Sri Lanka must accelerate its tech industry: Yohan Ramasundara

Monday, 21 October 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Following is the address by Australian Computer Society (ACS) President Yohan Ramasundara delivered at the National IT Conference of Sri Lanka:

Dear Sri Lankans, to thrive tomorrow, Sri Lanka needs to accelerate its tech-economy. A successful tech-industry will build sustainable revenue and help future-proof the nation.

Consider these facts: Mark Zuckerberg made his first million dollars aged 22, Evan Spiegel at 23, Larry Page at 25, Bill Gates at 26, Elon Musk at 27, Mark Cuban at 32, Jeff Bezos at 33, Meg Whitman at 40 and Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison at 42. Apart from making their money from technology – they were all young.  

The average age of these entrepreneurs when they became millionaires was 31 years. This is also the average age of Sri Lanka’s population. We speak English and have the age demographic, education system and talent to drive and achieve a tech-led economy. We just need to build the winning culture and new ways to percolate our share of entrepreneurial success and wealth generation. 

Also consider: Elon Musk was so poor he coded PayPal in a bean bag and his girlfriend’s parents brought him food. Jeff Bezos created Amazon in the garage of his rented house.   

Unlike many other industries, all you need is a laptop, software, good ideas, a powered Ethernet plug and luck. The tech-industry’s ability to inexpensively unleash human potential and creativity is a compelling reason why Sri Lanka, a young developing nation, should look to a tech-led economic future. 

I understand that having a computer and ideas does not automatically lead to success and prosperity. However, even a simple computer game like Fruit Ninja, developed in a basement in Brisbane by four guys, achieved over one billion downloads and built a profitable business. A nation only needs to invest a little to help tech-innovators succeed.

Look at the world’s biggest economy, America. Here, IT ranks the second most profitable business behind Health. By revenue (2018), only Apple makes it into America’s top 10 – Walmart is top dog.  However, by market value (2018), IT companies dominate the US economy (Statista). In America, the top five companies that spend the most on research and development are all technology based.

IT companies are highly profitable because their overheads are low. The margins building cars, for example, are much slimmer and a manufacturer’s ability to change course to meet public demand, is slower. In any event, the tech-industry, with robots and AI, help keep car manufacturers and other industries viable. In the tech-world, the whole world is your business.

Dear Sri Lankans, if you truly want a tech-led economy, you will not have to spend billions to create machines, factories, ports, airports, power stations and other infrastructure, demanded by old-world industries.  

A bit of fibre encircling the island and connected to the globe would help future-proof the nation.  However, even now, the nation’s bandwidth can suffice for most software developments. Even if Sri Lanka had no internet capability, Musk and Bezos, now billionaires, compete in space to provide such access anywhere anytime.  

Musk is launching 12,000 satellites to ring the world and for a fee, provide internet and many other services. Even in a remote village in Sri Lanka, where there might be limited services, a dish and the sky will provide you a connection to lifelong learning and an opportunity to create magic using tech.  (Just search for: Musk Starlink simulation).  

A tech-led Sri Lankan economy positions the nation to take advantage of the amazing changes fast-unfolding. I call it the ‘Photonic Millennia’ – not the Fourth Industrial Revolution. When you understand how much data will be swilling around the world, all roads lead to light and digitised photons. Nothing is faster than light and only light can carry the volume.  

In fact, the more you look, you will realise the significance of the electromagnetic spectrum and humanities increasing dependency on it. The various uses of the spectrum are defining our future state – like the Stone and Iron Ages defined us thousands of years ago. 

The best way Sri Lanka can prosper in the Photonic Millennia is to accelerate its economy by building and selling tech-based services and products.

Let me argue the case further through other nations. The following countries spend more on research and development and innovative tech-endeavours as a percentage of GDP than any others: Israel, South Korea, Finland, Sweden and Japan. All these nations share two things in common: they face real external military threats and have limited resources.

Finland has a much smaller population than Sri Lanka. Finland has only trees, lakes and some minerals. She shares a 1,340-km border with and has been invaded and occupied by Russia. Finland poured its scarce resources into education. It runs exceptional public schools.  

The nation’s education system is one of the best in the world. Her people created Nokia and invented Linux, SMS, Web Browser, Wind Turbines, electric solar sails and other hi-tech exports. If Finland can do it – so can Sri Lanka.

Neutral Sweden, with half the population of Sri Lanka, also fears Russia. Both countries have invaded each other. Modern day St. Petersburg was once part of Sweden. Sweden has built a significant military industrial complex. The complex supplies 90% of her military needs, employs 30,000 people and generates many tech spinoffs. Sweden is ranked the third largest arms exporter per capita in the world. The reason why Sweden sells lots of military equipment is because it is hi-tech.

