Encouraging Innovation Culture in Pakistan

Culture of innovation has enabled huge productivity increases and major improvements in peoples' living standards since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th century. It has resulted in a monumental power shift from the East to the West and led to the European colonization of the rest of the world.

Countries in the East have finally begun to understand the value of innovation since achieving independence which came after a couple of centuries of subjugation by European powers.

Efforts to promote innovation in Pakistan are being spearheaded by several different groups including DICE Foundation and Pakistan Innovation Foundation.  Both DICE and PIF focus almost entirely on higher education institutions.

Before assessing the situation and making recommendations on promoting innovation in Pakistan, it's important to understand the history of innovation by studying the examples of major innovations since the industrial revolution.

James Watt:

James Watt (1736-1819) is credited with the innovation of the steam engine which is believed to have enabled the Industrial Revolution in Scotland. Watt only had high school education. He never studied at a college or a university. His invention enabled a wide range of manufacturing machinery to be powered.  His steam engines could be sited anywhere that water and coal or wood fuel could be obtained and provided up to 10,000 horsepower to run large factories. It could also be applied to vehicles such as traction engines and the railway locomotives. The stationary steam engine was a key component of the Industrial Revolution, allowing factories to locate where water power was unavailable.

Thomas Edison:

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), the man who invented the light bulb, was probably the most prolific inventor since the Industrial Revolution. He had no formal education. He was a tinkerer who worked with his hands to come up with many devices and was awarded over 1000 patents by the U.S. Patent Office. His innovations were transformational in their impact: electric light and power utilities, sound recording, and motion pictures, all established major new industries world-wide. Edison's inventions contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.

Steve Jobs:

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) invented Apple personal computer. Jobs revolutionized several industries from computing and personal electronics to publishing and entertainment. Jobs, a highly prolific innovator, attended college briefly but did not complete college education. Jobs, too, was a tinkerer who worked with his hands to create things.

These examples clearly establish that some of the most prolific innovators have been people who had little or no college education. It is therefore not wise to limit promotion of innovation to just the college level.

In fact, it is much more important to start promoting innovation during early years in primary and secondary schools. It can be done through inquiry-based learning and provision of tools and training at the K-12 school level. Some examples are as follows:

Inquiry-based Learning:

Inquiry-based learning is a method developed during the discovery learning movement of the 1960s. It came in response to a perceived failure of more traditional rote learning. Inquiry-based learning is a form of active learning, where progress is assessed by how well students develop experimental, analytical and critical thinking skills rather than how many facts they have memorized.  Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF) and The Citizens Foundation (TCF) are beginning to promote inquiry-based methods to encourage more active learning and critical thinking at an early age in Pakistan. These skills are essential to prepare Pakistani youngsters to be capable of facing the challenges of living in a highly competitive world in which the wealth of nations is defined in terms of human capital and innovation.

Maker Movement:

The Maker Movement is a technological and creative learning revolution underway around the globe. It has exciting and vast implications for the world of education. New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace. The Maker Movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, while sharing tools and ideas online to create a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.

Maker movement is helping spawn facilities in many different cities around the world. These places have a wide range of both hardware and software tools and classes available to help people to create and "make" things with their own hands.

The only possible example of "makerspace" that comes close in Pakistan is Robotics Lab that was launched in 2011 in Karachi. It was founded by two friends Afaque Ahmed and Yasin Altaf who had previously worked in Silicon Valley. They bought a 3D printer for the lab as a tool to help children learn science. The founding duo is now looking for ways to expand its audience.“Our goal is to push this science lab to TCF schools, a nationwide school network covering about 150,000 underprivileged students,” says Ahmed. The project, however, is currently pending because of funding constraints. “We have asked them to find some big donor for this purpose. Currently, we train these children only through field trips to our labs.”

