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Rescuing the minds of Sri Lankans!


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    In my last column I wrote about the importance of knocking the ‘t’ off ‘can’t’. The theme needs to be continued. The message needs to be reiterated again and again – of course it is the practice that will demonstrate impact. Late Munidasa Cumarathunga who is a great Sinhala scholar and a linguist through one of his verses penned a remarkable comment which the world today amply bears evidence. He stated quite simply that ‘The Nation which does not create new things will not rise!’ Have we taken heed of such wise statements? Sadly the answer is no. There are no bounds to our appreciation for new and modern things, but it is the interest in creating new things that our minds descend to zombie status. More than 125 years have lapsed since his birth and each passing day is a testimony to ignoring the wise but heeding and responding to the sentiments of the crowd! At times the understanding of the crowd is so poor you begin to wonder whether we are in 21st century or another! It is this type of situation that reminds one that democracy is no sure way to development but development can pave the way to democracy.     Changes in economic landscape When almost all societies were engaged in agriculture, an economic analysis would reveal that there were no major differences between economies of countries. It really did not matter very much whether we grew wheat or paddy, the income levels were not much different. Even if a country was to show some economic superiority, that was not significant. We must not forget that we introduced important innovations to rain-fed irrigation and went on to become the granary of the east. The advent of industrialisation changed the economic landscape and changed nations. Those who forged ahead in industry supported by new and exciting machinery, systems and concepts moved ahead and the gap widened. The technology divide came into existence. Today with dizzying developments taking place in many innovation clusters centred in developed economies, the widening of the gulf is amply supported. One can state that globalisation emanated from Silicon Valley. The laggards in technology and innovation simply have no chance in this fast-paced world. The truism of the comment is easy to understand when one observes critically the realities of economic progress across countries. When countries begin to shift from agriculture to industry, the economic differences started to emerge and this shift was characterised by specific developments.   Signature developments Cartwright’s textile machinery, the power loom, initially propelled Great Britain and again the steam engine of James Watt. These developments stand as signature developments that added value to economies. Not thinking about improving the horse, which is probably what market research would have told him to pursue, Henry Ford came up with the automobile and our craving for the latest model with much horsepower under the hood has not receded. Thomas Alva Edison’s contributions are legendary. The craving for some of the high-end goods when comes from our side has a significant built-in cost as when we import a high-end vehicle, we cannot generate the foreign exchange required for such a transaction from a similar good or service. That is a clear demonstration of our economic position. Currently we can witness how creative individuals such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have added value to the US economy. Rudolf Diesel and Daimler were there for Germany. Many such efforts over a period have consistently ensured that the United States economy stays on top. In spite of two World Wars, Germany is a global economic power thanks mainly due to manufacturing of unmatchable excellence. The economic wealth in these countries has resulted from creative behaviour and with institutions having flexibility and agility.     Innovation is key What constituted the emerging industries was almost always an innovation. Early-day individuals dominated as innovators. Today it is more likely to be a team consisting of many individuals with quite an array of talents. When trying to understand what an innovation is, the definition coming from the OECD’s Oslo manual is important. An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations is how the manual defines innovation. This is quite a broad definition and the word ‘new’ dominates and it is quite an inclusive definition. It does not carry a science bias and allow anyone who thinks and apply to wear the badge of honour as an innovator. New ideas and deeds are expected to transform people and places. Some organisations in the West such as 3M and Google are synonymous with innovative spirit and these organisations are at two ends of an activity spectrum, indicating that it is not only about writing codes and algorithms. This is an idea that has to be promulgated across all organisations. It is interesting to contemplate if organisational innovation is to reach our public sector and how much benefit that single act can deliver.     Changing our mindsets Late Eng. Wimalasurendra was able to go down the tunnel at Lakshapana on a trolley to witness his idea coming finally to light! Munidasa Cumarathunga however passed away in 1944 before witnessing independence and his exposure was when we had colonial masters and most our activities were linked to the interest of the crown. Even under those circumstances he surely would have been happy to see the efforts of late engineer D.J. Wimalasurendra’s pioneering efforts in hydroelectricity in the era 1912 to 1923. He may have also observed the ridicule and disregard heaped on Wimalasurendra for his efforts to serve the nation through a creative exercise. However, he may have wondered why we have so few such occurrences through the action of individuals. Today we are left wondering why only a handful of organisations are interested in journeys into the creative space. Our companies should be able to place and state about innovations on offer. New products with innovations, but not simply new packaging should come in to excite consumers. Examining the landscape, how many companies and innovations would we be able to identify? One can examine in detail or engage in some self-search. Hardly are we able to place on record with a list of innovative firms to fill an A4 page. An innovative firm is one that has implemented an innovation during the period under review. Today annual international industry showcases are always about showing something new and are important launch windows. Look at our internal trade shows and the difference is clear. This paucity is the indictment on our performance and the reason for us not finding an exciting growth pattern. The challenge is in changing this situation consequent to changing our mindsets. This is what I mean by rescuing our minds from the constant seeking of growth via external angels which stems from a dependent mentality.     Economic equaliser Innovation can be an economic equaliser too to start with. Note that the recent acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook meant the exchange of $ 19 billion and WhatsApp was a simple two member start-up. Supported by a well-rounded education, and with a system balanced by flexibility, creativity can undoubtedly flourish. Sri Lanka from the beginning of independence really did not capitalise on the nation’s inherent strengths but unfortunately was caught up in unnecessary and negative endeavours most of the time. We appear to have taken some of the colonial masters’ controlling procedures to a new height. ‘Food’ has been uppermost in our minds and perhaps still does! We simply did not reap benefits from our high literacy. We did not understand the strength of having manufacturing but mostly concentrated on food production via agriculture. We did improve on food production, but even today we are at a loss in trying to cut down post-harvest losses! The United States on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse tackled post-harvest losses through new developments in processing and packaging at a very early stage – a lesson lost on us. Munidasa Cumarathinga was a great son of the south. His words of wisdom had they been pursued should have led Sri Lanka to ensure that economic deficiencies based on geography were narrowed and much of the ills the country facing today would not have materialised. [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 ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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