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A Tech Revolution Brews in Pakistan

To become a competitive geoeconomic state as envisioned by the National Security Policy, Pakistan has to have a strategic vision about technology-led growth, which will only be made possible by cultivating a knowledge ecosystem in the country. Pakistan missed out on many earlier opportunities to become a diversified economy, be it the industrial rush of the post-World War II or later on by not investing in high profitable sectors such as mining, tourism, food, defense R&D, or manufacturing. Diving into the Fourth industrial revolution as a knowledge creator is the country's only immediate salvation.

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Pakistan, a nation by design, lives and thrives upon the bedrock of ancient lands and cultures. Regions that Pakistan consists of are home to some of the oldest civilizations in human history, which for the most part, have been an agrarian society since time immemorial. Therefore, Pakistan, upon its birth in 1947, inherited an agricultural economy that still functioned the good old way. The scale of mechanization in agriculture, the construction of canal systems, dams, water distribution systems, and advancements in technology helped Pakistan increase its agricultural output – leading to the development of an agri-centric export economy, especially the textile industry.

Despite its early success, the Pakistani economy could not diversify or transform itself from an agricultural economy into an industrialized economy – as it was done by South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and several other Southeast Asian economies; therefore, the story of Pakistan is the story of missed opportunities.

Pakistan not only missed out on the post-World-War-II industrial rush but also missed many opportunities to become a diversified economy later on, such as mining, tourism, food, defense R&D and manufacturing, automobile, and hydrocarbon sectors of the economy. This situation has landed Pakistan into a trap – where Pakistan’s imports, driven by a growing middle class, are increasing in contrast to its exports, a problem that continues to plague the Pakistani economy to date. Although mega projects like CPEC are creating new opportunities for Pakistan and opening doors to industrialization, the growth in Pakistan’s population calls for fresh, disruptive ideas to build an economy of tomorrow; that is where the tech industry comes in.

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The world we live in and the world where our children will live in is increasingly interconnected, smaller, and defined by the growth in technologies that affect all sectors of human society. The contemporary world is defined by cutting edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, Intelligent Process Automation, Edge Computing, Extended Reality, 5G, Blockchain, Cyber Security, Internet of Things, Human Augmentation, Bio-Informatics, Drones, Genomics, Autonomous Vehicles, Health Tech, Education Tech, Space Exploration, Advance Navigation, Automated Agri-Tech, Additive Manufacturing and advance Military and Defense systems to name a few.

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To become a competitive geo-economic state, Pakistan, therefore, has to have a strategic vision about technology-led growth, which will only be made possible by cultivating a knowledge ecosystem in the country. Pakistan needs strategic investment in all tiers of education, skills development, human capital development, language skills, soft skills, and mentorship – to, over the long term, cultivate a knowledge-driven economy, converting its youth into an economic resource. This is where Pakistan’s demographic potential comes into play.

Pakistan has over 233 million people, making it the fifth-largest nation on earth. Almost 65 percent of its population is under the age of 35, and 55 percent population was born after 1997, who belongs to the Gen-Z, making Pakistan the youngest nation among the top-5 countries in the world. Pakistan also has an ideally balanced gender mix available for the labor market and a youth dividend that is set to deliver till 2048. Pakistan now has over 230-degree awarding Colleges and Universities producing over 45,000 Science and Tech graduates a year. Pakistan is also steadily growing on the innovation index, boasts one of the largest freelance digital labor markets in the world, and has internet availability in 88 percent of the country.

Currently, Pakistan has over 100 million active broadband users, a figure which is likely to explode in the future, as 5G technology is rolled out in 2023 and because of the gradual 4G roll out in the most remote and mountainous regions of the country, such as Gilgit Baltistan, Azad Jammu, and Kashmir and Tribal Districts of KPK, many of those areas remain ideal for establishment of large-scale computing establishments such as data farms due to suitable climate. Pakistan by 2025 will also be domestically connected with motorways, high speed-internet, modernized railways, new export zones, and ports, a great leap forward for a developing country. To top it off, Pakistan is likely to have a 125 million strong middle class by 2025, which is expected to be the fastest middle-class growth story since China and India.

