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Innovation imperative: The only way forward!


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 20 June 2013 00:00


Prof. Epasinghe, who is the Presidential Advisor on Science, addressing Ananda College students requested them to invent and make the country rich and united. He was addressing the school’s inventor society gathering. However, we know that a student who may win a national inventor award would not get an automatic or an easy entrance to the university but a national player in any sports has that avenue open. This should be remedied as universities should really embrace a creative person with excellent performance at a higher level with open arms. Even a national winner approaching Advanced Level examinations may just drop everything and concentrate on examinations as the competition is so severe for the public university places. This may have killed many a school boy talent. We live in a period where inventors should be nurtured and recognised. As the world gets trickier to live in, inventiveness is a trait worth inculcating. Even in our local economy with exports coming down, the spark of innovation is the way to move on. Hoping for an ad campaign to pull us through is simply wishful thinking.   New developments It is interesting to note the new and exciting developments taking place across many labs and universities. Starting locally, University of Moratuwa Researcher Prof. Rohan Munasinghe with a group of undergraduate students has just launched a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to university skies, taking care not to break local defence rules. The feeling as it flew upwards and around must have been terrific – a ‘kitty hawk moment’. It is a major step upwards and show what one can do with right attitude and patience with a small group of students. Expand the scope and there is so much potential. Uruguay has unveiled a glowing sheep at night – an effort of a gene transfer from fluorescence jelly fish to a sheep’s DNA. The sheep had been born last October at the Animal Reproduction Institute of Uruguay. The sheep glow when they are exposed to certain ultraviolet light, emitting a glowing green colour. The sheep are obviously genetically modified as gene transfer across species has taken place. That gene modification produced an offspring that glows in the dark. If Dolly, the first cloned animal, was only visible at daytime, the current development enables florescence sheep at night. The open question of whether the sheep turned into meat and when consumed will lead to a similar effect with UV for the happy consumer is perhaps a question – yet to be answered.   Genetics In this backdrop an International Genetics Education Network held a meeting in Sri Lanka trying to sensitise the region on educating on genetics. Will the way we treat diseases in future change? The experts there were of the opinion that indeed it is going to change. If we understand the benefits early and proceed rapidly, we may actually be pioneers in organising the healthcare system around genomics and may bear fruit in the long run. With genomics, our built-in message is learnt and then issues are sorted out in that order and the process is not then shooting in the dark. Genomics is not only for health; it can help in biofuels and plantations as well. It was interesting to note the Sri Lankan Genome Project too is underway – deciphering ourselves! Should be interesting to observe what make us tick or rather what is really preventing us from doing so.     3D printing innovations Again, a law student from Univ. of Texas had made a gun – the ‘Liberator’ – using a home 3D printing unit and had fired a bullet. With no metallic parts in the gun, standard metal detectors are useless! His files placed on the internet on how to print the gun had been downloaded 100,000 times before the files were removed. 3D printing of foods is now with us too. Both genomics and 3D printing are considered to be disruptive technologies that will shape our future and the economies too. We have to consider these emerging fields and how to factor them into our planning and thinking if we are to stay relevant. The national ST&I strategy for Sri Lanka proposed for the period 2011-2015 has the mission ‘Sri Lanka to be a leader in knowledge creation and innovation in Asia whilst rapidly harnessing that knowledge for the prosperity of our people.’ Well, plenty of action on this front would see us on course to becoming a knowledge hub. However, we must understand that the position of a knowledge hub is a position of eminence and it is not one that is just achieved with articulation only. The returns from an innovation can be many times that of an ordinary investment. That is the essence of invention and makes us rich! The process would generate knowledge which will help in achieving a national goal too.   ‘Fatal attraction’ It is important to remember and understand that technological innovations elsewhere have a suction effect on our economies. Our society is enamoured with goods and items with certain brand names and some go for the fakes to fulfil a dream turning their entire personality to be a fake. Unless you think deeply and with some sense it is difficult to remove this almost ‘fatal attraction’. Yet this ‘fatal attraction’ has reasons. Certain goods do have excellent quality and offer extra convenience; two factors of importance to a discerning consumer. In pursuit of happiness, these goods and their ownership and display will play a major role and the procurement of such could only happen with transfer of money. Hard-earned currency will thus flow outwards. Cost of luxury goods and services – and these even may be luxury food items – will drain an economy. To realise the equivalent in terms of exports, Sri Lanka at present does not have equivalent goods. Thus unchecked consumption with a poor distribution of income within an economy can suffer from serious technology suction effect. This may be hidden under the scheme of demand and supply perhaps and unless scrutinised the true extent will not be revealed too. The innovation should happen within our economy too for us to offer in return such goods and services. Meeting innovation internally with innovation elsewhere for economic growth and sustenance is perhaps the modern day equivalent of fighting fire with fire. Otherwise our economy becomes unsustainable.   Shifting markets It is instructive to hear the word that markets are shifting to Asia. In our case when markets arrive we look at buyers from within from goods transferred from places where at the moment there is a slightly a saturated demand. We dig deep into our pockets and purchase the same. However, when we view our export markets such as in textiles still the markets we seek are in EU and USA and if there is a decline in demand we suffer. It is ironic as once the IMF representative mentioned that we are not seeking markets close by. We are quite keen on targeting a person with 100 dollars rather than 100 people with one dollar each! The amount we spent on cooking up expensive advertising campaigns is outside cost considerations and is accepted as necessary tools of trade. We are not ready to sink some capital internally as innovation funds to kick start or give life to new ideas.   Connections Connections are important to innovation. Lack of communication between parties had meant very little connections in our system. When you view history the industry labs of USA such as AT&T, Bell, Paulo Alto, etc., you could see how the dynamics of innovation enable entities to grow and grow beyond perhaps beyond their wildest beliefs at times. Connections were always made or opportunities to communicate were almost always there. A visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto lab and seeing a particular device lying quite unused by the side perhaps changed the destiny of one individual – Steve Jobs. With his change the world did change too and we in this part of the world collect money to buy the next i-thing! Do not think always planning is chaotic in innovation. Not exactly. Today in these countries innovation systems have become theorised and they speak of a fifth generation innovation system. We perhaps are still thinking along the second generation innovation theory – market pull product development concept. Outdated knowledge and systems only belongs as archival items within a knowledge hub! We do not have many zealots for innovation in the Sri Lankan business system – a real pity. Business as usual and asking for concessions and subsidies gets the thumbs up most of the time – if not all the time! Gaining a competitive edge in a highly competitive world is not easy when you have to start from scratch but that is all the more reason for innovation on all fronts. We must invent and become rich rather than beg for grants, subsidies, loans and gratis! (The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)

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