First Contact: Innovation Taking Over?

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The Global Innovation Index or GII (www.GlobalInnovationIndex.org) ranks Pakistan on 109 at a score of 24.10 out of 100. The GII analyses the innovation performance of 126 countries which represent 90.8% of the world’s population and 96.3% of global GDP based around 80 indicators that explore the national vision for innovation. These indicators fall broadly under seven pillars including Institutions, which looks at the political, regulatory and business environment; Human Capital & Research that covers education and R&D; Infrastructure, measuring it generally for electricity, logistics etc., information & communication technologies and ecological sustainability; Market Sophistication structured around market conditions like credit, investment, trade, competition and market scale; Business Sophistication to gauge the conduciveness of firms to innovation activity through scores on knowledge workers, innovation linkages and knowledge absorption; Knowledge & Technology Outputs covers variables that are a result of innovations including knowledge creation, impact and diffusion; and last but not the least Creative Outputs which measures the role of creativity for innovation by taking into account intangible assets, creative goods & services and online creativity.

The knowledge creation sub-pillar relies on international patent filings and scientific publishing amongst others to measure the innovation performance of countries and clusters. Out of 100, Pakistan scores 1.08 and 20.58, respectively. Even if most of us will agree that a culture of research and innovation is largely absent in Pakistan, I spoke to experts and academicians Dr. Zeeshan Ahmed, Dean at Karachi School of Business & Leadership (KSBL) and Qashif Effendi, Module Leader for Technopreneurship program at Chaudhry Muhammad Akram Center for Entrepreneurship Development in Lahore and CEO at Reem Group, a 100% multinational joint venture of Al Ghurair UAE and Al Muhaidib KSA for insights on why this culture is as limited and what needs to be done to nurture it.

My initial question was regarding the absence of scientific research as well as case studies in organizations. Dr. Zeeshan replied, “Firstly, national agenda needs to be laid out for research in a defined direction, which should come from the country’s leadership. This will further promote national collective thinking around it; this is how it happens globally. Secondly, at an organizational level, research needs to form an integral part of the defined vision, because effective vision and thinking precedes the formation of any culture. Furthermore, creating such vision requires not just careful consideration, but also a robust leadership that can drive it to fruition. At present, such vision is absent in Pakistan. Research is being done for the sake of research, and there is no strong leadership to guide the vision in a productive and meaningful direction.”

“This reason also extends to scientific publishing. Meaning and relevance, which needs to propel research, is often missing in Pakistan. Such meaning will be derived from solving the problems of Pakistan’s own people. Sadly, a large amount of research is only done for the sake of research in order to fulfill HEC’s (Higher Education Commission) requirements, and its quality is not at par with international publications. A number of theses that I have supervised around different universities, have not been the sort that would be deemed satisfactory and there are reasons behind this. Students lack access to adequate data sources because there are hardly any available, most of the available data is outdated, and they don’t have access to current databases even if they exist, especially ones that pertain to a local context. It should also be noted that research publications are interested in Pakistan. However, they don’t get a lot of information from this country because, as I mentioned earlier, not a lot of insightful research is being done here.”

According to Qashif Effendi, the problem is also largely social. “Sadly our society places a premium only on material pursuits and hence the need to learn and reinvent ourselves with changing times is missing. A culture of research can be fostered by having research done with purpose: Provide a better understanding of an issue and then offer an actionable use of this understanding. We have plenty of research rotting away in the academia with no real use in the mainstream industry. There needs to be a bridge to ensure that the two complement each other to ensure meaningful results and sustainable growth opportunities.”

