Bringing the world to Sri Lanka

Thursday, 1 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Countries get known for various reasons and some labels stick for long time. Citizens almost always mould the character of the nation.

It is usual to hear the efficiency and punctuality of Germans. We Sri Lankans boast of being known for our hospitality and friendliness – may be at least to outsiders. However, it is also clear that we have not managed to achieve a position of eminence with a feature that sets us apart as a nation which had contributed to the country’s standing as an economically stable nation within the global community.

Trying to emulate some of the above-mentioned Germanic norms can do a world of good for us. During the early days the presence of spices lured nations to conquer us and we were quite easily subjugated. Those were the days when to be a strong nation the amount of real estate you held mattered more than the knowledge you had.

In the 21st century the shift of power is to those who have more knowledge and better innovation eco-systems. The basis of today’s global activities and attention revolve around such innovation economies.

National Nanotechnology Initiative

The National Nanotechnology Initiative was an admission of the local intent to move in that direction. It is with interest that one can record the progress of Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, which resulted directly from this initiative.

1 December 2008 witnessed the date of active launch of activities of SLINTEC which culminated on 12 August 2009, the date of launch of research. Within a small time period an active group of research scientists had managed to support the concept of bringing world to Sri Lanka.

In the first research publication to reach an indexed journal – scientific journals that really matter in the scientific world – based on research happened in the institute. The paper and its reported findings – already covered by two international patent applications – drew much needed attention from a foreign company and with the intention to purchase the nanotechnology embedded development.

Interesting indeed and the initial discussion was followed by a visit to SLINTEC with full of hope by the external party! This is what is meant by bringing the world to you via innovation and numbers possible can be truly exciting.

Has anyone heard the story about the better mousetrap? Still the institute and the initiative are young from an innovation timescale. Technology management research indicates that in innovation 10-15 year time scales are the norm and one must be prepared for the long haul. However, with the system primed well, with time there should be a series of innovations reaching the market.

It is individuals that will think and act and may be as teams. It is the organisational linkages and efficiencies that enable the ideas to propagate across and allow realising the market potential. The two together constitutes the innovation system.


Supporting innovation and innovation management differs from the standard management practices. We do speak lot about management and everyone is interested in MBAs these days. There are more courses distant, not-too-distant and face-to-face MBAs on offer from local to foreign institutes and people queue in with high expectations – I do hope the individual expectations are to understand management and leadership and propel respective organisations to eminence or create new and exciting ventures and not collect points for migration nor collect letters to the end of your name so as to create artificial differentiation with the rest of humanity!

Learning under such expectations will not deliver anything substantial to the system and human resource development statistics from a national perspective are meaningless. Not many MBA programmes address innovation management and the concepts of intellectual property in any detail.

Sri Lanka perhaps lacks experience in these areas as is evident from the nature of activities or rather the absence of any happenings across. Many blue chip companies exist without any intellectual property to boast about in Sri Lanka.

The new economy is about innovation. In fact the concept of science and technology driving an economy has been pushed aside by the single word innovation. ‘Innovation in everything one does’ is the mantra.

Boards in charge of research enterprises should have the required understanding to drive innovation. This understanding differs from the usual practices and may involve more risk taking and enterprise thinking. Board members may have to unlearn some of the concepts they may have and embrace new ways of doing things. The best for Sri Lanka is to learn from outside with some detailed observations from countries such as Singapore and Switzerland.

Boost from Budget

The national Budget has been presented by the President and some more additional support to prime research and development has been supported in this Budget too.

The provisions given in the Budget are income tax on research income reduced to 16 per cent from the previous 24 per cent, research institutes exempted from VAT, income tax on research institutes reduced to 20 per cent, a triple reduction (improving on the double reduction given last year) on R&D to private sector that obtains services through Government research institutions, nominal fee for R&D services rendered to SMEs, 50 per cent of income from R&D services to private sector to be given as a promotional income and an allocation of Rs. 300 m to the National Research Council to encourage special research activities.

Certainly the thought processes that led to these inclusions should be appreciated as we are heading in the right direction. One must not forget, however, that one of the strongest yardsticks is how much of GDP is allocated to R&D and this figure is still in need of improvement.

Now all parties must come together to benefit from these policy initiatives. Organisations can align, but it is up to individuals to deliver. Policy steps facilitate the interaction.

The budgetary provisions to support research may not be too stunning from a public consumption viewpoint and may not make headlines though for two years in a row the solid support from the State has been demonstrated.

Unleashing innovation

It is interesting that nations must understand to keep this process dynamic, a fact reiterated by three US authors. As Sri Lanka lacks a stable research environment, we must back up policy instruments with some active publicity and lobbying to realise benefits.

In the publication ‘Inside Real Innovation,’ the authors (Eugene Fitzgerald, Andreas Wankerl and Carl Schramm) state that there is an innovation crisis in United States of America. Innovations come from people and not from organisations, they are quick to point out.

They write saying researchers think deep thoughts and discover things, and thereupon the competitive marketplace picks the best ideas to pull through the pipeline, and products come out the end to propel the US to further economic success; hence their request for the State to prime the pump and keep the process of innovation going.

The innovation crisis is when no new things are appearing and what you can make up with old findings becomes less and less. We should understand this logic as outlined. SLINTEC’s research has shown the value potential and unleashing innovation across a wider community, the impact is bound to be significant. US understood this and pursued. For us it is a new learning in this century.

True engine of economic growth

Thus the process of innovation – the process of taking ideas into useful form and function and bringing them to market – is termed the true engine of economic growth. Our definition of private sector as the engine of growth is quite wrong. We have merely identified an ownership aspect to lead growth.

Minus ideas and innovation, neither sector – whether private or public – is useful and should understand to be so. Positioning a sector as the engine of growth but not understanding what truly drives economic growth is a recipe for failure.

It is important to understand that both these sectors should be innovative to be really effective as if only one sector is innovative, then the progress of that will be hampered by the drag effect of the other.

Finally, it is ‘ideas put into useful form’ that matters and more of that from us will mean the upward movement of the economy and the resultant recognition from the outside as everyone likes useful developments. These can make the world beat a way to your door.

Instead of searching for salvation by relying on external remittances from migrant labour, payments for knowledge ideas and innovative products and services are what we should strive for. As shown already in some way by the newly-emergent SLINTEC, it is possible for us to do that with individual creativity and a system that is ready to accept new ideas.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis 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 a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on [email protected])

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