Happy New Year Sri Lanka! Another year has dawned and it is also brings in a milestone for me. I started with Daily FT as a guest columnist with my first article on ‘Let Us Think and Act,’ which appeared on 1 January 2010.
With four years of writing on alternate weeks usually on Thursdays, I have now crossed the tally of 100 columns. I indeed am happy being able to
keep a column going for this long and I am also happy over the areas that I have covered and also thankful for the space extended by the Daily FT for science and technology.
Having passed a magic 100 – to me anyway – I thought of revisiting the first title again but with a solemn ‘Please!’ at the end as the request appears to be more important and urgent today than then. We have passed 65 years since independence, about four years from the date we were able to turn our back on a 30-year conflict that kept us down.
Are we doing right and are we on track?
The opportunity to be an Asian beacon of light and a real economic Pearl of the Indian Ocean is there thanks to sterling efforts of many and a leadership of the highest order. The thinking hat that we need to put on right now and ask is: are we doing right and are we on track?
My scientific thinking precludes me from being politically correct and my answer to my question is: No, we are not doing quite right – except perhaps for the infrastructure and adding ‘an excellent city look’ to the capital.
Each passing day may appear to be squandering away an opportunity that we are having since that date of 19 May 2009. Indeed bringing that to a successful conclusion and ushering peace and tranquillity which had been distant dreams to so many of us had to be gratefully acknowledged always.
This peace and tranquillity however only will be strengthened and stability ensured only when you have the economic war successfully concluded. We cannot fight the latter with the ways we did the former and nor can we expect someone else to walk in and bring us a solution. I would like to argue that the economic war too needs to be fought again with the ‘nation in mind’ rather than ‘cash on sight’.
‘Why?’ you may ask. Consider developed economies. Consider Steve Jobs or Robert L. Stephenson and many other inventors. When Steve went on with his innovative streak, he was looking at providing something unique to the consumer starting from the United States. Robert Stephenson when fashioning ‘Rocket’ in his mind and went on to execute transforming transport, he was providing a better way of travelling to his countrymen.
When Alexander Fleming serendipitously came up with penicillin, his mind was always on getting his countrymen who were fighting a war overseas back home by providing a solution to issues such as gangrene.
Innovators were rising up to solve problems closer to them. Businesses were coming up based on such solutions and societies change as a result. Yes the United States did go on to provide what 30% of the global needs with a 3% of the agriculture workforce but the problem to be addressed and the market for them first was always United States.
I am not quite sure whether they would have contemplated drinking ‘dust’ so as to fetch a better price with the better portion of the product after selling elsewhere. That is working with cash on sight rather than the nation in mind. This way of development perhaps is unique in the today’s developing economies.
We try to develop by trying to please another economy and hope that trade line will be our salvation. We do not think that, by ensuring our economy is served with the top quality and by aligning processes with that notion, it is only a matter of time when the quality focus output realises external market opportunities.
Then both the internal economy and external opportunities grow. It is perhaps for this reason that we trade a few items with far away countries and ignore the region as all countries in the region are of similar economic status to us. Our singular focus is on the export value realised and satisfying the external client.
Within the business space, this avoiding the local market is easy to observe. We may be a global leader in activated carbon derived from renewable raw materials. Yet the presence of products in the local market from that product is hard to be seen.
We will wash and labour without gloves on, yet we may be the world’s best supplier of gloves for these tasks! The entire apparel sector is about an overseas market and few select countries at that. Only recently have we seen a change from one major company.
We may be talking about a knowledge hub, but the graphic image of few guys staring at computer terminals as the symbolic image is more reminiscent of a call centre or a tutorial class. The country should have a better idea of what knowledge worker means.
Dr. Mashelkar, writing his ‘Reinventing India’ where he spoke of the new panchseel for the India in the new millennium, says that one should elevate the farmer to knowledge worker status. He is a knowledge worker when he understands the quality and health of soil, understands the climate and in turn matches it to what he wants to grow and acts accordingly.
All Sri Lankans should be knowledge workers, is the essential concept. We at this juncture keep the IT sector truly in an IT silo and look towards generating revenue through external work. The integration of such concepts within the day-to-day activities and governance structures are not fast enough. In fact with our literacy this is an integration that should be fast and furious. When we read a daily newspaper, we are hard pressed to see the emergence of a knowledge hub within. Just catalogue the news contained and you will understand what I mean.
India changed with liberalisation of Dr. Manmohan Singh on 24 July 1991 and within a decade the face of India was different. Indians speak of Chandrayan 1, which landed on the moon exactly as predicted and went on to indicate the presence of water on the moon for the first time.
Leading up to this liberalisation, India had been successful with nuclear energy, super computers, space and missile technologies – all carried out with indigenous science and technology efforts. They have also completed the green and white revolutions by that time. The accumulated strengths upon liberalisation gained even better momentum.
The IT revolution in Bangalore and Hyderabad delivered significant benefits upon that move and within a decade, once firmly declared as a developing third world country, now has set their vision on becoming a global super power. One must understand the combination of science and economics in this transformation and it was science that was the basis and the key. That is a lesson we should learn from.
Need for science and result oriented education
We have to understand even at this late hour the need for strong science and even stronger result-oriented education. We also need to set ourselves free from rules that have long histories and relevance when we were colonies.
Businesses need to start and grow from solving local problems and then move on to serve global markets too. The way to solve problems should be in such a way that our internal market grows as a result. Our way of looking disparagingly at our own market space and using the talent to glorify anything external is a sure way to keep internal growth down.
The way forward perceived by many developing nations as the way to grow is by serving purely an economic segment within a developed economy, which is self-limiting. Transforming mindsets both public and private thus is a vital need of the hour. There are so many things to be done to change the slide that is taking place, though most of us may not be really interpreting the picture in this manner. Think about this please!
Think and act
Think and act is important. We have excellent acting skills. Dancing to a script does not involve thinking but practice. Prewritten scripts are not healthy when the country needs novel ways to manage deficits, gaps, exchange crises, skill gaps, demographic changes, etc.
As Dr. Mashelkar prescribed, ‘I’ in India should be ‘Innovation’ in his mantra for growth; ‘I’ in Sri Lanka should also be for ‘Innovation’. Our need is much stronger than the case with India as they have a proven case history since 1947 in innovation.
Thinking critically and thinking for us will mean that action subsequently will be much more beneficial and not superfluous. The advantage of a new year is that some new resolutions could be embraced. Still the power of thinking has to be harnessed if the new resolutions are not to be old wine in new bottles.
[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 the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]