The in­for­ma­tion chal­lenge

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Uzair M. Younus

EV­ERY year com­pa­nies with an in­ter­est in the mo­bile and tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try gather at the Mo­bile World Congress. Held in Barcelona from Feb 22 to 25, the Mo­bile World Congress' theme this year was ' mo­bile is ev­ery­thing'. The in­ter­net of things, con­nected via a fifth gen­er­a­tion of wire­less tech­nol­ogy (5G), is the talk of town. The in­dus­try is mak­ing a push to de­velop an en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery mod­ern de­vice is con­nected to and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other. Re­li­able, fast, and per­va­sive con­nec­tiv­ity will form the back­bone of economies.

To com­pete in a net­worked world, Pak­istan's econ­omy will not only need re­li­able in­for­ma­tion net­works, but a skilled work­force ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing and cre­at­ing th­ese sys­tems. This will re­quire the govern­ment to set a for­ward-look­ing pol­icy to im­prove in­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion and re­li­a­bil­ity across the coun­try. Ed­u­ca­tional re­forms that im­part tech­ni­cal skills to chil­dren will also play a fun­da­men­tal role in build­ing fu­ture com­pet­i­tive­ness. The In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Union re­leases a yearly in­dex on the state of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy (ICT) in the world. In 2015, out of 167 coun­tries, Pak­istan ranked 143, drop­ping from its rank­ing of 138 in 2014. Out of the 32 coun­tries in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, Pak­istan ranks 30, ahead of Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and be­hind In­dia (131), Nepal (136), Mon­go­lia ( 84), and Malaysia (64). Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, less than 15pc of Pak­ista­nis use the in­ter­net, and the num­ber of ac­tive mo­bile-broad­band sub­scrip­tions per 100 in­hab­i­tants is five; 15.9pc of house­holds have a com­puter, and only 13.2pc have an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. Th­ese num­bers are not flat­ter­ing. The only up­side is that 73pc of the pop­u­la­tion has a mo­bile-cel­lu­lar sub­scrip­tion. With fast and re­li­able mo­bile-in­ter­net be­com­ing more ac­ces­si­ble af­ter the much-de­layed auc­tion of 3G and 4G li­cences, in­ter­net us­age num­bers in the coun­try are bound to im­prove. There is, how­ever, a dire need to boost in­ter­net band­width in the coun­try, which cur­rently av­er­ages only 5.6 megabits per se­cond.

The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion al­lowed so­ci­eties in the 19th and 20th cen­turies to de­velop mod­ern economies and trans­form lives. Such a rapid rise in in­comes and wealth had not been wit- nessed be­fore. The foun­da­tions mod­ern Western economies laid dur­ing the early years of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion are pay­ing div­i­dends to this day. China, the se­cond-largest econ­omy, has closed the gap, but still con­tin­ues to trail Western economies in in­dus­trial in­no­va­tion. To­day, we are wit­ness­ing an in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion. Ad­vances in semi-con­duc­tor and sil­i­con chips man­u­fac­tur­ing have en­abled ad­vances in com­puter and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, lay­ing the ground­work for a world that is now con­nected by mo­bile devices and com­put­ers. Th­ese ad­vances, while con­nected to mod­ern in­dus­try, are also caus­ing seis­mic shifts in mod­ern in­dus­tri­alised economies. Taxi driv­ers across the world have been dis­rupted by Uber and a string of poor Yelp re­views can lead to a quick clo­sure of a restau­rant. Gone are the days when Gen­eral Elec­tric pro­moted it­self as a man­u­fac­tur­ing be­he­moth - re­cent ads are tout­ing GE as a tech­nol­ogy com­pany.

As th­ese tech­nolo­gies per­me­ate emerg­ing economies, older eco­nomic mod­els founded on labour-in­ten­sive man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­ports will be dis­rupted. The chal­lenge for emerg­ing economies will be to take ad­van­tage of this dis­rup­tion to gen­er­ate growth and not just be pas­sive con­sumers. Economies that can cre­ate an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment to use mod­ern tech­nolo­gies in pro­duc­tion pro­cesses will power ahead. Those that fail to ed­u­cate and train a skilled work­force will find it hard to stay com­pet­i­tive. Eco­nomic stag­na­tion and political in­sta­bil­ity will fol­low.

The in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion, while dis­rupt­ing economies, also car­ries with it tremen­dous op­por­tu­ni­ties. The 2015 ICT re­port es­ti­mates that only 58pc of Pak­istan's pop­u­la­tion is lit­er­ate; sec­ondary and ter­tiary en­rol­ment rates are 38 and 10pc, re­spec­tively. Af­ford­able smart­phones and com­put­ers, con­nected to re­li­able in­ter­net con­nec­tions, can be used to ed­u­cate young Pak­ista­nis.

For a coun­try to make an im­pact on the global stage, small cen­tres of ex­cel­lence that in­cu­bate new ideas and en­trepreneurs can go a long way. In­dia is ranked 131 in the ICT in­dex, but its tech­nol­ogy hubs are world-renowned. Tech­nol­ogy in­cu­ba­tors can turbo-charge Pak­istan's ca­pac­ity to make an im­pact in a global knowl­edge econ­omy. New start-ups are al­ready emerg­ing. This en­vi­ron­ment needs to be nur­tured for Pak­istan's econ­omy to mod­ernise. By mak­ing the right in­vest­ments and pol­icy choices, Pak­istan can de­velop a mod­ern econ­omy ready to take ad­van­tage of on­go­ing and fu­ture dis­rup­tions.

To lay the foun­da­tions of an econ­omy ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing in to­day's in­ter­con­nected world, the govern­ment need not do a lot. There are three keys to suc­cess. First, the govern­ment must cre­ate an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment by push­ing for in­creased and more re­li­able in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. Se­cond, the govern­ment's reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties must al­low in­for­ma­tion to flow with­out any hin­drance - YouTube bans and leg­is­la­tion to check against the in­ter­net's 'cor­rupt­ing' in­flu­ence should not take up govern­ment re­sources. Fi­nally, com­put­ing and tech­nol­ogy skills, es­pe­cially those re­lated to cod­ing, should be in­cluded in sec­ondary school cur­ric­ula.

Un­der­stand­ing how com­puter lan­guages and in­for­ma­tion sys­tems work are crit­i­cal skills. EMC, a global tech­nol­ogy com­pany, es­ti­mates that by 2020, 44 tril­lion gi­ga­bytes of data will be cre­ated and copied an­nu­ally. By ed­u­cat­ing school­child­ren about com­puter cod­ing and data anal­y­sis, Pak­istan can cre­ate a labour base to har­ness mod­ern in­for­ma­tion sys­tems to do the tech­ni­cal jobs and build new busi­nesses that ad­dress 21st-cen­tury eco­nomic needs.

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