Israel has a much smaller population and landmass than Sri Lanka. Israel has limited resources – some mineral deposits and offshore gas fields. She is surrounded by hostile nations, has been involved in many costly wars and must spend a large portion of her GDP on defence.  

The Jewish people have survived for centuries by building a strong culture centred on education and a common faith and language. The Jews have produced many innovators and remain a powerful influence on world finances. 

Israel chose to invest heavily in tech startups and it has become the engine room of their economy.  Impressively, about 80% of hi-tech products produced in areas like Silicon Wadi are exported. Over 15 years, Israel created more than 10,000 tech companies and 2% are worth more than $ 100 million each. 

Japan is resource poor. When the American Commodore Perry and his four warships entered Edo Bay 8 July 1853, his mission was to end Japan’s 220-year-old policy of isolation. It worked. The Meiji era, 1868-1912, saw Japan change from a feudal society to a modern industrial state. The rate of change was unprecedented and a testament to the energy of that nation. 

Japan sent its smartest people overseas to learn, especially from England, the then world super power. This is why the Japanese drive on the left-hand side of the road and were an ally of the West during WW1. However, since WWII, Japan’s neighbours never forget her atrocities, especially China (and older Sri Lankans remember her bombing Colombo).  

To her credit, Japan’s tech-economy, diplomacy, aid-programs and military pacifism have repositioned her as a force for global good. Nevertheless, China’s military growth has a big influence on Japanese spending, planning and research and development.   

These examples demonstrate that past events, a lack of resources, including funds, land size and population are not inhibitors to building tech-led economies and achieving rapid positive and profitable transformations. However, they do make great excuses for inaction.  

Critically, fear drove these nations’ leaders, politicians of all leanings and the populace to define and sustain what really matters for their collective survival and prosperity: education, innovation and technology. If you live in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, you are an artillery shell away from North Korea. I contend, this is why South Korea and Israel, are the two biggest spenders per GDP on research and development.

Conversely, I contend, it is the American culture of greed, abundant resources and a limited social safety net that drives their economy and innovation. Americans are creative in making money, especially via the health and tech-industries.  

Three ways they make money is selling and investing in the promise of the next big thing, motivating staff via low-tax profit sharing schemes and integrating industry, universities and research labs. The next big thing is often emerging technologies advanced by innovative tech startups. Silicon Valley emerged from these drivers and became the tech-world’s engine room and spiritual home.

I think Sri Lankans are more mindful than greedy; and more anxious than fearful, despite the recent terrorist attacks. The nation is not: isolationist; resource poor; poorly educated; or fearing invasion.  There are no hostile warships moored in the Port of Colombo or warplanes overhead.  

However, without national fear or social greed, there is also nothing compelling Sri Lanka to rise above internal divisions and business as usual. There are only major nations seeing opportunities and trying to conditionally invest in this country. Sri Lanka’s challenges are primarily domestic and therefore within our grasp to change.  

Dear Sri Lankans, the looming election and five-year terms provide you with a fresh opportunity to consider and define the nation’s future. I argue that a sustained and an astute focus on building a tech-led economy works more in Sri Lanka’s favour than other post-industrial choices. I believe nations can achieve prosperity without being driven by fear or greed. Sri Lanka can accomplish the ends I raise – if there is a national will to do so.

I have argued why Sri Lanka should have a tech-led economy and cited how other nations achieved this goal. Here are eight steps derived from those nations:

  • Realise an inclusive and united national culture is a prerequisite for collective success
  • Spend on education, innovation (research and development) and technology
  • Accelerate and sustain investments in the tech industry as a national objective
  • Support low-tax profit sharing schemes to encourage entrepreneurship
  • Facilitate capital raising via venture capitalists, crowd-funding and philanthropy
  • Drive more collaboration between tech and Sri Lankan industries and Universities 
  • Motivate the next generation, make successful tech-people national heroes 
  • Learn from and compare with high-performing tech-driven nations and leaders
  • The only obstacle in Sri Lanka’s way of achieving a tech-led economy is itself

(Yohan Ramasundara was born, raised and schooled in Sri Lanka. He lives in Canberra and works as the Federal Government Leader for GHD Digital, a global professional services company operating in a wide variety of global markets. He is also the President of the Australian Computer Society, Secretary General SEARCC, Chairman River City Labs and Co-founder Beta Launch. He holds a Bachelors IT, Accounting and Finance and Executive qualifications in Strategy and Innovation from MIT (Boston). The article is adapted from Yohan’s presentation to delegates attending the recent National IT Conference, Colombo.)