These dynamics are the driving force behind Prime Minister’s decision to establish as many as 14 Special Technology Zones across Pakistan, which will be tax-free technology destinations where local tech industry, startups, entrepreneurs will have enormous opportunities to innovate and scale their technology businesses. These STZs are also envisioned to offer globally competitive incentives to international tech investors, tech giants, and companies to bring foreign direct investment in Pakistan and to scale their business globally.

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Pakistan, because of its growing youth population, needs to provide opportunities fast by creating knowledge ecosystems across the country where science and technology graduates and startups could seed, grow and scale, where the youth can upskill in boot camps, benefit from skills development ecosystem and receive adequate mentorship to succeed in their endeavors. Simply put, Pakistan needs to focus on creating job creators rather than creating jobs by developing a nationwide skills development architecture driven by knowledge and disruptive management philosophies. The time is now for a country like Pakistan to take bold decisions and provide resolute support to the tech industry in Pakistan – not only to catch up on industrialization but to prepare the country for the fourth industrial revolution.

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In FY20-21, Pakistan received the highest foreign investment in the tech industry in its history. This trend reflects the fact that Pakistan’s nascent tech industry has global potential and that it has come of age due to the factors mentioned above. It is up to the government, policymakers, and state organs of Pakistan to huddle together to decide a strategic framework for the development of the technology sector in the country, to increase GDP percent allocated for education as a matter of strategic priority, to support skills development, human capital development, and technical skills by creating knowledge ecosystems across the country, especially in rural areas where the majority of the population still resides.

If Pakistan can skillfully leverage its tech potential, it will resolve many pressing issues such as unemployment, poverty, forex shortage, low exports – and will find itself in a better position to find reliable technology-driven solutions to climate change and to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This requires several disruptive policy interventions, such as making the technology industry a part of its geoeconomics framework, enabling this sector to build itself as per global standards, and seeking international partnerships and investments under state-to-state agreements, especially in the skills and technology transfer and absorption domains.

Pakistan is brimming with hope, potential and is blessed with a youthful population. Only if the government can make strategic policy interventions and treat the Tech sector as a matter of strategic national policy, this sector could deliver outstanding economic success for Pakistan in not only creating a new tech economy in the country but also reforming and empowering existing key economic drivers such as agriculture, services, large scale manufacturing, textile, and other industries through disruptive innovation and tech-driven interventions to make Pakistan globally competitive.

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It is through investment in education, skills, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, mentorship, and by creating functional linkages between academia, industry, and government – Pakistan can tap into its enormous potential to the benefit of the state and its citizens. As stated above, Pakistan is a land of missed opportunities – and we often do so at our peril. Time is of the essence, as the global economies and regional rivals are investing heavily in innovation and technology. These trends have far reached implications for Pakistan – in several key areas such as food security, climate management, economic growth, and defense.

It must be understood that Pakistan is located in a geopolitically unstable region, where we can never afford a technological shock by a regional rival or a global power, we must always maintain deterrence at all levels, and in this day and age, deterrence is driven by technology. It is, therefore, a matter of survival for Pakistan to quickly and strategically transform itself into a technology-driven knowledge economy from a traditional and unsustainable agrarian economic model.

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This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Pakistan and therefore should be treated with utmost urgency and as a matter of strategic priority – so Pakistani youth can be enabled and empowered to realize and tap their potential to lead their country into the 21st Century, into the league of industrialized, and developed nations.

It is only by enabling, empowering, and equipping our youth with globally competitive and billable skills and education – we can avoid being trapped into a low economic growth cycle, build our geopolitical stature in the comity of nations, increase our national power, diversify our economy, reform our society and ensure Pakistan’s defenses and independence in the face of emerging geopolitical and technological challenges. We must therefore act fast and resolutely to capitalize on these emerging opportunities – so that the Pakistani nation can realize its dreams and aspirations.

Shahid Raza is an independent analyst who focuses on geopolitics, tech, and security affairs. His work has been featured by several international publications and media outlets.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy of any organization. He can be followed on Twitter at @schaheid.

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