Bangladesh and the culture of innovation – Part II

In last week’s article, we considered elements of a culture of innovation in the context of Bangladesh. Of course, public policies that allow innovation to occur, adequate infrastructure, investments in information and communication technologies are paramount for innovation to grow, and the government has recognized the importance of such. Ease of doing business in Bangladesh and all its accoutrements, such as ease of acquiring a business permit, access to credit, land acquisition are also factors that merit policy attention. However, savvy entrepreneurs actually thrive on circumventions to such systemic constraints, so they are unlikely to be resolved with any urgency.

We also considered our local start-up culture in last week’s article and the increasing attention it is generating, particularly among urban youth. Incubators, seed capital, angel investment, venture capital and a litany of other silicon valley vocabulary has made its way to our urban innovators, and while these are positive signs (we have to start somewhere), it is also essential that innovation cultures not just rest with independent and sometimes investor-funded start-ups, but find happy integration with our tertiary sector and corporate world at large.

Despite Silicon Valley success stories of university drop-outs, formal education continues to be primary vehicle for supplying the skills required for innovation, as will be evidenced by scientific, social and commercial contributions of leading universities of the world. Even in India, their leading universities, the IITs in particular, have played a defining role, through their investment in research, fostering of a start-up and entrepreneurial culture, and forging closer ties with industry and industrial R&D, in putting India on the global innovation map.

Our universities can and ought to do the same. While our universities hire and promote on the quantity and quality of academic research generated by our faculty members, the next step would be forge closer ties with the industry and create spaces for greater collaboration between university research and industrial R&D. Several private universities in Bangladesh are increasingly committed to generating high-class academic and action research and these are all very good signs. Increasingly, we will witness the commercialization of research at universities and greater student participation in such activities.

Certain private universities also offer coursework on entrepreneurship which need to be grounded in active, learner-centered and context-rich pedagogical methods so as to imitate real world situations. Universities that do not offer coursework on entrepreneurship ought to focus on entrepreneurship skills as competency to develop among students across subjects or through extracurricular activities such as entrepreneurship clubs.

There is scope for policy attention here. To cite examples of other countries, Denmark, in 2009, formalized a strategy for education and training in entrepreneurship targeting all levels of education. Finland, Ireland and Norway have all integrated entrepreneurship education into their national strategy for higher education and, in some cases, secondary schools. Entrepreneurship education is best served early in people’s lives.

As a country, in order to be more innovative, we also need to graduate more engineers. To cite Denmark’s example again, universities there have been known to set explicit graduation targets for the youth to ensure an adequate supply of advanced technical skills to the economy. Other more replicable examples include cases of universities providing financial incentives for students to study STEM disciplines, new teacher education and training programs, and financial schemes to attract top STEM graduates into teaching.

Generating more engineers will also attract global companies to set up more innovation and research and development (R&D) centers here as well as knowledge process off-shoring (KPO) businesses. These subsectors have attracted significant foreign and domestic investment in countries like Egypt, India and the Philippines.

Innovation cultures are also a prerogative of our leading companies and their management. While Bangladeshi senior management have been known to complain about finding creative, entrepreneurial young workers, I often think Bangladeshi CEOs and business leaders also need to depart from their anachronistic styles of command-and-control. This is particularly important if one is serious about innovation, since innovation, particularly at large companies, is seldom mandated from the top. Instead, it tends to be an organic series of events driven by employee participation, contribution, and above all, passion.

An interesting example I read is of the software company Atlassian, which encourages employees to take “FedEx Days”, i.e., paid days off to work on innovative solutions to problems as long as they can deliver something of value 24 hours later (ala FedEx).

Other ways in which companies can promote innovation include large-scale adoption of Web 2.0 tools which can further employee engagement and cast a wider net on ideas and ways of thinking of employees at different levels of an organization, with appropriate reward mechanisms to ensure systemic sustainability.

In sum, there are case studies in the offing, regional and global, that we would do well to adapt and adopt if we are serious about enriching our culture of innovation.
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