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2021, snakes and ladders and a virus exposing virulent buffoons

2020 has ended, at least by the Gregorian calendar. As always, we are fooled by the time buffoons. Hope springs eternal. This turn of the year, I, for one, am part of this clan, though albeit, reluctantly. 2020 for me was the year of snakes and ladders. Chance pitted morality and malice in a game of realization; conspiracy theories aside.

It was not who did it, but rather what happened, that decided the outcome of 2020—it did not take much to expose the neanderthal within, and the global community was exposed for its posturing and conflict. The earth won.

It showed us the power of regeneration. The Earth made a comeback and reminded us, much as Claude Lévi-Strauss alluded to in Tristes Tropiques, that it was here long before we came and will be here long after we are gone.

The sheer banality of the human, especially the so called human leaders’, discourse in 2021 left me wanting to retch, which I did with abandon. No multilateral claims, nor bilateral ones or unilateral ones, stood any chance in the face of a microcosm of a beast—the COVID-19 virus. We were all exposed as selfish nations, as selfish global communities. Let there be some cheer in that.

Cheer, for now we can, if wise, set a course where technology and this realization should allow us to set a new path for this century and beyond. Will we be doing that? Not much gives me hope. All I see is a hope to get back to what we were doing. Sad, indeed, for this pandemic has shown us how to re-write the basics of global interactions if we want a better future for our children.

Who cares about children, for, virulent buffoons, driven by a false sense of community and wealth, are driving us insane? That we are still unable to build a global governance structure post Westphalia and the World Wars, and the emerging humanity submerging in the nexus of disaster and conflict, is a clear indication that we have no game-plan.

From a cry-baby in the largest democracy on earth to the chest thumping racist pig leading the second largest one, and the self-presuming rats running the game of prosperity, we are nowhere.

The market of human emotions is being played by Bretton Woods multilateralism sloganeering, while we, the people of this world, are behaving like innocent chumps and crying hoarse and befooled into Black Fridays of desires and deprivations.

Indebted nations and indebted people are the harbingers of much that will be at play this year. No degrees or CEOs or pretend leaders can save us. Only a collective bargain amongst humans using the technology platforms of social media can bail us out. Will they organize?

Leadership itself must be rethought. We need a collective and inclusive mind with a desire for action. I sense that if we do not take charge the artificial intelligence, we so nurture, may well beat us to it.

Before I close, a thought about Pakistan. Time has come for rebuilding a national consensus through plebiscites and by delinking election of representatives from election of ideas. The problem here and the problem globally is the same. We must take on serious thought and discourse as a building block and let the rat-race die. I know, you will say, dream on! But dreams are the builders of hope and good cheer! Blessings for 2021.

Adapting Pakistan To Post Covid-19 Technology Gains: Some Thought Pathways

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed our lifestyles in so many ways. The revolution in the conduct of business and the increased role of technology are the most crucial ones. Changing patterns of earning and spending have resulted in people and businesses being more reliant on digital means. Technology-driven businesses survived and thrived during this global pandemic. Evaluating the patterns of the past year, one thing is clear that these changes are here to stay.

Post pandemic, a massive compression of technology adoption and adaptation is happening in Asia, but Pakistan, still amongst the least technology-friendly states, is lagging. Is the enabling environment in Pakistan holding back this technology adoption and adaptation? Is dearth of capital chasing technology innovation in Pakistan holding back emergence of ideas and innovations and entrepreneurs, or is it the absence of ideas and skills and ‘real’ education?

Here is an attempt to provide some thought pathways for Pakistan to adopt and adapt to post Covid-19 technology gains.

For arriving at these pathways, we must review post Covid-19 and other emerging trends underpinned by technology.

Remote work is here to stay changing the geography of jobs and therefore living preferences. With the outbreak of Covid-19, offices, firms, and industries had to encourage their employees to work from home through online systems. Today, it is observable that virtual meetings are held through apps like “Zoom” and “MS Teams” and more. Since remote work is becoming increasingly common, the geography of jobs is also going through a transition. Now that everything has become accessible through the internet and technology, the demand for staying in cities has been decreasing rapidly. Due to this, the property prices in the urban areas, particularly those in the developed states, are on the continual decline as well.

Last mile delivery, remote shopping, and e-commerce have gotten a boost and these trends will not back off. People have now become acclimatized to the new normal. By adapting to the changing patterns, people now prefer having most tasks done while staying at home and using emerging digital customer service trends pervading e-commerce. During the pandemic, retail and financial and food services have undergone change. Instead of having to go to the malls, people now prefer shopping online. Due to restaurants being shut down, food is ordered online through apps like “Foodpanda”. Grocery stores have also shifted their business to being more e-commerce oriented. Even the Karachi icon Agha’s Super Market Store attempted e-commerce before completely dying down due to a late transition post pandemic.

