South Sudan: Tapping into Knowledge Economy
By John A. Akec
15 April 2006
When I was a pupil in intermediate school, I was told an anecdote. It went like this [adding to it my own memory distortions]:
"When the German army were defeated by Allied Forces in 1945, all the German scientists were taken captive and then distributed as loot among three powers: the US, Britain, and Russia. The Russians executed their captive German scientists immediately and did not want to do anything with them. Britain did not kill their German captives but kept them unemployed and penniless to rot in poverty. The US treated their loot of German scientists with great compassion and gave them meaningful and fulfilling jobs, each according to their abilities and speciality. The result? The Russians have remained technologically backwards ever since; the US are technologically more advanced than any country on the planet; while the British are just managing OK, but still can't catch up with the Americans!"
The morale of the anecdote shall be apparent shortly after reading the proceeding passages of the artilce.
Southern Sudan nation is starting a new life in 21 st century. It is therefore vital that politicians and business leaders be thoroughly familiar with many concepts that should be embedded in government policies and business strategies. These are: information society, knowledge economy, globalisation, and sustainability. Though interrelated, each of these buzzwords is a field unto itself. I will only look at the implications of knowledge economy for us. To do this, I will begin by attempting to define it.
Knowledge economy, literally speaking, is what it says on the tin. It is an economy where expertise, ideas, skills, and intellectual property are commoditised and play very significant part in national wealth creation and contribution to the GDP. Though also referred to as "new economy", knowledge economy is not new at all. Only its significance has become more apparent as we begin the third millennium.
Since the dawn of civilisation, teachers, lawyers, singers, writers, artists, architect, and doctors, to name but a few - have been paid fees in exchange for their services. Increasingly, many of these "knowledge workers" are being highly valued and paid premium. This knowledge economy is a result of what some thinkers called second industrial revolution.
In the first industrial revolution, goods were produced utilising intensive and low-skilled labour. Here, companies valued their tangible assets, such as land, machinery, and raw materials, more than they valued their employees' skill, creative ideas, and expertise from blue-collared manual worker working in the machine shop, to white-collared scientist in company's R& D lab, to dark-suited administrator or boardroom manager. As far as it went, any of these "soft" elements of the product value chain were dispensable.
Furthermore, the invention of steam engine, and discovery of electricity and its generation and subsequent utilisation, enabled the launching of the first industrial revolution. Electricity (generated from coal-fired steam engines or hydro) was used to power factories and light up homes and street. The steam engine also led to invention of automobiles and trains. That facilitated the movement of goods and raw materials from one part of the country to another with great ease and at low costs. Steam engines also powered ships, while a more refined version powered the aeroplanes. Exciting as it was, the first industrial revolution is dwarfed by the second.
The second industrial revolution, one can argue, was given a kick start with the invention of transistor followed by the development of the microchip (the building of millions of tiny electronic circuitry on a piece of silicon wafer on an area half the size of a finger-nail) . That in turn led to invention of computer. Computer technology in turn led to improved data processing and transmission. The power of computer continued to increase as as the the number of transistors that can be housed on a unit area of silicon wafer continued to double every 18 months for the last 4 decades, in accordance to the predictions made by Gordon Moore (who cofounded Intel Corp. with Robert Noyce in 1968, the inventor of integrated circuit). At the same time, the price of electronics and computing equipment continued to drop markedly while the speed continued to increase.
The use of computers led to drastic efficiency improvement in manufacturing industry and increased factory automation, and therefore higher productivity. Computers also led to the birth of the Internet. Further advances in satellite communication and fibre optics technologies, combined with computer technology and the broadband Internet access, led to the convergence of television with the conventional landline telephony, and wireless mobile phone, and ushered in the arrival of the digital age, or information society in which information is widely accessible. Thus, computer and the Internet are to the knowledge economy what the steam engine and the railway were to the old economy that was born out of the [first] industrial revolution.
The ubiquitous availability of information, that is, information on accessible on the move: how you want it, where you want, and when you want it; has created exciting new ways of doing business or running a government. It made economic globalisation a reality and enabled businesses in the developed economies to outsource non-core and non-strategic activities such as telesales, and component manufacture and assembly to less developed but rising economies such as those of India, China, Mexico, and Brazil.
These countries with skilled and well educated, English-speaking workforce are reaping the benefits of the exciting opportunities which digital technology provides to improve the living standards of their citizens substantially. As low-wage economies, they provide competitive edge enough to lure away significant businesses from West and Japan. As a result, services such as banking, accounting, finance, tourism and travel, advertising, and entertainment now make up more than %70 of the GDP of most Western economies. Previously, manufacturing contributed the largest chunk of GDP.
For us in Southern Sudan, we should begin as early as possible to lay foundations for such an economy. First we need to recognise the importance of educational institutions (specially high education) in generating and managing knowledge. We should therefore invest substantially in education from primary to university. We should particularly build universities of technology besides the current traditional universities. The university or universities of science and technology should teach things like microelectronics, Internet and communication technologies, computer engineering, environmental and civil engineering, mechanical engineering, systems engineering, architecture and design, business enterprise and entrepreneurship, technology management, among others. Indeed, a good start could be building Garang's University of Science and Technology in the South which I proposed last December as an investment in the future and as a means of creating knowledge.
In addition to that, the government of South Sudan should also fund research in appropriate technologies. Successful economies make use of academics beyond the lecture theatre through their involvement with relevant government departments at advisory level and as consultants to business and industry. The government of Southern Sudan should also form specialist panelsl composed of top academics and professionals inside the country and in the diaspora to advise on policies, plans, and programmes on science and technology and on how to align policies to extract maximum benefits from new economy. It also need to appoint chief government science adviser.
Furthermore, instead of continuing to import expert indefinitely, the government should make sure it trains homegrown experts and fully recognise and make use of their talents by "buying" their services. For example, those who have specialised in economics and business management at universities should be given amble oppurtunities to advice private businesses to improve productivity and services, reduce costs, and increase profit margins.
As one amongst 1,500 immigrant scientists and engineers who are registered jobless in the UK, I would like to declare my interest in regard to the anecadote above in which Britain's lack of appreciation of foreign talents was apparent. To this day, while UK has done very well in services and finacial sector such as retail, banking and stock market, it is lagging behind amongst OECD countries in terms of investment in research and development in science and technology.
While this is a mere anecdote, it has a message to convey to all of us: appreciating knowledge workers can give a nation just that extra competitive edge.
Wish all a very happy Easter.