And how can a culture be formed that promotes research? Dr. Zeeshan explains in detail, “Firstly, in order to establish such foundations in Pakistan, we need individuals from the world’s top universities, who possess a certain enthusiasm towards research. Secondly, for this to happen; these individuals need strong incentive to remain and work in Pakistan – they need to be rewarded adequately. In most cases, good researchers stay in Pakistan only till they are bound by HEC requirements for a while, but they eventually leave for better and more lucrative opportunities abroad due to a general lack of incentivization. This is a problem which needs consideration: Who will deal with Pakistan’s issues, if all top minds are lured abroad? Thirdly, a system of supervision also needs to be established, in order to ensure that the quality of research is not compromised due to various other pressures. We need a balance between research and teaching; professors need to be encouraged to engage in research more alongside teaching. This way, benefits are spread not just to the institute and its students, but also industries and the government. The establishment of databases, such as HEC’s PERN, has considerably changed the research situation and the environment has become much more conducive for local research to take place. Before their existence, one had to rely on data from foreigners, which itself was a hassle and made research less and less desirable. Here I should mention that at KSBL, we have instituted technical research with necessary incentives and a number of our faculty members are in the process of publishing their research.”

Moving on to innovation, the technology intensiveness indicators (high-tech and medium high-tech) in the GII report did not show a score for Pakistan. Hence, my obvious question was that cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics are being taught as well as being implemented in Pakistan, but what is their applicability? According to Qashif, “Technologies such as AI and machine learning are in their infancy where mainstream educational institutes are not really adopting these with the required veracity. There are fragmented boutique institutes specializing in these such as Robokids, but this needs to be adopted by mainstream educational institutes to have a major impact.” Dr. Zeeshan further clarifies, “The opportunities for applicability are there; the constraint is that the right people in the right numbers are not available at the right price. Implementing AI is expensive; when certain companies did do it they were charged an arm and a leg and in most cases, there have been costly fallouts as well. However, if people can do the job in-house, then outsourcing — which is expensive — will not be necessary.”

Being an academic how does Dr. Zeeshan see youngsters approach such technology currently in Pakistan? “Forbes magazine recognized 31 Pakistani youngsters, one of whom was our [KSBL’s] student Adnan Shafi, who developed PriceOye.com. What I am trying to say is that while there are students who think along cutting edge, non-traditional lines, it is also a question of personality. Many are risk-averse; they want to get a certain position at a certain MNC, whereas some are adamant that they want to do their own thing. It is all a process of self-discovery. Also, the biggest hindrance or discomfort in going for change is the fear that ‘where will one apply all these new skills one has learned?’. When AI students see that so-and-so company is implementing it, when they can say, “I visited the design room of XYZ bank,” then the fear of being ahead of the curve decreases. Yet, I have also seen technologically-inclined students sometimes having a higher propensity for innovators’ dilemma: If we dismiss current products and focus on being cutting edge, then we may not have a market ready for our innovations. This is also a lesson in business acumen, that you cannot be too hasty. You must plan gradual product obsolescence.”

Both the experts see the potential for AI in Pakistan and it being applied in the future. According to Qashif, AI is already a part of our lives without most of us knowing that we are surrounded by its influence. For instance, Google uses an AI system called Rankbrain to guess what users mean when they have entered a query the search engine is unfamiliar with, retailers carry out consumer profiling to customize offerings, Collaborative filters an AI solution used by Amazon to link site visitors to other customers who have similar tastes, chatbots provides sales support and so on. Pakistan is on the cusp of capitalizing on a major opportunity in creating Enterprise Technology companies which can zoom into how AI can affect specific functions within an organization. It is imperative that our educational institutes prepare our graduates to take advantage of these opportunities.”

Dr. Zeeshan explains with a more global approach, “When something becomes common, it becomes a capability. Go is a game dating back thousands of years and it is more complex than chess. Google’s AI program AlphaGo beat a Chinese Go master recently. The AI community believed something like this would happen ten years in the future; it happened about a year ago. The predictors and soothsayers were startled by the celerity, the speed of change this represented. When you encounter such things, it shakes you. You think, “I can’t do this tomorrow; I need to do it now. Similar is the case of Pakistan; if we are not on the cutting edge, if we keep relying on other countries to give us technology that is ten years too old, then we cannot move forward.”