Out-of-the-Box Thinking:

The key to innovation is not necessarily advanced education and training in a certain field. It is out-of-the-box thinking. Major innovations have often come from people working in unrelated fields. Recent examples of such innovations from people of South Asian origin include Zia Chisti's Invisalign and Salman Khan's Khan Academy. Both Zia and Salman came from investment banking background before they revolutionized the fields of orthodontics and education.


Encouragement of the culture of innovation should begin during children's formative years in primary and secondary schools. Innovation requires free out-of-the-box thinking. History tells us that some of the biggest innovators were tinkerers with little or no formal education in the fields of their biggest and most transformative innovations. Groups and foundations promoting innovation in Pakistan need to increase their outreach to the school kids. As a start, they can expandinquiry-based learning and build more makerspaces like Karachi's Robotics Lab in partnership with private industries and foundations in major cities.

Here's a video of my friend Ali H. Cemendtaur's visit to Karachi Robotics Lab:


Visiting Robotics Labs, Private Limited in Karachi, Pakistan from Ali Cemendtaur on Vimeo.
Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Industrial Revolution Power Shift

Steve Jobs' Syrian Father

Inquiry-Based Learning in Pakistan

3D Printing in Pakistan

Zia Chishti's Innovation in Orthodontics

Human Capital Growth in Pakistan

Khan Academy Draws Pakistani Visitors

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Comment by Riaz Haq on September 3, 2014 at 8:30am

Are science and religion doomed to eternal "warfare," or can they just get along? Philosophers, theologians, scientists and atheists debate this subject endlessly (and often, angrily). We hear a lot less from economists on the matter, however. But in a recent paper, Princeton economist Roland Bénabou and two colleagues unveiled a surprising finding that would at least appear to bolster the "conflict" camp: Both across countries and also across US states, higher levels of religiosity are related to lower levels of scientific innovation.

"Places with higher levels of religiosity have lower rates of scientific and technical innovation, as measured by patents per capita," comments Bénabou. He adds that the pattern persists "when controlling for differences in income per capita, population, and rates of higher education."

That's the most salient finding from the paper by Bénabou and his colleagues, which uses an economic model to explore how scientific innovation, religiosity, and the power of the state interact to form different "regimes." The three kinds of regimes that they identify: A secular, European-style regime in which religion has very little policy influence and science garners great support; a repressive, theocratic regime in which the state and religion merge to suppress science; and a more intermediate, American-style regime in which religion and science both thrive, with the state supporting science and religions (mostly) trying to accommodate themselves to its findings.

It is in the process of this inquiry on the relationship between science, religion, and the state that the researchers dive into an analysis of patents, both in the United States and across the globe. And the results are pretty striking.

First, the researchers looked at the raw data on patents per capita (taken from the World Intellectual Property Organization's data) and religiosity (based on the following question from the World Values Survey: "Independently of whether you go to church or not, would you say you are: a religious person, not a religious person, a convinced atheist, don't know"). And they found a "strong negative relationship" between the two. In other words, for countries around the world, more religion was tied to fewer patents per individual residing in the country.

Those data aren't shown here, however, because in many ways, that would be too simplistic of an analysis. It is clear that many other factors than just religion (wealth, education, and so on) influence a country's number of patents per capita. What's striking, however, is that after the authors controlled for no less than five other standard variables related to innovation (population, levels of economic development, levels of foreign investment, educational levels, and intellectual property protections) the relationship still persisted.

Note that Japan and China clearly stand out as highly secular, highly innovative countries. At the other extreme, meanwhile, we find nations like Portugal, Morocco and Iran. (The full analysis in the study also included data from the years 1980 and 1995; those are not shown here. Only country data from the year 2000 are labeled above.)

One important point of to keep in mind before comparing individual countries with one another: The figure above should not be interpreted as saying (for example) that China produces more patents per capita than the US. Indeed, that isn't actually true: While Chinese residents filed more total patent applications (560,681) in 2012 than citizens of any other country including the US (460,276), the US still filed more patents per capita, since its population is less than a third of China's. Rather, what this result means is that after controlling for other factors, China appears to have more unexplained innovation "left over" than the US. (For stats nerds: what we are talking about here is the residual after a regression analysis.) It is this leftover or residual value—the differences in innovation that can't be explained by other factors—that the researchers are saying is associated with religion.

