Bangladesh: Losing out on innovation

bdnews24 desk
Published : 27 March 2017, 01:41 PM
Updated : 27 March 2017, 01:41 PM

Featured image:

This flawed infrastucture is symbolic of Bangladesh's deeply problematic regulatory infrastucture

© asaduzzaman pramanik

For the average Bangladeshi, it is self-evident that 'innovation' is not working and it feels superfluous to have to cite data or arguments either way. The deficiencies in the country's innovation processes are world-beating: the 2016 WIPO Global Innovation Index (GII) ranks Bangladesh 117 out of 128 countries.

The need for change is critical and urgent.

The GII looks at innovativeness across a number of categories: Institutions, Human capital and research, Infrastructure, Market sophistication, Business sophistication, Knowledge and technology outputs and Creative outputs.

What would neutrals agree might be the quickest wins achievable to boost innovation in Bangladesh?

In terms of human knowledge and creative capital, there is a plethora of research on the neuroscience of insight and creativity – and a comparably rich literature on the organisational and environmental conditions under which innovation thrives. The key findings and applications are publicly accessible – but one should make the point that there are no particular learning points for the specific case of the Bangladeshi tech, start-up or innovation sectors; these are as likely as their international counterparts to be able to generate or ameliorate innovative behavioural mindsets. Any roadblocks are amenable to self-organised offsetting.

Current production of electricity exceeds 15,000 MW and 78% of the population is on the grid. The long-term target for production is 24,000 MW by 2021 and 40,000 MW by 2030.According to Bangladesh Roads and Highways, there are 670 km of 4-lane roads out of a total of 876,21302 km for all roads. The country has a total of 2,879,708 registered vehicles.

According to Bangladesh Railways, there are 2877.10 km of tracks.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there are a total 61.4 million people of working age, of which 20.386 million are young people aged 15-29. Of the latter, only 10.8447 million are working. Unemployment in Bangladesh is 5%: 2.6 million are out of work of whom 1.9 million fall into the category of young people. Young people constitute 73% of all unemployed people. Of the 1.9 million unemployed youths, 0.77 million have completed their SSC [rough age 16] and 0.6 million have completed their HSC [rough age 18]. There are 78,000 unemployed young people with Bachelor's or Master's degrees.

According to BBS, 20.56 million people contribute to the agricultural sector of whom 10.5 million are women; a decade back the latter number was 3.8 million – the male contribution has decreased by 3%.

According to BBS, 70% of the population watch TV, of whom 87% are based in urban area and 62% in rural areas. 62% of TV watchers have their own sets. In urban areas 84% and in rural areas 49% watch TV in their own residence.

The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), the country's premier think-tank and arguably the only credible research outfit, classifies 35 million people to be middle class, of whom 33% own an apartment and in turn 61% of these use the internet in their residence. Out of the total population 3.01% use computer, out of which 0.97% are based in rural areas and 8.58% in urban areas. According to BASIS, a grouping of software developers, there are close to a million laptops in the country. More than 50% of internet bandwidth is used for video streaming.

In 2008 tele-density was 38%; in 2016 it was 84%. Currently 99% of the country has mobile telephone coverage.

There are 120 million SIM cards in use, of which 80 million are activated through handsets – of which 30 million are smartphones.

There are over a thousand IT companies, 300,000 ICT skilled workers and 50,000 freelancers. In 2014-15 revenue from IT exports was $135 million and in 2015-16 it was $151 million, an increase of 14.55%. The objective is to increase revenue from the export of IT services to $5bn by 2021.

The more intractable, fundamental shortcomings in the country's innovation capabilities are to do with the conditions which allow innovative ideas to make it into the pipeline and beyond: the kind of elements outside of the control of Bangladeshi innovators and which are key to their ability to be able to productionise and monetise innovation.

At this juncture a brief snapshot of the current state of the nation in terms of human and material capital is worth considering.

Our argument is that affecting institutions and infrastructure offers greatest promise both in terms of impacting innovation, but also in terms of garnering the bipartisan support across the political and civic spectrum necessary to drive innovation.

aladin recently spoke with two highly knowledgeable [and globally influential] innovation practitioners based abroad – one of them an academic, renowned in organisational development, and the other a pioneering financier. Each of them highlighted how turbulence and unpredictability of the environment for decision-making and leadership are disabling the innovation process. Innovators struggle with being innovative in these conditions and struggle to operate as they need to: disruptively, hyper-modern, paradigm-altering and deploying complex strategic approaches to innovation. The two experts singled out infrastructure as well as the regulatory, statutory and judicial ecologies as sine qua nons and essential backdrops for the success of innovation. In their view it was inconceivable that a societal or national climate of innovation could be fostered without the stability and assurance of infrastructure and 'the rule of law'. The academic cited 'bottom-up', socio-political tactics as characteristic of the modern, flourishing innovation enterprise able to thrive within a supra-system which was accountable to wider society; the financier went so far as to say that he would never invest in a country whose judiciary was not freely able to overturn or challenge government decrees. How far from the realities of Bangladesh since 1971.

Development in Bangladesh can only be boosted when there can be confidence in the ability of statutory institutions to support, guide, regulate and protect innovation. The tremendous human potential within the country cannot be realised without infrastructure. Remarkable and committed individuals abound – but they are part of a continuing brain drain so long as conditions are not ready for their enterprise and imagination to take root and be allowed to function.

Since the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, corruption continues to be seen and felt as endemic and difficult to dislodge regardless of the leadership of the day; this alongside the absence of credible signs and initiatives that would instil confidence. We seem a great distance away from the existence of a judiciary which is deemed as independent, competent, innovative and sensitive to the changing needs of business as well as the evolving social fabric. There is a pervasive acceptance of and complicity in the existence of an inefficient civil service in need of thorough reform and the longstanding presence of a political establishment that relies heavily on a pliant and inflated bureaucracy; neither are placed to carry forward the reform  agenda.

Bangladesh needs its allotment of roads, markets, the rule of law when there is a fight between fair and unfair, processes and procedures to give innovators confidence

Bangladesh needs its allotment of roads, markets, the rule of law when there is a fight between fair and unfair, processes and procedures to give innovators confidence. Or else history can repeat itself with the dissipation and dispersal abroad of the best and brightest of the country's social and intellectual capital; because at the end of the day making a living is important.

The revolutionaries of 1971 were primarily poor villagers – hugely outnumbering their middle class comrades; that majority may justifiably have a grievance today about who reaped the rewards of independence. The potential revolutionary innovators of the present deserve better. Time for change. We need to create a better home to attract the innovation genie out of its bottle – and to retain it at home.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
is Editor-in-Chief of
Emeritus Professor aladin aladin is Editor Emeritus of, a visiting academic teaching Innovation and Strategy at London School of Economics, Cranfield, Loughborough, London and the RCA in the UK and a consultant across sectors