Colombo Telegraph

Knowledge, Technology & Prosperity

By Rajindra Clement Ratnapuli

Rajindra Clement Ratnapuli

According to a recent article by David R. Schilling (1) it seems that until 1900 human knowledge doubled every 100 years. By the end of WW2 knowledge was doubling every 25 years. In the area of science, nanotechnology knowledge is said to be doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. On average, it is estimated that human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. The numbers become even more spectacular when the internet enters into the equation. It is believed the internet will soon lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours, implying that knowledge growth rates today are fast reaching exponential rates.

There appears to be a clear message behind the numbers cited by David Schilling: either we keep pace with this fast growing knowledge buildup or fall behind on the growth curve. The reason is because we are now living in a knowledge competitive global economy. Any lag in this competition will be hard to reverse. Interestingly, some analysts believe that man is not alone in this game, admitting that machines (computers) are fast zeroing in, and may even overtake man sometime in the near future, at least in certain high tech areas. We are spared till then.

No one knows for how long humans will sustain such high growth rates nor do we know whether there are boundaries to this knowledge explosion. Some may even question whether such high growth rates are really necessary for the long term wellbeing of man. That said, it cannot be denied that man’s imagination, curiosity and ingenuity are seemingly endless: perhaps they are but a few of the numerous tools in our survival kit. Indications are that man’s quest for knowledge is going to be a never ending process. This cannot be a bad thing. After all, considering that much of the material comforts of life mankind is enjoying today can be attributed to advancements in scientific knowledge and technology.

Peoples’ standard of living has improved significantly over the past few decades and is continuing to grow. To give and idea, in the 53 year period between 1962 and 2014 the annual global GDP growth rate averaged 3.8%, and GDP per capita growth averaged 2.1% (2). When we consider per capita GDP growth rate by continent for the same period, Asia averaged 3.9%, followed by Europe 2.0%, Americas 1.7% and Africa 1.2%. The fastest growth rates were posted by Asia and Africa. Evidently, global prosperity is progressively on the rise. The challenge ahead however will be to give continuity to this growing prosperity in a manner that is sustainable and socially responsible, and beneficial to all mankind.

The principal sources of wealth of a country are its human and natural resources. Wealth creation involves the transformation of these available resources into marketable goods and services. The ability to carry out this process efficiently depends largely on the country’s knowledge based innovation capacity. This is reflected in the increasing impact of science and technology on the economic growth process worldwide. Science offers us a way to create new knowledge which is central to fostering innovation. Technology on the hand deals mainly with the application side of knowledge. Its role is to combine science with engineering to produce equipment (hardware) necessary for generating products and services. Technology is therefore related more to the business aspect of human endeavour being market oriented.

It is no secret that today’s market place has become very sophisticated and unpredictable, and often even hostile, as seen for example in the telecommunications sector, pharmaceutical industry and automotive industry. Customer expectations are on the rise globally accompanied by constantly changing and ever more stringent market requirements. These market trends place huge demands on the manufacturing and service industries, which must have the necessary technological capabilities to quickly respond to these changes and deliver competitive products. In this scenario countries (or companies) that have an already established culture for innovation will have a competitive edge. It is good market strategy therefore to have product development as a continual process, which will also nurture the company’s innovation system. The aim is to constantly update and expand the scientific knowledge base of the company. We can identify two key areas that contribute to the knowledge economy of a country. First a solid educational system and second a commitment to an ongoing Research and Development (R&D) function.

Incidentally, education and R&D are two of the weak areas of performance of emerging economies. As for education, it is worrying to note that among the eight South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan) there is not a single university that falls within the first 100 best in the world: just for the record Singapore has one university ranked 25th. Evidently, these countries have a long way to go before they can reach at least the Singaporean standards of higher education, and that too in a climate where scientific knowledge is multiplying at a break neck speed. A high standard of education is critical considering that innovation and creativity are driven mainly by human capital.

Ideally, R&D must proceed from all fronts of knowledge encompassing basic (invisible) research as well as applied research and engineering. Preferably, R&D must be the responsibility of both the private sector and the government including universities and other centres of excellence. In this respect partnerships have shown to give useful synergies by sharing know-how, equipment and funding. R&D plays a very significant role in raising industrial productivity. There is a strong positive correlation between a country’s prosperity (standard of living) and productivity. Countries with high productivity rates tend to have high standards of living.

Expenditure on R&D has always been a stumbling block in many countries. In developed economies this amounts to about 3% of the GDP and the corresponding figure for emerging economies hardly exceed 1%. This disparity is reflected in the significantly higher wealth generating capacity of the rich countries compared with the developing economies. Industrial productivity as expressed by GDP (dollars) per hour worked is a good measure of how efficiently labor input is converted into wealth of a nation. For example, the GDP (dollars)/hour worked of the eight South Asian countries ranged between 2 and 7 (2010 data). Bangladesh registered a value of 2, India 4 and Sri Lanka 7. These numbers are way below the productivity levels of more developed economies. For example, the productivity of Singapore stands at 41 and USA at 67, their R&D budgets being 2.2 % and 2.7% of GDP respectively, which are over twice those of the developing countries.

It is well known that industrial productivity is driven largely by the technological content of the total production process as well as the quality of labour in terms of education and skill levels. Economy of scale including high plant capacity can also lead to productivity gains. High productivity rates are so important to ensure low production costs and make products more affordable to the market.

In addition to productivity, quality and availability are two other factors that improve market competitiveness of products and services. Product quality is essentially a function of the company’s total quality management system. It must be recognized, especially by the sales and marketing function that who gives the final word on quality is the end user of the product. Quality is usually measured by using a suitable customer satisfaction index. Product availability is the third factor that affects competitiveness. This is essentially a supply chain management issue related to production planning and scheduling, and logistics.

In the end, the main goal of all businesses (or countries) big or small is to increase their share of participation in the market place. This is an uphill task to most businesses especially in the emerging economies. The reason is because our products and services are still not competitive enough in the global market place. Insufficient investments in modern technology and specialized knowledge areas are largely responsible for this poor performance. Of course a seemingly simpler way of increasing competitiveness is to devalue the local currency as many countries often do. This is a flawed system which will promote exports in the short term. After all, the dynamics of an economy depends not only on exports but also on imports such as the acquisition of much needed technology.

It must be emphasized that knowledge growth occurs by a cumulative process that builds on existing established data. To sustain and give continuity to the progress of this buildup it is important that we learn to respect existing established knowledge. Vast amounts of scientific data already exist in the public domain. These include contributions to science and technology made by eminent specialists in their areas of expertise as well as peer reviewed research work published by reputed academic societies and learned professional bodies. In this realm of knowledge there is no space for opinions, feelings and beliefs: what exist are only facts based on reason and scientific evidence.

In this regard it will be a great asset if we can create a science oriented knowledge culture at a national level. As part of this process prudent measures may have to be taken to curb the propagation of anti-science at all levels. In no way can we allow politics, religion, corporate and individual interests to trump science. We simply cannot afford to set the clock back and enter into dark ages of knowledge stagnation.


References:

1. David R. Schilling. “Knowledge doubling every 12 months, soon to be every 12 hours”. Industry, April, 2013.

2. Dariana Tani, Global Growth Tracker, May 2014) .

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