The authors then apply a similar analysis to the 50 US states, this time using patent data from the US Patent and Trademark Office and religion questions from a 2008 Pew Survey, including the following: "How important is religion in your life: very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?"

Note that states like Vermont and Oregon are highly innovative and not very religious, whereas innovation lags in states like Arkansas and Mississippi, even as religion thrives. The authors note in their paper, however, that while the "Bible Belt" states tend to show the most religion and least innovation, the finding does not depend on them. "The negative association holds throughout the sample," they write.

Once again, before going and trying to compare states with one another: Keep in mind that the figure above does not mean that Delaware or Idaho produce more patents per capita than Massachusetts or California. Once again, it simply means that Delaware and Idaho have more "left over"—or residual—innovation after other factors are controlled for.

It is important to keep in mind that these findings are correlational in nature; the authors explain that they do not allow for "definite causal inferences to be drawn." Their own view is that causation probably "goes both ways": Religiosity stifles innovation, but at the same time, innovation and science weaken religiosity. Or as they put it: "In both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a significant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness (patents per capita), even after controlling for the standard empirical determinants of the latter."

Explaining in more detail, Bénabou notes that he thinks that much comes down to the political power of the religious population in a given location. If it is large enough, it can wield its strength to block new insights. "Disruptive new ideas and practices emanating from science, technical progress or social change are then met with greater resistance and diffuse more slowly," comments Bénabou, citing everything from attempts to control science textbook content to efforts to cut public funding of certain kinds of research (for instance involving embryonic stem cells or cloned human embryos). In secular places, by contrast, "discoveries and innovations occur faster, and some of this new knowledge inevitably erodes beliefs in any fixed dogma."

So what do other scholars think? "It is a very important finding. And it is done well and correctly, using state of the art techniques," comments Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University who is familiar with the Bénabou et al paper (he is thanked in the acknowledgments). Mokyr admits that "innovation is hard to quantify," but one reasonable way to do it—if still imperfect—is to "count patents."

Doing so, it would seem, lends support to the science-religion conflict thesis: The idea that in places where religion predominates, inquiry truly does take a hit.


Comment by Riaz Haq on May 1, 2017 at 6:18pm

Technology comes alive for Karachiites at DIY City


Exhibitions and activities related to tradition, culture, science and technology came alive when the DIY City, Karachi – Manchester Nano Festival opened on Sunday evening in Rambagh Quarter. Organised by Numaish- Karachi and MadLab, in collaboration with the British Council Pakistan, Habib University and Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, the event was held at the Sobhraj Chetumal Terrace (Purdah Bagh), behind the National Museum of Pakistan.

In another very basic but useful activity, seven-year-old Ivan Ahmed Ali and others gathered around the stall were taught how to light an LED using a battery by trainer Zaheer Abbas. Ivan helpfully suggested connecting the larger section of the LED with the positive end of the battery and the smaller one with the negative side to complete the circuit, which eventually lit the LED.

“Although it’s a very primary activity, but through it and activities like it we can learn how to make complex things,” explained Abbas while tutoring those interested in learning how to make a small electronic gadget using simple techniques.

Another interesting project was the ‘Saya [shade]: Tag- a-Tree Project’. Noor Zafar and Summaiya Zaidi, from the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan, while explaining the features of their project remarked that it is about documenting and preserving environmental heritage.

“It’s only when it has been hacked away for private interest that we notice its absence. Indeed, Karachi’s green cover has shrunk to an alarming 3%,” Zafar told The Express Tribune.

