Can Pakistan reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution?

Published: November 25, 2019
Email

A man checks messages on his mobile phone at a mobile market in Rawalpindi. PHOTO: GETTY

The fourth industrial revolution or 4IR, for short, is altering human development through the advent of rapid-progressive technology. The Internet of Things (IoT), AI powered computers and big data are just some of the manifestations of this technological transformation. In simple terms, the 4IR is the amalgamation of the digital, physical and biological aspects of our daily lives. This was preceded by a digital revolution which primarily involved computers and information technology. What differentiates 4IR from its predecessor is the speed of the relevant technologies and its expansive effects on our day to day lives. Unfortunately, developing economies such as Pakistan have been somewhat marginalised with regards to its benefits.

For instance, half of the population still does not own a smartphone. However, some strides have been made in limited sectors such as e-commerce. According to eBay’s chief executive Devin Wenig, Pakistan is one of the fastest growing online markets in the world. This begs the question – what is Pakistan doing to hit all the right notes in the e-trading sector?

The movers and shakers of the digital age in Pakistan

Pakistan appears to have started off on the right foot upon its entry into the 4IR. For instance, the country and its government have adopted a top-down approach aimed at expanding its digital reach.

Take for instance, the Ministry of IT. The government has formed the Ignite National Technology Fund – a body that is responsible for promoting and assisting start-ups across the country. This change is not limited to the IT ministry, but in fact, is spread across state institutions. For example, the country’s judiciary has recently heard the first ever e-case through a video link. This has the potential to revolutionise the snail-paced justice system in the country. Similarly, the Pakistani government introduced the first ever Pakistan Digital Policy in 2018, which aims at doubling its IT related exports by the year 2020. Such moves underscore how Pakistan is inculcating a trickle down digitalisation effect through its state institutions.

Conversely, the bottom-up approach has also been implemented. This was carried out through the establishment of National Incubation Centers in all four provinces. The federation has set aside capital for mentorships and training programmes. In addition, designated funds have also been setup to assist with the growth of local start-ups. President Arif Alvi is also a strong propagator of AI and, by extension, the 4IR.  After assuming power, he introduced the presidential initiative of Artificial Intelligence and Computing (PIAIC), which is aimed at making the country competitive in the digital age. This programme focuses on cloud and block-chain technologies in the world, with the aim of producing a new generation of IT and AI experts in Pakistan.

Pakistan on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution?

Pakistan is slowly, but surely making its entry into the 4IR. For starters, Alibaba – the Chinese tech giant – recently bought Pakistan’s largest e-retailer Daraz, which signifies that the e-commerce industry of Pakistan is booming. Moreover, significant investment is being made in areas such as connectivity, infrastructure and payment systems. This investment trend is exemplified by Ant Financial Services’ recent purchase of a 45% stake in the Pakistan operations of Telenor Microfinance bank. This development will not only benefit the country’s financial system, but also aid those people who do not use rudimentary banking channels at present. Such people may enter the banking system if microfinance is made available to them. Another notable application of 4IR technology in Pakistan can be found in the electoral process. For the first time in its electoral history, the right to vote in the general elections has been granted to overseas Pakistanis via the iVoting portal.

What else can be done?

Pakistan still has a long way to go in its quest to compete with countries such as its technologically advanced neighbour, India. There are numerous issues that need to be solved before the country can experience true progress. These potential problems include, but are not limited to, financial security, ease of payments and transparency in the transactions. These issues need to be addressed in conjunction with the practices and dynamics of 4IR. Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of the fourth industrial revolution, asserts that,

… decision-makers are too often caught in traditional, linear (and non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.

Therefore, it is imperative that the aforementioned pitfalls are not only circumvented, but filled so that obstacles, that may hinder Pakistan’s progress as it moves deeper into the 4IR, are removed.

Sikander Bizenjo

Sikander Bizenjo

The writer is a development economist and a member of the Global Shapers Community – an initiative of the World Economic Forum. He currently leads the Urban Youth Project at the Karachi School of Business and Leadership (KSBL). He tweets @sikanderbizenjo (twitter.com/sikanderbizenjo)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.