I was hardly 10 years old when my father and I started to discuss (read argue) politics and cricket, two things constituting most of dinner table discussions in our country. My father was a strong PPP and Benazir loyalist. And he believed Imran Khan to be the greatest cricketer who ever lived. I, on the other hand, always supported PML-N because Nawaz Sharif, I thought, was kind of cute. And there was never a doubt in my mind that Wasim Akram is a far better player.
My father used to say that my preferences will change when I am 30. He never lived to see his prediction come true. But yes now I believe Benazir was perhaps the greatest political leader of our country. Not because of any specific accomplishment of her. But because of who she was and what she represented. And I strongly believe now if there ever is an all-time World XI of cricket, Imran Khan has to be the captain of that team. Else the selection process is flawed. As a political leader, however, I never completely wrapped my head around him. First, I thought he is too good and straightforward for our system. Now, for the most part, I don’t recognize him. That has been a troubling thought for past couple of months because of looming general elections.
I only voted once in my life and that’s in 2013. It was an emotional decision. I loved Imran Khan for his past and didn’t care about anything else. That needed to change this time. Opening myself for a discussion to vote for someone else was deeply upsetting. In hindsight, however, it’s illuminating. Although I ended up choosing PTI again the reasons are totally different. My choice has nothing to do with Imran Khan as a person. And has everything to do with PTI’s manifesto especially tech manifesto. PPP, a party I desperately wanted to vote for mainly because of my slightly tilted left alignment, has done the worst job. PML-N did better but still, their manifesto is all over the place. There isn’t a single coherent theme which makes it hard to hold them accountable for anything.
If this seems like another Facebook post where all of us are justifying our political affiliations now a day. Then yes it was meant to be. But not because of the reason you might think to believe. As mentioned earlier I actively supported PML-N while my father was an active PPP supporter. From an early age, I believed it to be a personal decision and that everyone should make their own. However, it was important to set the context right for this article. The praise for PTI below is not because I am voting for the party and trying to advocate that here. But because I honestly believe that their team has done a wonderful job in articulating the problems of the tech sector and how they are planning to solve them.
If anything I want to advocate a rational decision making. You don’t have to agree with me. But read the manifestos of each party and then decide which side you are on. It’s high time for us to leave behind identity politics and our sentimental affiliations with celebrity individuals. Let’s get to the topic.
The Knowledge Economy Vision
What makes an iPhone an iPhone is not the individual bits and pieces but rather the whole package. I can count at least ten smartphones on my hand that has a better processor, have more memory or a first to adopt a certain new technology. But not one of them is actually a better phone than an iPhone. At least not in terms of adoption and ease of use—metrics that actually matter. Similarly, if you go by the regular media coverage there isn’t much difference between the tech manifestos of each party (Asra still managed to articulate the differences here). Same easy of tax regulations and making it a pillar in GDP etc. What differentiates PTI from the rest is that they are much more cohesive. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that they started with a vision.
Transform Pakistan into a knowledge economy making IT the top contributor to Pakistan’s exports and job creation.
For once you have to appreciate the use of the right words here. To me, this seems like another way of saying that software is eating the world. And we need to get on the boat. You might think I am reading too much into it. But I am not. The point is reiterated throughout the manifesto. From the executive summary (emphasis mine):
The IT/ITeS industry provides the best Return on Investment (ROI) for investment that will stay relevant for foreseeable future. While agriculture and traditional industries will become more automated requiring less human resource to deliver more productivity, IT industry can keep on providing high-end jobs for the future. Hence IT/ITeS holds a central position in economic policies of PTI government.
I don’t remember the last time someone from the government so aptly put why tech matters so much. Agriculture and traditional industries are low yields especially in regards to human effort. So they can benefit a lot from automation. Tech industry, on the other hand, has the best yields as of now. More human ingenuity is required because much of the economic value from tech is driven by trying something new and different. The same is not true for agriculture and traditional industries where processes are relatively streamlined. A good analogy to understand this is to look at how companies are run. If you want to maintain what you already have, you tend to protect the bottom line. But if you want to grow you must focus on the top line.
Now, what’s about having a vision statement? Anyone can write one. Yup, but the statement will become meaningless if you don’t follow it up. PTI’s tech manifesto starts with a vision and everything that follows actually traces back to it. If nothing else it serves two purposes. One it simplifies things for PTI itself. They are clear from the get-go on what to do and what not to do. Second, it’s something that you can agree or disagree to. Going through other parties’ manifestos makes you feel alienated. Everything seems good on the surface. But you don’t feel agreeing or disagreeing to anything. That’s because you don’t understand what it means for you as an investor, entrepreneur, IT professional or freelancer. Everything is too generic.
Tech hubs around the world are echoing this for a long time now. More software enabled industries are central to a country’s growth. I think PTI is agreeing to it. I am not saying other parties especially PML-N don’t. But they never stated this so explicitly. This short distance of translating a dream (in your head) into a vision (on paper) is critical in the sense that it turns the focus from “what” to “how”. When you haven’t stated the “what” part. You can’t really be expected to state the “how”. The end result is half-hearted attempts we are accustomed to expect from governments.
The how part does, however, has a lot of vagueness in it. But that’s expected. Even inside a startup, it’s hard to nail down the exact steps in advance. But startups are nimble in a way governments can’t be. Yes. The good part here again is that PTI seems to be aware of the (emphasize mine again).
