Bangladesh business: The future lies with 4IR

M Riaz Hamidullah   | Published: December 28, 2018 20:48:40 | Updated: December 31, 2018 21:23:26

Past two years, the global spheres have been abuzz with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR narrative, tools and applications continue to evolve in diverse contexts and circumstances. Individuals across countries and societies are embracing, adopting and adapting to 4IR tools to find creative solutions to some of their endemic problems. The 4IR tools now afford many business and industry to leap frog. Newer business models and concepts are fast emerging. 

Bangladesh's exposure to the 4IR discourse came in 2017 as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina engaged at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meet in Davos. Two years on, we appreciate the emerging knowledge, trends and contours of global knowledge in the technological landscape.  Many now ask: how does - and should - Bangladesh approach 4IR?

Perhaps, certain basics ought to be recognised vis-à-vis Bangladesh. Contrary to prevailing notions, 4IR is not largely about sophisticated, expensive technologies. Also, just not about digital technologies. Riding above interfacing between physical-biological-digital world, 4IR is significantly about adapting to evolving attitude and ethics, approach to 'learning' and 'work' across small businesses, factories, shops, farms, banks, supply chains, governments. 4IR is also about attaining sustainable development i.e. as much as 4IR draws on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 4IR knowledge-tools can uniquely complement attainment of the SDGs. All these should eminently hold right for Bangladesh, as a responsible and responsive state. Indeed, some of the large and small-sized Bangladeshi companies are adopting and applying a range of 4IR tools and knowledge, quietly.

Bangladesh's population density adds another dimension: 140 million has access to mobile phone, 80 per cent land under 4G coverage, 60 per cent people with internet access. Vast amount of human and referential data generating out of millions of consumers' behaviour, education, healthcare, environment, weather, agriculture and socio-economics already provide crucial opportunity for developing 4IR applications. Evidence elsewhere suggests that moving along open source-based cloud-oriented technology can make the 4IR applications financially viable in Bangladesh.

For thousands of small-sized Bangladeshi enterprises and retailers, their sourcing, distribution chains, marketing, inventory management, consumer behaviour and many aspects of life, work and business are predicted to change. Unlike what one had grown up or been familiar with, a 20 or 30-year-old established business might suddenly be challenged by a less-experienced, teen-aged Bangladeshi who converts a modest idea into a striking business model with much smaller investment!

In the times of 4IR, a new matrix of 'innovation/ideation - technology - (new) skills/jobs' is expected to challenge the long-regarded matrix of 'experience, money' for most of business and industry in Bangladesh. Whether one runs a small enterprise or, a large factory or, even a store in remote Bangladesh, every Bangladesh business should have direct and serious stakes in 4IR.

Last month, the Foreign Ministry and the World Economic Forum (WEF) took stock of the broader 4IR knowledge-tools applications in Bangladesh the first time. All these were evident starkly. While many pondered over possible challenges -constraints, preparedness -- it was equally encouraging to learn how some of the Bangladeshi companies are afoot in sophisticated 4IR areas as Mobile, Analytics, Robotics, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, 3D Printing. Conversations on possible application of Blockchain in financial sector are on the cards. Wide-ranging use of Internet of Things (IoT), Drones etc sound equally promising, even in rudimentary ways with little alteration. The captains of Bangladeshi business and industry did recognise the fascinating ways the new frontiers beckon so much to transform education, skilling, healthcare, public service delivery etc in contemporary Bangladesh setting.

Yes, certain policy space and regulatory issues need to be adjusted or be in place for the private sector to move along with 4IR. The entire regime of 'data' would require focus to accelerate the adoption and implementation of 4IR. Towards that, the government's flagship A2I programme has already mapped the issues and dimensions of 4IR challenges. To reinforce the strategies, Industry Associations and the Business Chambers should add value by getting the ground ready i.e. making vast majority of their members aware of the ensuing changes, their possible impacts and ramifications, ways for employing science, technology and innovation in their respective domains.

In such an inter-linked setting, the 'first' we need is to accept 4IR as 'real', not as a matter of choice. And that the 4IR applications and tools are on constant innovation, not something like a software that a business buys to serve for a longer time! Learning to live with the new tools and technologies early can help us make the difference. Riding the bus early can also help us in shaping the emerging architecture and narrative given our needs, context and challenges. A business can similarly explore newer markets or businesses that the earlier generation did not venture in. While 4IR pose some unique challenges, the solutions to ride over those lie in adapting to or adopting the new knowledge technologies like IoT (Internet of Things) as 'opportunities'. Application of simple Artificial Intelligence can help connect a Bangladeshi supplier with his/her suppliers or, manage inventory better, in assessing customers' behaviour, preferences, market trends etc at minimal cost.

If a business or enterprise decides to change, 4IR knowledge and tools can prove crucial. Accent would be less on capital expenditure (as is the case in building a 'green factory') and more on transforming the 'organisation' and its 'processes'. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), for instance, is already delivering dividends to the Bangladeshi companies - at factory and distribution levels.

At macro level, the Chambers and Associations need to step up to deliver larger good. The bodies can collectively assess the evolving tools, knowledge and trends, make their members aware of those and their ramifications, engage in policy-regulatory space. For instance, in making our businesses understand how the streaming changes in Automation, AI, Blockchain are likely to alter the ways one undertakes export-import. And also to underscore that a Bangladeshi enterprise may not be able to engage in markets abroad without adopting customised, innovative 4IR tools.

Many foresee that in the next few years, all that we manufacture, consume and supply will come under 'traceability' courtesy 4IR. Innovative use of mere QR Codes or Bar Codes can notably ease doing business. Consumers or suppliers may well demand a producer to be accountable, transparent, ethical, responsible about everything that s/he manufactures or supplies, even while doing business within Bangladesh. The larger point is: even if one runs a small shop or factory, as part of a connected chain, it would be required to conform to the new norms, practices in a Circular Economy. Many of the 'voluntary' norms may be more forceful than legal provisions! Simple AI-based digital platforms already provide unprecedented opportunity for small businesses in going global. Many Bangladeshi SMEs can also tap that as global marketplace keeps changing. AI, in particular, will gradually bring in new standards as well. There, a Bangladeshi business would require to embrace more of international Standards (e.g. ISO) beyond the known technical standards. Increasing 'compliance' regime should not frighten us. That is where the larger bodies as Chambers and Associations can add value by offering constant assessment of the global industry-technological spaces and apprising or guiding the member business/companies on the changes as also how some of them can beneficially adopt these.

In this context, we must not miss out scores of our small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs),  middle market enterprises (MMEs) coming from diverse backgrounds. Most of these enterprises owe to first-generation entrepreneurs, who grew up in unique ways. Supporting them in the adoption of and compliance to innovative 4IR technologies with accompanying standards and norms can turn the ground rapidly into a burgeoning Middle Income Bangladesh. Because of their scale and structure, in some ways, they could be better positioned to ride on the technological transformations faster in a new 'world of work'.

In the next few years, as things stand for most of us, it is Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Blockchains, Machine/Deep Learning, Automation that seem to count most for Bangladesh business and industry, even as we do business within Bangladesh. Last week, The Economist put it aptly while making 12 predictions for 2019, "whether it's artificial intelligence or facial recognition, tech will be everywhere…". Bangladesh business can fast be part of the changes beyond-the-border, if we approach 4IR with an open mind, creativity, speed and resolve.  

M Riaz Hamidullah is Bangladesh High Commissioner in Sri Lanka.


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