Demand for resilient skills and not university graduates in traditional fields is changing the demand for learning. Cognitive skills and critical learning are very crucial to survive in the contemporary world. Grasping the understanding of socio-behavioral patterns and utilizing them to deliver services through critical thinking is the emerging need in all spheres of commerce and life. The share of employment in occupations intensive in non-routine cognitive and socio-behavioral skills is on the rise since 2001—from 19 to 23 percent in emerging economies and from 33 to 41 percent in advanced economies. People with critical thinking and cognitive skills with a better understanding of the socio-behavioral patterns are preferred in the employment processes. These adaptable skills enable people to transfer more easily from one task to the other. This in turn is changing the nature of demand for education and skills—learning of different nature is being sought.

Digital platform jobs are raising opportunities for jobs in connected rural areas. Technology is challenging the traditional boundaries of firms and global value chains. The geography of jobs is changing due to the pandemic and the emerging digital platforms. New business models involve dependency on digital means and can thus evolve rapidly from local startups to global behemoths, often with few employees and tangible assets. These digital platforms tend to form and run clusters of businesses in underdeveloped rural areas.  Even in the places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya the economies are moving to rural areas due to digital platform jobs.

Digital platforms have rationalized the hype about the gig economy. The gig economy refers to a labor market dominated by freelance work. Though there has been much talk about this, the takeover of the gig economy is a rather gradual process. Freelance work today is less than half a percent of the total economic labor force of the world—Freelancer, Upwork, and Zhubajia have a total of 60 million users. What is happening is that before the gig economy came about, organized platforms or e-commerce platforms have started coming around. There is a limit to what an individual contractor can do unless they are a part of a team. The team is where the innovation happens. Virtual clusters have been formed and continue forming. Instead of the gig economy, we now have platform firms which are dominating the markets.

Pandemic or not, technology has already been shaping the way future services are delivered—the pandemic is simply shrinking the timeline.

Manufacturing shop floors are now dominated by robots—replacing people and jobs. The major manufacturers around the world have amalgamated their commitment to artificial intelligence and technology in their business agendas. Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, etc. are implementing the idea of artificial intelligence and technology in their product lines and factory stores to survive in the emerging business trends. In the next ten years, the global economic patterns are expected to transform completely. Since mid-2020, nearly three million industrial robots got into operation. That is more than the total number of robots that got into operation between 2014-2020. Due to increased dependency on technology, it is evident that robots are the future—pandemic or no pandemic!

Reshoring could potentially impact global value chains. Global economic institutions are debating whether global value chains will survive? A lot of people feel threatened due to the pandemic and related chaos. Immense work is being done to draw out ways to get out of this turmoil. A continual vast-scale expansion of the businesses like Amazon and Alibaba has been observed recently where brick and mortar stores are unable to compete. The trend of carrying out businesses over the internet has been more immune to potential lockdowns. Thus, investing in automation and reshoring production can prevent the value chain disruption greatly. Travel restrictions have impacted the trade patterns greatly. Many states, including China, are working on reshoring. Businesses reliant on imported inputs are facing a crisis due to disruption in global value chains. Amendments in the trade policy are required and many multilateral institutes like World Trade Organization, World Bank Group, and World Economic Forum are pondering upon how to deal with this matter.

The key to learning the pathways towards future resilience lies in those who survived best through the pandemic—be that resilience against the current or future pandemic or a war or any other natural or created global disaster. Those businesses that were resilient, were the ones that were either already adaptive to technology or had adopted it quickly in their business plans, were the ones that survived the best during the pandemic. Such businesses were able to harness technology to simulate operations and automate manual processes. Businesses that had amalgamated the use of technology had productivity advantages as well. The past year has made it evident that spending is now going to technology-driven businesses. They were able to immediately gear up to work remotely, collaborating through technology. Thus, in times when several businesses were going through loss and many being shut down, these businesses with digital advantage were able to maximize their productivity and sustain company culture. Furthermore, having a digital advantage also prompted businesses with an agility advantage. By providing them with data-driven insights, the ability to make faster decisions and faster action. Usually, cultures halt the process of adaptivity to change, but because such businesses had cultural flexibility, it made it easier for them to adapt to the changing course.

These emerging and evident trends have immediate lessons for Pakistan and its government to help commerce and society to adapt to this increased role of technology.

Invest in human capital and that does not mean merely sending them to educational institutions. Rather introduce to them the concept of life-long learning. Provide them with opportunities to gain knowledge, polish skills, and train cognitive skills—the narrative of higher education degrees as panacea for progress needs to be rethought.

Innovative education is the need of the hour. It is important to rethink the ways how the youth is being educated. Having a piece of paper (degree) in the hand must not be the only precondition of getting the job. Just look at how Google education program is questioning traditional ‘knowledge for commerce’ institutional approaches. People must be given chances to acquire cognitive and socio-behavioral skills. Competence must be evaluated based on skills rather than based on a degree that one holds. Education for livelihoods is veering apart from education for purely knowledge and learning.

