric of our society, and the brilliant minds within its folds, is rich and diverse, in culture, training and knowledge. The problems faced by the nation are equally diverse in their evolution and scope. It is only fitting that our innovative ideas, to solve these problems, embrace the same diversity of origin and scholarship.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th,  2015.

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Amjed Jaaved | 7 years ago | Reply I re-read the article to make head or tail of it. There is nothing specific. Time is life. It should not be wasted in writing or reading rigmarole. Innovation is a complex subject.
G | 7 years ago | Reply As a scientist II think the article is not shallow. Everything in the media does not have to be about economy and policy. Ideas also need tto be discussed. Thankyou Muhammd Hamid Zaman.
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