Under leadership of PM of Pakistan, an office of Knowledge Economy Authority (KECA) with cross-sectional powers across the government departments will be established as a statutory authority. The authority will be headed by CIO, who will provide the expert leadership and will be from private sector. This is to ensure that the authority works with a more agile mindset compared to existing government bureaucracy.
Two things become clear as you read the document. 1) Syed Ahmad and his team are PTI supporters but not necessarily PML-N haters and 2) they have learned a lot from the previous government’s mistakes. The document actually begins with something aptly titled as “The Digital Dream and Bitter Reality”. There is a fair bit of critique on the previous government. But it’s good. One it’s not an attack on any one person but rather on what’s missing behind those seemingly good initiatives. Second and this might be personal, issues highlighted are ones that I often talk about while writing about startups. Some notable excerpts from this section:
In absence of sponsorship and direction from highest level, each department at federal and provincial level created its own digital strategy competing with each other to have maximum share of resources, budgets and control. These departments including NADRA, PRAL, MoIT, PITB amongst others also competed with the IT industry whereas leading governments around the world (Singapore, India etc.) have worked in close partnership with the IT industry to help them develop capabilities and eventually compete at global level.
Instead of creating holistic and long-term strategy to solve the core issues facing the IT industry the government departments focused on redundant projects with limited and short-term impact such as startup incubators and internships/short-training programs.
These two paragraphs summarize two core strategies that align perfectly with the vision stated above. One, every little initiative by the government should trace back to the vision. No more department level ad-hoc projects. Second, the role of the government is to be an enabler. Owning every initiative won’t help the tech sector. It’s the private sector that needs to shine up. Governments should provide an environment where the private sector can run places like startup incubators and VC funds. It should have no business in running these places. And that makes a lot of sense. If incubators/VC firms need to be successful they need to have a business model and not just another altruism stint. And if something has a business model then it should not be part of the government because of conflict of interest.
In absence of job opportunities in formal sector, an oversized number of workforce joined freelancing platforms facing its own set of problems. Startups have also been exposed to very difficult business environment in Pakistan in which generating revenues or sustainability has been impossible beyond incubation stage.
I don’t think you need to be a PTI supporter to say yes to any of them both. Freelancers are not treated like office going employees. Not even by the banks which is stupid because freelancers can bring more business than an average 9-5 employee. And a challenge most startups face is the hostile business environment. This is especially true when you had to compete/deal with big corps like telecom or banking sector. Even more so if you are currently not sitting in some government-backed incubator e.g. Plan9 or NICs. Which ties back nicely to the aforementioned point.
The third and final core theme prevalent in the document is of public-private partnership. Instead of either backing few particular private sector companies or directly competing with all of them, the public sector should be the first customer of private businesses. From the document:
In absence of adequate market access, government could support IT industry as the largest buyer of IT services hence building capacity and experience necessary to compete globally. Instead of supporting the industry, government departments competed against the industry to execute most of the e- government projects themselves. This resulted in weakening of the delivery capabilities of local technology firms on global stage. This is evident from the fact that there is not a single largescale IT firm in Pakistan with 5000+ employees compared to India and Philippines which have hundreds of them.
I especially liked this excerpt below:
This will allow experimentation on trying to create new business models in PPP [public-private partnerships]. e.g. How Metro bus stations could partner with bike-sharing startup to increase adoption and provide critical mass. Or Islamabad Police could incubate video analytics startups to identify potential crimes. These provide essential real-life data to train expert resources and help solve local problems.
While tidbits like tax exempts are important (PTI has them put in the doc too) they become irrelevant pretty soon. What’s the use of tax exemption if you don’t have an environment where a startup can compete fairly without cajoling the stakeholders of the tech ecosystem? At a very basic level, this is what PTI is promising with their manifesto i.e. a level playing field. That’s pretty exciting if you ask me.
Tech is not the hard part, Adoption is
A recent report suggested that 56M people are using 3G/4G in Pakistan. While that’s a great news in itself. The usage is mostly for entertainment purposes. Internet as a mean of utility and value creation is still limited. That’s a challenge for a startup whose business model is predicated on the Internet. One way the government could help is to force the adoption. While it will be painful in the beginning (e.g. India’s demonetization of notes in 2016) it paves the way for future innovation. Aiming to transform Pakistan into a Knowledge economy is a step in the right direction (there is a mention of paying pensions via mobile wallets if you are curious).
In more ways then one, it’s also a departure from what we have always been told i.e. we are an agriculture economy. Obviously, we are not because our agriculture is going nowhere as well. But it was a mindset hold. A kind of mental prison in Kanye West’s words. Do we need to get better at agriculture? Sure. Should our textile and sports goods industries need to be incentivized for more production? Yes. But they can’t grow any further unless they are enabled and incentivized to operate in the Internet economy. I can’t even imagine thinking about how many small businesses can flourish if the government can solve the fundamental challenge of meaningful Internet adoption in the country.
It will be easier said than done though. At a fundamental level, this is a question of changing mindsets. And it’s there where I think having a vision and enforcement from the top across industries is important. An ad-hoc project to automate one particular department might be good work on the surface. And it might even help that department too. But it won’t change people’s habits in general. It will always be an exception to the rule of keeping things as they are. Unless these people meet with their friends and they talk about the same thing happening at their place. That’s how people adopt new things.