VIEW: Promoting innovation —Muhammad Shafqat - Saturday, January 22, 2011

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Pakistan needs to cultivate an innovative state of mind through education. With a tailor-made, toned-to-industry, market-driven skill acquisition education system, an ideal workforce would be generated with real world competencies

Harvard Professor John Kao talked about the dilemma of the developed economies that have been worst hit by the financial crisis through an observation that “they had been milking aging cows on the verge of going dry”. If such a reflection is true about the west, then our cows must have dried up decades ago! The greater plight is that we have not figured this out yet. Ever since we got consumed in matters other then nation building, we have been gratifying our ego by being in a constant state of denial. If we just perform a quick check of Pakistan’s innovation capacity through formal metrics, we come to see this denial predicament more clearly. If we compare Pakistan’s scientific journals publication, which hovers at a dismal 741 articles in 2007 (supposedly during the best of our economic times) to India’s 18,194 and China’s 56,806, it will reveal how our universities fare regionally. In terms of high-impact journal and scientific work, there is no Pakistani university in the top 500 slots in Asia, while India boasts four and Israel, with a population less than that of Lahore, has five. But this dearth is not just confined to academia; our 112 patents filed in the year 2008 fades in comparison to India’s 6,231 and China’s 194,579, exposing the state of our private sector’s lack of innovation tradition. We keep pursuing our demographic capital as a source of cheap labour in blatant disregard of their intellectual capabilities. Just taking a cue from how global giants like Microsoft, Dell, Google and Facebook were formed by university-goers (each of them having a market value equivalent to or greater than our national budgets), one finds a co-relation between the country’s innovation index and how its youth is treated. It would be pertinent to mention that the market worth of ventures started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates alone is more than the combined value of all conceivable resources we possess, including the multi-million dollar Thar coal. Dearth of innovation spirit in the public and even in the country’s most well off private enterprises is not just a matter of insufficient resources or ill-conceived policies, but also of an unsupportive culture.

Thus more than the policies, which are inherently decrepit, Pakistan needs to cultivate an innovative state of mind through education. With a tailor-made, toned-to-industry, market-driven skill acquisition education system, an ideal workforce would be generated with real world competencies. Every reputed corporation has its own surrogate skills development system that trains fresh graduates according to their requirements. Such trainings should be made part of university programmes instead. Big corporations could also be allowed to ‘own’ certain university programmes in terms of funding, designing curricula, training and subsequent hiring of its own produce.

Also, there needs to be a shift from theory to practicality. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) should make compulsory a full year internship after three years of studies or, for that matter, make start-ups a compulsory exercise before graduation and for that matter build collaboration between engineering and business schools, both inter and intra-university, to instill collectiveness, networking and mercantilist instincts among the graduating class. This start-up year should be regarded as a period of doing things crazy and innovative under the patronage of experienced corporate mentors, alumni and university faculty.

A perfect policy without an enabler is worthless. The government needs to de-couple the implementation of knowledge-driven innovation policy from the rest of its bureaucratic skeleton. It needs to form a flexible, entrepreneur-centric, quasi-public body, answerable to the chief executive of the country only to orchestrate, implement and gauge the innovation strategy. Such an agency should be guided by thinkers, innovators and corporate leaders, who are able to form alliances with the private sector, be able to bring in foreign expertise and capital, create Centre-backed innovation funds locally and internationally, be able to give sovereign guarantees to foreign investors who want to invest, to promote the enterprise image of this country.

Such an autonomous institution having public-private seed money would be well positioned to shield start-ups and pilot innovation projects from the bureaucratic, monopolistic and corporatist deathtraps.

The writer is an IBA-Karachi graduate and works as policy consultant with the Planning Commission of Pakistan. He can be reached at

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