As reported in the Trinidad Guardian, the leader of the UNC at a meeting with party members promised that when the party regains the reins of government it will create a digital innovation corridor. I presume that given our depleting petroleum resources it was appreciated that we have to import to survive, ie, we have to export to earn the required foreign exchange. Further, we have to be globally competitive in the latter and this today is about the use of innovation, invention/knowledge. Surely it was realised that innovation/inventions stem from R&D (research and development) programmes and these have to be funded.
For example, the US spent on R&D some US$410.2 billion in 2016 and had three million researchers involved and China spent US$464.3billion and had a R&D workforce of 2.9 million. T&T spends at the moment virtually nothing on R&D which pertains directly to innovation and the export of novel goods or services. Hence comment by the leader of the UNC should also address the proposed R&D budget.
Today the fourth industrial revolution’s new technologies in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), automation, digital technologies, sensors etc, are what drive competitiveness. China is working in areas which include AI and the associated new electronic chips, quantum computing particularly for the Internet, rockets, surveillance, electric and autonomous cars, high voltage electric transmission, gene editing and manufacturing anything you can think of. The US is engaged in similar kinds of R&D, with special emphasis on AI and robotics. Besides the impact on products and services, AI is having a game-changing influence on business and financial models via big data analytics.
If we are to be globally competitive in our exports we cannot spend the likes of what the US and China are doing and more so cover the same kind of range of topics; we have neither the human nor financial resources. Further, we cannot leave it to the whims of the public in the proposed innovation corridor, to serendipity, as one man and his dog decide on areas to develop, hopefully, products and/or services for export. The agglomeration of the limited R&D skills that we can muster into a few areas is the best bet for us; ie, we have to choose a priori what technologies or even parts of industries in which we wish to work. This calls for a foresighting exercise similar to that of the EDAB which was aborted. In other words, the innovation corridor should be populated by SMEs that were spun out of the areas of R&D pre-selected by the foresighting exercise.
The last time the UNC held the reins of government its eventual venture into innovation amounted to an “i2i” scheme which produced nothing worthy of exports and much talk about incubators and innovation which to date has come to naught, in the context of the scope of the foreign exchange rents earned by the energy sector.
In China, a cluster of computer companies opened up in a chaotic corner of the North West of Beijing, similar possibly to the UNC’s innovation corridor. However, this corner was near to the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua universities which gave the required R&D support. This corner developed into what is now known as Zhongguancun and is home to the technology giants, Baidu, Didi CHinxing and Meitnan-Dianping and also houses the research centres of Microsoft, Google, and IBM. This development is an amalgam of R&D, the private sector and government funding of research facilities. This is indeed the classic Triple Helix of Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff which has driven economic development in many of the G7 countries and the successes of some developing economies.
Hence, it is pointless talking about a digital innovation corridor with the hope of creating a cluster of world-class export companies, without defining how the local model of the Triple Helix will be implemented, particularly when the current private sector is set in its ways of using the energy sector rents to import, markup and sell locally and universities are virtually unfunded in R&D.
What appears to be the objective of the innovation corridor is the development locally of a series of complete value chains by entrepreneurs and their related product/service, market development, marketing, and sales. This is difficult and will take a long time. However, the second unbundling of globalisation offers us the opportunity to be an off-shore producer in an existing global value chain; in fact to develop our economy as China did. Though this outsourcing is usually to low-wage countries and is at the whim of the home country to choose where to out-source, it is possible to be a specialised component manufacturer that depends on our own innovations and not on low wages.
For example, Veleo of France is a specialist manufacturer of air conditioners for cars because of its excellence and not low wages.
The move by China in part to fund Phoenix industrial park and locate some ten Chinese firms there could be part of an outsourcing programme. However, this would only aid our economic development if via our own R&D effort we can benefit, via new local companies, from the spillovers of knowledge from these companies.
Mary K King