In pursuit of high-tech productive knowledge

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: April 08, 2017 21:05:19 | Updated: October 17, 2017 08:49:47

At the current state of economy, growth in productivity and income level is the primary focus for Bangladesh. To address this issue, like many other developing countries, Bangladesh has the aspiration to step into high-tech economy. In the absence of a clear definition, high-tech generally stands for products which incorporate advanced computing technologies like smart sensing, artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning. 
With the prevailing labour-based productive activities, it has been a challenge for Bangladesh to step into such an economic arena which demands completely different types productive knowledge. One of the ways to perceive production is that products are made by machines, raw materials and labour. Another perspective is that products are assemblies of a set of productive knowledge components. So far, Bangladesh's economic span has been limited to the supply of raw materials and labour to produce products, mostly simple. Unfortunately, to step into high-tech economy, this is not the right approach, especially for value addition. 
In high-tech products, primary value addition means generating and assembling productive knowledge. Unlike conventional economic ingredients, these knowledge components are neither tangible nor amenable to codification. As a result, they cannot be imported from foreign sources. The conventional approach of technology transfer in the form of importing technology-intensive machineries, patent licensing and training do not address the issue of increasing the supply of productive knowledge. Even the expansion of tertiary education and conventional academic research also does not address the growth of productive knowledge components. 
Such reality has been the root cause of failures of initiatives in many developing countries to step into high-tech innovation economy. Even upon reaching the high middle-income status with the success in industrial economy, including high-tech manufacturing, Dr. Mahathir's flagship project-multimedia super corridor-could not enable Malaysia's Cyberjaya to repeat the success of Silicon Valley. 
The usable productive knowledge usually exists in tacit from. High calibre professionals should be exposed in the development of the state-of-the-art high-tech products to generate such knowledge components. In the absence of such development activities, how we can expose those professionals to acquire such essential ingredients of high-tech economy is a serious issue. Moreover, there should be an accessible market to commercialise those products to generate profitable revenue. To address this issue, development of world-class infrastructure, collaboration with foreign high-profile institutions and increase in R&D financing have been pursued in certain countries, and are also being promoted by international consultancies and development banks. Although such interventions are important, they don't appear to be sufficient enough to succeed to enter into high-tech economy. For example, Malaysia's investment in infrastructure and education and collaboration of Multimedia University with the Stanford University virtually could not produce a single high-tech innovation. Rather the end result has been a few thousand labour centric call centre jobs. 
Such tricky nature of the role of productive knowledge makes it apparently impossible for developing countries to enter into high-tech innovation economy. Such reality runs the risk that many of these developing countries, including Bangladesh, may end up with labour-based economic activities in pursuing the journey of developing high-tech park, giving technology training and forming collaboration with foreign high-profile institutions. Such challenge and numerous failed attempts to imitate the success of Silicon Valley, often times, compel thinkers to come to the conclusion that success model of Silicon Valley cannot be copied-as reported in Scientific Americana and MIT technology review. 
Despite the replication of tangible parts of Silicon Valley, including institutional collaboration and having innovation luminaries on board as advisers, one of the underlying reasons of failure of repeating the success appears to be the lack of productive knowledge. Availability of this vital commodity is essential to enable an entrepreneur to lead the process of locating and recombining them as high-value useful products, with the potential of generating profitable revenue. The obvious question is how has the Silicon Valley ended up being the spawning ground of productive knowledge components? Was there a natural deposit of this precious virtue? 
Not long ago, in 1930s, the vast valley of San Jose used to be the place to produce oranges, nectarines and vegetables. Due to the initiatives of Prof. Frederick Emmons Terman and local political leaders, the federal government of the USA started to offer R&D projects to Stanford University and other research establishments to develop technology and innovate solutions to address defense needs. An array of applied R&D projects ended up in starting the supply of high-tech productive knowledge components in the valley. The policy of defense procurement of innovations developed from the assembly of newly generated productive knowledge fuelled the entrepreneurial initiatives of recombining freshly evolved knowledge components into revenue generating products- mostly the complex ones. In course of time, such defense R&D driven initiatives have turned large swaths of agricultural lands into the spawning ground of productive knowledge components. And entrepreneurs and venture capital funds are taking the advantage of this supply of precious tacit resource by assembling them as next generation high-tech products.
What lesson can Bangladesh and other developing countries draw from the genesis and growth of Silicon Valley to enter into high-tech innovation economy is a worthwhile question. With the given situation, defense is not a likely spawning ground of high-tech innovation in developing countries. Among many alternatives, agriculture could be the target. Staggering amount of subsidy, as high as Tk 90.00 billion (USD1.1 billion approx), is being provided to the agricultural sector in Bangladesh. Majority of this fund goes to subsidise inputs like fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. But there is technology alternative to address the growing subsidy need. It has been learnt that substantial amount of the inputs are wasted, or overused. Innovations around smart sensing, artificial intelligence and machine learning could be developed to empower farmers to precisely determine the use of farming inputs. Attachment of appropriate robotics technology with precision dose determination will also lead to precision distribution of farming inputs.  Due to the availability of super computing power in smartphones, such high-end computing solutions could be made affordable as well as portable for field use. Investment in undertaking R&D and innovating smart solutions not only has the potential to improve farming, but also, most importantly, such activities will start increasing the supply of most precious commodity of high-tech economy: high-end productive knowledge. 
Given the nature of high-tech economy and the role of productive knowledge, Bangladesh and other developing countries should invest to turn farming as the spawning ground for high-end productive knowledge. Once the supply of relevant productive knowledge reaches a critical level, entrepreneurs will start taking initiatives to assemble them to produce high-tech products to be used in other sectors like manufacturing, heath, and education. Instead of focusing on just high-tech parks and offering technology training, the focus should be to turn local economic activities like farming, to be the breeding ground of high-tech productive knowledge. 
M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D, an academic, researcher and activist: Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North South University, Bangladseh. zaman.rokon@yahoo.com

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