When Worlds Collide #90: Can Sri Lanka Cross Global Innovation Divide?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 3 November  2013

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Movie Poster

My favourite example of how not to support innovation comes from (James Bond creator) Ian Fleming’s children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Written in 1964 and turned into a popular movie in 1968, the story revolves around a struggling inventor who builds a magical car that can ride, fly and float.

Soon, Baron Bomburst, tyrant ruler of the kingdom of Vulgaria, hears about it. He promptly rounds up top scientists and engineers of his land and imprisons them in a dungeon equipped as a lab. To earn their freedom, they must produce a similar gravity-defying vehicle.

Years pass, with the captive scientists trotting out all sorts of contraptions while getting rather long in the tooth. But still no breakthrough…

In their case, the goal was unattainable. But even when chasing feats entirely within the laws of physics, innovation can’t be pursued according to government diktats or bureaucratic whims. It’s a quirky and creative process, not something that can be decreed by overzealous policy makers or regulated by bean-counters.

Innovation is rapidly becoming a rallying symbol for forces of progress and reform worldwide. More than a decade ago, economist Jeffrey Sachs talked about a global ‘innovation divide’ where high-income countries outpace developing countries by a wide margin. Since then, some emerging economies have used product and process innovation to outperform others in economic growth.

What can the state — and society at large — do to nurture a culture of innovation in Sri Lanka? This is increasingly being asked in professional forums and business circles. It was also a key topic at the recent Sri Lanka Innovation Summit (where I was a panellist).

Some useful insights are found in the Global Innovation Index (GII), an authoritative assessment published every year by Cornell University in the US, the global business school INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency.

Since its launch in 2007, GII has become a key benchmarking tool for business executives, policy makers and researchers monitoring the state of innovation around the world.

Global Innovation Index 2013

Assessing Innovation

GII 2013, released in July, ranks 142 economies. It uses a broad set of 84 indicators including the quality of top universities, research spending, availability of microfinance and venture capital. It gauges both innovation capabilities and measurable results, and places them in a broader socio-political context.

GII 2013 is calculated as the average of two sub-indices. One looks at innovation inputs grouped under five pillars: institutions; human capital and research; infrastructure; market sophistication; and business sophistication. The other considers innovation outputs, or the actual evidence of innovation, in two pillars: knowledge and technology outputs; and creative outputs.

When nationally sourced data are collated and crunched, interesting trends emerge. These, in turn, inspire policy and public debates.

Topping the current ranks is Switzerland, followed by Sweden, the UK, Netherlands and the United States. High income countries occupy the top 20 positions; the only Asian ones among them are Hong Kong SAR (No 7), Singapore (8) and South Korea (18).

Malaysia tops among upper middle income countries (overall rank 32) while China is 35. India comes in at No 66, the highest ranked in South Asia.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 30.45 out of a total possible 100, is ranked at No 98, two thirds of the way down the list.

In fact, of the six GII reports, Sri Lanka’s position has been declining. In the first ever GII (2007/8), Sri Lanka was 71 among 107 nations.  Subsequent positions were 58th among 130 (the best so far), 79th among 132, 82nd among 125, and 94th among 144 in 2012.

Dr Ajith de Alwis

Dr Ajith de Alwis

Immediate comparisons between years are not possible as methodologies have changed every year, points out Dr Ajith de Alwis, Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, who studies innovation policies and practices.

“We may have slid down — or others may have been more active!  Our ‘neighbours’ in 2013 rankings are the same as in 2012 rankings,” he told me in an extensive interview published on Groundviews.org this week.

Sri Lanka is sandwiched between El Salvador (97) and the Philippines (99) in GII 2013.  “These rankings give us an analysis and a baseline picture which we should consider seriously in internal activities of policy and policy implementations,” says Ajith.

He adds: “It’s not possible for us to be happy with our ranking — though there are some positive indicators hidden within. We must understand that, as a key international publication, GII findings carry weight in impacting decision making and directing investments too.”

The Bigger Picture

Innovation doesn’t happen in a social, cultural or political vacuum. Simply investing public and private funds in research or higher education does not necessarily spur innovation or entrepreneurship.

Recognizing this, GII’s methodology also considers factors such as the rule of law, regulatory quality and press freedom – all vital for good governance and the thriving of creativity. Sri Lanka has scored especially poorly in this category (grouped as institutions), and been ranked close to the bottom (134 out of 142).

In the human capital and research cluster, too, we are 110 out of 142 countries — held down by our low expenditure on education as a percentage of gross national income, and low public expenditure per pupil (% GDP/cap). In scientific R&D, we invest a mere 0.1% of GDP, significantly below what regional leaders like India spend.

Ajith says: “Our R&D investment definitely must go up and that should be done differently from the current practice. More directed, result oriented basic and applied research is needed.”

Ajith now champions this cause as Project Director of the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI), a newly established state entity mandated with coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs.

Commenting on the birth of COSTI, he wrote in July 2013: “Sri Lanka hopes for not only a per capita income upliftment but a different economic status too. An innovation driven economy implies internal innovativeness and an excellent national competitiveness in a global marketplace. Science and technology play a significant role in this transition. Having mere expectations with any type of activity will not deliver this situation. It is not easy to be an innovative economy.”

Global Innovation Index 2013 - WIPO Infographic

Enabling Environment?

On the whole, Sri Lanka has scored better in GII 2013’s clusters on infrastructure, knowledge and technology outputs; as well as in creative outputs. But these strengths are undermined by weak fundamentals – such as business sophistication, human capital and research, and institutions.

Can we advance innovation on such an uneven footing? Isn’t it a bit like running a vehicle on differently sized wheels?

Ajith is cautiously optimistic. “May be on rough terrain, you need different-sized wheels,” he says. But he admits that “Sri Lanka lacks an enabling environment for innovation, and this is perhaps the first target area of work.”

What takes only a few seconds in some economies could entail a few months in Sri Lanka, he points out. “Examples are a plenty. This may sound heretical, but is the truth.”

He advocates an enabling environment for all – not just a privileged few with the right connections. In other words, a level playing field where anyone with the spirit of enterprise can take chances without being held down by an overbearing bureaucracy or political uncertainties.

In the long term, Ajith believes that we need to streamline and improve the quality of national data that feeds researchers and international ranking bodies such as GII. We must “ensure that we are on top of our own data”.

With this in mind, he is working on developing a Sri Lanka Innovation Index (SLIINDEX).  It is to be consistent with international practices and also provide greater nuance and local insights.

Watch this space.

Read my full interview with Dr Ajith de Alwis on Groundview.org, 1 Nov 2013:  Innovating Under Duress: Implications of the Global Innovation Index for Sri Lanka

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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