It is always exciting to be in a wonderland and that is the principle and the unique selling point of Disneyland. There is excitement, perhaps
varied, but excitement for sure, from whatever and wherever the location may be as the place is a wonderland. Even then the advice to little Alice who has found herself in Wonderland was: ‘If you do not know where you want to get to, any road would take you there’.
However, if you are not in a wonderland, obviously all locations are not going to be equally exciting and one really needs to be aware of one’s intended destination and the pathways. You obviously cannot take wrong steps even if the direction is right in such environments. That is may be what we should understand in the present context for our economy as a destination and economic policies as pathways.
At times when questions are asked or comments made on such destinations and pathways, we respond aggressively or with anger if the question is not in synch with the populist thinking. When ideas are mooted, it is neither anger nor criticism that should spring up but strategy analysis.
Our nation’s literacy means all have ideas, however if the literacy is confined to a small vocabulary, then the ensuing ideas may not that be creative and we need to be conscious of such shortcomings. Just think about being creative and trying to explain an idea with a limited vocabulary!
Consider our economy and the stated goal for its destination. It is instructive to look at how the world economy gets classified based on gross national income per capita. All countries will fall into four segments as per the World Bank classification. The groups are: low income (US$ 1,005 or less); lower middle income (US$ 1,006 to US$ 3,975); upper middle income (US$ 3,976 to US$ 12,275); and high income (US$ 12,276 or more).
The expectation of Sri Lanka today is to double the per capita income to US$ 4,000 by 2016. This would place us in the upper middle income group. However it is to be noted that the value US$ 4,000 is just above the lower cut off for the upper middle income and to cross into the next group there is considerable more work to be done. We have looked at doubling from 1,000 to 2,000 and today contemplate doubling to 4,000.
Different strategies needed for different targets
The issue is the way in which we are moving on in this mission. It is questionable whether the mechanisms that enabled us to double from 1,000 to 2,000 would serve us equally well in realising the 4,000 goal. Different strategies are certainly needed for different targets and this needs to be factored into our thinking and planning.
Enabling strategies may be quite different from one stage to another and examples are available to demonstrate this. We have seen many countries in the Asian region with per capita income below us after World War II passing ours with ease and confidence over the years.
For some countries we even were expert advisors and service providers. Singapore studied us and learnt from us and understood the elements that needed to be promoted for growth. Scientific and Technical expertise in countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia were supported by Sri Lanka, of course then Ceylon.
The Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research (CISIR) was a pioneer institute in the region with a track record of having trained many a scientific officer in the region in early days. Today many of our research institutes are far from such heights of performance. Today our 59 billion dollar national economy receives only cursory attention from some of these economies. As economy shrinks, the attention bandwidth one receives shrinks disproportionately.
Consider the current situation of South Korea with the past. South Korea at one time was determined to be different and the State led the change. An important element of this process was the HAN project also known as the G-7 project. It was audacious thinking and execution of a national research and development program to position Korea within the G-7. As you are aware the G-7 constitutes of the seven most developed nations and the Koreans planned to be in that select seven.
The initial phase of Korea was in developing an educated work force. They encouraged brain gain and specifically moved forward with building human capital and they were prepared to support strongly those who return with higher degrees. This attention to education is still evident and Korea recognises the importance of education in the innovation process.
Korea also realised the importance of a different strategy in extending the economic strength once a certain position had been reached and this is what I meant by adopting different strategies during different stages of economic development. As the story has now been completed as far as propelling the Korean economy to a different height, the lesson is available to all.
Korea is today in the G-20 and is considered to be one of the most dynamic economies and an Asian Tiger. However as they themselves say, when Korea decided to do this new trick China was never even in the radar, while Sri Lanka is planning doing an economic summersault when both India and China are galloping in the region and thus offer a different environment by way of setting up strategies and facing competition.
Of course it is no use complaining but showing our prowess by designing and driving a different strategy is what matters. The beauty of such a forceful venture would be mere doubling may not be the reward but more and the so-called middle income trap then would not be a discussion topic.
The HAN project
It is worth reminiscing on the HAN project and big Korean dream. Korea came out of the ashes of the Korean War to become the ‘Miracle on the Hangang River’. It had not been an easy journey but a one full of lessons and personalities.
1992 witnessed the South Korean Government launching the Highly Advanced National (HAN) project, called G-7. The project title came from the dream of being among most advanced nations. They built the project with the aim of turning Korea into one of the top seven technologically advanced nations. The HAN Project was aimed at obtaining core technologies in the strategic areas where Korea has the potential capacity to compete with the advanced countries based on its industrial foundation.
Korea, though lacking raw materials, boasts of one of the best ship building industries. Korea did not try in upgrading its capacity in every field of industry and technology to the level of the advanced countries. It would have been futile exercise if this was the aim and also show us a lesson in planning big but being pragmatic. It moved ahead in selected fields by concentrating and directing its limited R&D resources – another lesson for Sri Lanka in ensuring directed research and development instead of adopting an open sesame approach with a little amount of R&D money.
The HAN Project has two categories of projects. The first category, product technology development projects, is related to specific high-technology products. An example of a project here is the development of large size, full colour, plasma display panels. The second category, fundamental technology development projects, included projects for the development of core technology that were considered essential to advancing the economy, society and welfare of the people. An example is the development of 30 kinds of new advanced materials.
There was significant funding for each of the project areas and all were not successful but the conversions in some yielded globally significant players such as LG and Samsung. The HAN Project was a large-scale R&D project based on State and industry investments under a long-term plan. Universities, industries and Government-supported research institutes – the triple helix model in innovation – participate in this project. This collaborative partnership ensured that research was commercialised and economy benefitted.
The Korean Government had a comprehensive evaluating and a monitoring program for the project and also a program based management mechanism. In the first phase of the HAN Project, up to 2,500 patents had been applied for, with 550 granted. Furthermore, 2,100 papers had been presented at conferences and 1,900 papers published in journals. Patents, papers and products are all important outputs of a well managed R&D program and these counts in an innovation economy.
The Coordinating Secretariat for Science Technology and Innovation (COSTI) as a fledgling State project has developed a concept for a similar program, taking the learning from the Korean HAN.
We have termed it VIDU and we hope the next stage of Sri Lankan economic development to be via VIDU or science based! It is with the national planners and 21 November may throw some light on the acceptance of an idea.
Acceptance or not on this day, time will tell that this is the way forward if we are to double our per capita income and beyond and this indeed is a safe bet to make!
[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 email@example.com.]