In the post-Covid world, we face challenges but also many wonderful opportunities, if our planners truly understand the full implications of the 4th industrial revolution.
McKinsey Global has predicted a 100 trillion dollar impact of emerging technologies by 2025. Artificial Intelligence alone is predicted to have an impact of $15.7 trillion over the next five years, We must move with a sense of urgency if we hope to be competitive in this fast changing world where only those nations will forge ahead that can successfully ride on the huge wave of disruptive innovations that is upon us.
There are a number of key factors that are essential for the development of a knowledge economy. The most important of these is an honest, visionary, technocrat government in which the leadership truly understands and implements a clearly defined road map for transitioning from our low value added agricultural economy to a strong knowledge economy.
This was what propelled Singapore and China forward, where the leadership was determined to give the highest national priority to education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. Singapore is today ranked No 1 in the world in the Global Competitiveness Index, ahead of the US. Pakistan stands at a pathetic 110 behind Nepal and Nicaragua. In the Global Ease of Doing Business rankings, Singapore stands at No 2 in the World with Pakistan at a lowly 108, behind Vanuatu and Tajikistan. The story is no different if we now turn to China. China today has the highest R&D expenditure in the world, having overtaken the US in this critically important aspect in 2019.
According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) based in Geneva, the US had only 597,141 patents filed in 2018, as compared to 1,542,002 patents filed by China in the same year. This illustrates how China has forged ahead of the US in innovation and creativity. Clearly, as done by Singapore and China, here in Pakistan too we need to have a technocrat government with the best minds appointed as ministers and secretaries.
An important prerequisite for a knowledge economy is a strong and fair justice system. Genuine industrial development and businesses cannot flourish with a corrupted judicial system as we have in Pakistan. The failure of successive governments to perform has been due to corrupt leaders who looted and plundered at will. With a few exceptions, they managed easily to escape justice while they amassed vast illegally acquired wealth in foreign lands.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor represents a wonderful opportunity for Pakistan to leapfrog by establishing joint ventures for the manufacture and export of high-technology goods between the industrial groups of the two countries. This should be done by establishing hi-tech industrial clusters all along the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. For example, the knowledge hub in the field of biotechnology products could focus on the large-scale production of enzymes, vaccines, biopharmaceuticals, biopolymers, and recombinant proteins. Similarly, the knowledge hub in the field of electronics could produce personal computers, video game consoles, telephones, mobile phones, radio receivers, television sets, MP3 players, video recorders, DVD players, digital cameras, and camcorders.
Another knowledge hub could focus on high value agriculture products including hybrid rice and vegetable seeds, horticulture, high yielding and disease resistant varieties of cotton, wheat, rice and other edible crops, selected high value medicinal plants/extraction of commercially important constituents, mushrooms, ornamental trees, fisheries, and milk products. Similar hubs could be established in manufacture of engineering goods, trucks, automobiles, tanks, defense products and other such areas. Specialised metal alloys and new materials such as graphene with special characteristics are in great demand for manufacture of engineering goods, as well as for production of defence equipment.
A knowledge hub for manufacturing specialized materials including special metals, composites, polymers, nanomaterials etc would therefore be important. A related hub should set up focusing on mineral extraction and processing. This could include technologies for production of rare earths needed in the electronics and other specialized industries.
Each hub should have four key components within it. These should be: (a) industries for the production of high technology and hence high value products in specific field technical training centers; (b) university research centers; (c) technology parks; and (d) technical training centers. The fields in which these knowledge hubs should be set up need to be carefully chosen in consultation with the Chinese government and industries so that they can attract Chinese private sector investments of $500 billion over the next 10 years.
Balochistan is rich in mineral resources but this national wealth is being drained by smuggling of precious and semi-precious gemstones as well as through export of crude ores. Immediate steps should be taken to prevent this loss and manufacturing industries should be established in collaboration with China, Russia and other countries so that we produce and export only highly purified minerals.
The technical training institutes within each hub should train highly professional technicians required by the industries. The university research centres in each hub would carry out cutting edge research in the development of next generation products in that field. The tech parks would incubate and assist new startup companies and help in the transformation of the research undertaken in the research centres into commercial products and processes. The industries in the tech parks should be assisted by long-term tax holidays and by access to electricity, gas and other services at highly subsidized rates. A government sponsored insurance scheme should also be launched.
Pakistan stands at the crossroads of history. After the Covid pandemic, a new world will emerge – a world dominated by artificial intelligence, next generation genomics, autonomous vehicles and strange new plant and animal species created through synthetic biology. In this world, the divisions between those blessed with knowledge of technology and those living in darkness of ignorance will be even sharper. It is in this brave new world that we must make our mark, as Singapore and China have done. This requires a complete overhaul of our judicial system, as well as the introduction of a presidential system of democracy.
The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).