Festival Of Ideas: Building a better world of tomorrow 

Another interesting and eye-catching project was the ‘Sheesh Mahal – the Palace of Mirrors’ by students of Habib University. One of the project creators, Saadia Pathan, said that she and her team tried to build a miniature Sheesh Mahal in hopes of transporting visitors to a similar place of ecstatic wonder, allowing them to experience the blinking lights inside a spinning model for hypnotic effect.

“We wanted to put a spin on this historic palatial beauty using the old animation technology of a zoetrope to build a miniature of the engineering and imagination wonder that Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan built for his wife Mumtaz,” explained Pathan.

“These kinds of cultural and extracurricular activities ultimately become a defence against insanity,” said journalist Ghazi Salahuddin.

Rachel Turner from MadLab said that technology is changing so fast and unfortunately we are not keeping up. “You don’t need to be expert to get started,” she encouraged.

Numaish – Karachi’s Saima Zaidi said that this type of cross-border experiment aims to bring together local expertise and cutting-edge creative technology to re-imagine public spaces. “The aim is to encourage social participation and share civic pride,” Zaidi reiterated. 

Comment by Riaz Haq on May 1, 2017 at 6:18pm

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Inquiry-based Learning For Pakistani Children": 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity visit Generations School in SITE Karachi which has gone a long way in incorporating STEM and character building in their curriculum.
Tens of Lego Robotics kits. Students do Mindstorms from class 3 onwards.
Amazing commitment from the founders. Look forward to working with them in the near future.


Comment by Riaz Haq on May 1, 2017 at 6:20pm

Entrepreneur learns some pivotal news at the Women in the World L.A. Salon
Meet the newly-minted 2017 Mother of Invention: Lab4U founder Komal Dadlani


Toyota and Women in the World proudly announced Komal Dadlani, the founder of Lab4U, as the 2017 Mother of Invention on Tuesday night at the L.A. Salon. Dadlani, who launched Lab4U four years ago, explained the basic concept behind her invention: To turn smartphones and tablet devices into portable laboratories. Speaking with Stephanie Abrams, the founder of Give Back PR, Dadlani, 28, talked about being born and raised in Chile and studying bio-chemistry. Four years ago, she had no experience in entrepreneurship or raising venture capital, but drawing on her own educational experiences in the sciences, she noticed a “gap” between her lower and higher learning. Dadlani said the lack of experimentation even at the university level made learning harder.

So she set out to change that, and Lab4U was born.

“Initially we thought we were solving a market problem. I moved to the U.S. I thought San Francisco — they have everything they need,” Dadlani said, adding that making learning fun is a key objective. “We have a gap with educators not knowing how to teach STEM. You might measure speed [in] miles per hour, but we should measure life in smiles per hour. We believe if we can bring those smiles to the students and inspire them to study science especially women we can make a difference.”

“We are democratizing science and changing the way science is taught by transforming smartphones and tablets into science instruments,” Dadlani said. She was then presented with a $50,000 grant from Toyota to fuel the next stage of growth for Lab4U. It was an exciting moment for Dadlani. Watch it below

Watch the full panel below, and see Dadlani’s amazing technology in action and how it transforms smartphones and tablets into something far more powerful, that literally puts smiles on students’ faces. It’s actually very cool.

Comment by Riaz Haq on November 11, 2017 at 8:35pm

Pakistan’s 1st ‘MakerFest-17’ today


Pakistan’s first “MakerFest-17” Lahore being organized on Saturday (October 28) at Arfa Software Technology Park at 1100 hrs by Information Technology University (ITU) the Punjab in collaboration with its project PlanX and DIY Geeks.
More than 130 companies are participating in this mega event. It is envisioned as a community-organized event that would showcase locally developed projects that draw inspiration from STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics).
The makers ranging from tech enthusiasts to crafters, homesteaders, scientists to garage thinkers. The MakerFest Lahore will provide a platform for Makers to showcase their passionate innovations and to help the Makers in getting connected with leading local business community and investors from Pakistan to share, inspire and exchange ideas.


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