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Time to wake up


April 6, 2017

It is year 2030. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was finished ahead of its schedule and is a roaring success. Pakistan’s infrastructure has been revolutionised. Wherever you look, you see a network of roads comparable to the ones you encounter in the developed world. You can see columns of cargo trucks moving rapidly towards their destination along the major arteries. It’s a sight for sore eyes.

That is until you look closely. When you do you notice that these are self-driven trucks. The miracles of robotics and artificial intelligence have worked their magic to make the human workforce redundant. The automated trucks are undoubtedly more expensive than their manual alternatives. Owing to their recent induction in the trade, an investor’s pulse quickens for a second but these trucks again they don’t stop for rest breaks, meals or other distractions. Apart from tedious interruptions, this investment has spared business owners countless hassles. A driver needs weekly days off, salaries, health cover, life insurance, space to rest and limited work hours. Such concerns no longer exist. So the project offers little work to the local labour.

At the loading docks, you find automated cranes. Machines have taken over your jobs. If you find a few men here and there it is because investors still want them for an occasional debugging in the software and to ensure human oversight. But even these highly skilled and educated experts know their jobs will be the next to go. Machines are literally getting smarter every minute and they know it. There will soon be no room for human capital. Just take this advancement and try to wrap your head around similar outbreak in technology in every field, every profession all over the country and all over the world. Did you see this coming? Yes, you did. But you seldom spared a thought to it.

Keep moving ahead in time. A few decades later, overpopulation is making life in Pakistani cities next to impossible. New cities have been founded away from the old ones to offer some respite. But they have quickly become equally unlivable. Population does not increase. It multiplies. Overpopulation is not just Pakistan’s problem now. Every country has it. But most countries have come up with innovative solutions. One such idea was the colonisation of space. In the race to colonise space, most nations have left Pakistan far behind because the country did not have a serious space programmes until it was quite late. India has been quite successful in this regard. It had established its first space colony before Pakistan decided to send its first citizen to outer space. Desperation and despair now rule the country.

These are just two examples of the challenges facing our world – not just our country – in the not-so-distant future. There must be a slight exaggeration here and there. But none of this is impossible. Many parts of the world see these challenges and their brightest minds are busy searching for solutions. Meanwhile, the Pakistani mind seems to be overwhelmed by gossip about this corruption scandal or that. You are hard-pressed to find a few centres of learning and research where true innovation is taking place. And the paucity of innovation and research should worry you. But somehow it doesn’t.

In the Global Innovation Index 2016 – co-published by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a specialised agency of the UN – Pakistan occupies the 119th position. Hong Kong is at the 14th position, China at the 25th, Turkey at the 42nd while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are at the 49th and 50th positions, respectively. India is at the 66th position, Iran is at the 78th position and Sri Lanka is at the 91st position. Even Nepal, Bangladesh, Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon are ahead of us. There are only nine countries below us on the list and all of them have a genuine excuse to be there. What is our excuse?

I would have accepted the explanation that we lack imagination and creativity if we were lagging behind in every field. But look again. This country has no dearth of resourcefulness. It is one of the only seven nuclear powers in the world. That is no mean feat. It has a strong culture of resilience as well. Only 10 years ago, many were ready to write it off as a failed state. This is not the case anymore. And had it been an issue of bad governance, we would have understood. But poor governance does not stop the private sector from investing in innovation. Innovation is the lifeblood of private business. But sadly, it seems that everyone has abandoned the sector.

When CPEC was first announced, one had hoped to see the private sector carry out feasibility studies to explore ways to benefit from the project. I have not heard anything substantial since then. No think tanks, no research institutes and no major investment from the private sector. And it is all too frustrating. If that was the state of the private sector’s apathy, the public sector’s attitude and the media’s sceptical coverage would have made an economic venture look overly political.

It seems we have an aversion to economics. Our national discourse seldom focuses on the economy. And when it does, it mostly presents it as a problem and fails to take into account the achievements. And when it does, it mostly presents it as a problem. Look around and tell me how many TV channels you see dedicated to business. For a country that hosts the best performing stock market of Asia, there must be a few dedicated business channels. The last two we knew have shifted their focus to politics – at least partially, if not completely. The hosts of our prime-time TV shows can spend hours discussing corruption scandals, but only a few have the time, energy or even the capacity to conduct serious discussions on economic matters.

The neglect shown towards innovation is far worse. This is a country where entire episodes can be dedicated to Ponzi schemes and pseudo-science on national television and a federal minister can appear on live television endorsing hare-brained schemes like the so-called water kit. But there is no such enthusiasm for real science. And the thirst for real knowledge takes a backseat. Come to the federal capital and visit every think tank in town. You will find countless security experts discussing issues like nuclear disarmament. But not many of them focus on the future of innovation. From campuses to industrial hubs, you will find an equally underwhelming response to research and innovation.

This needs to change. And quickly. If you look closely, there are only two options now: to either give up today and brace yourself for total irrelevance in the coming years or wake up. We have allowed gossip and hearsay to monopolise our collective imagination. It is time to put it to a better use.


The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. Twitter: @FarrukhKPitafi


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