Provide the populace with social protection. This is a two edged sword and helps cut through inequity while providing avenues to mainstream technology—whether targeting or adopting universal basic incomes. This links directly to creating appropriate fiscal space and ensuring nobody escapes tax—yet another policy that will need main streaming technology to implement. Government must introduce new tax structures that involve advancing IT and artificial intelligence to enhance appropriate taxation rather than the current inequitable presumptive and use based tax net.

Government must ensure affordable and accessible internet connectivity for all. Today, this is better than providing physical access through roads and much cheaper. The job creation potential of universal internet and broadband access is incredible. This can also enable emerging Pakistani digital platforms to grow and also for global digital platforms to use Pakistan as a base.

Immense emphasis must be placed on minimizing rural energy poverty. One hundred and forty million or nearly half of the people in Pakistan have either no or partial access to power, even though the government claims achieving ninety percent electrification. All the services that we are going to have to deliver are not going to happen by building new schools and universities but rather through making technology accessible. Since it is difficult to go to everyone’s doorstep to provide them with services, it is crucial to ensure easy access to electricity and the internet.

Governmental authorities must consider steps to reduce labor market rigidities. People must be allowed to move and transition jobs, reform financing arrangements, and labor market norms. Conversely too much informality in the employment sector due to labor market rigidities thwarts formal accounting and transition and mobility of jobs as prospective job seekers and those employed. For job market to respond to signals it first has to be formal.

Adapting to the changing patterns, the government must introduce IT-enabled governmental services. IT demand development must be encouraged to move jobs from one generation to the other. Government as the largest formal employer in Pakistan provides the natural platform to lead in technology adoption and adaptation by IT enabling governance.

Government should get industry to focus on establishment of data centers which are at the core of all future technological adoption and adaptation. Pakistan’s northern areas provide the natural environment to enable sustainable power driven green data centers for the growing local and global cloud storage and computational needs. There are three good reasons why data centers must be established in the northern areas of Pakistan. First, because they require abundant clean energy. So, you need a lot of renewables and the northern areas have a lot of water and hydropower potential, in addition to other renewable power sources. Secondly, they require a cooler climate which northern Pakistan provides. The third requirement is literate and youthful human resources—abundant in Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chitral.

Developing new cities that are clustered, high-rise, small, innovative, youthful cities. Pakistan has an acute dearth of middle sized and small cities given the size of its population. Coupled with this is the trend to spread development horizontally thereby making it difficult to provide services efficiently. Investing in vertical city centers and new cities attracting the youthful population will enable innovation and entrepreneurship—albeit with a new local model of governance for these cities. This will help to shift the geography of jobs and will work as a catalyst to boost development and prosperity.

For Pakistan to ensure its stability in the emerging technology-reliant world, it is important to adapt to the digital means. Pakistan needs to start working over the free provision of internet services, encouraging innovative education and making technological usage common.

Note: Written with support from Yemeen Hasan (yemeenhasan@gmail.com).

Pakistan Motorcycle Stories – Speed-brakers, Pulpit, and Pakistan’s Writ!

August 4, 2020

From Sultanzai in Tirah to Peshawar, KP, 2020

The speed breaker, also known as the speed bump, was invented in 1950 by Arthur Holly Compton when he noticed that drivers frequently sped past Washington University (https://www.acplm.net/5-things-didnt-know-speed-bumps/). I think, the man should have kept to what he knew best, his discoveries in electromagnetic theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Just as IK should have stuck to cricket and left Prime Ministering for someone else in the party—aka Sonia Gandhi model.

We, today, in Pakistan have the damn speed breakers flagrantly challenging the writ of the government and reinforcing the writ of the pulpit in this land of the pure (https://empowerpakistanbyazd.blog/2020/08/02/pakistan-motorcycle-stories-corruption-pulpits-and-injustice/).

What, you might ask, is the problem. Slowing down the free and pure and aplenty should be considered a national service. Keeping them tamed and unable to get to where they are going without dying of speed and haste and killing a few locals on the way should be a good deed in the eyes of the state and citizens and of course God.

Well, let me be clear, that is not happening for the those who can achieve those speeds on our roads, the rich and the public and goods transport drivers do not really stop for them. They fly over them. One testing their expensive SUVs and the other because they do not give a damn in the haze of whatever mental stimulant—read “hash”, they find to keep them awake and insane while making ends meet.

What the speed breakers are doing is either killing or slowing down common folks like us. Killing for they are never marked with a road sign and slowing for we either think about the repair bill of our motor vehicles or are beset with guilt at the plea of the pulpit. Here the challenge by the pulpit comes in.

It is not that I am the only one complaining about the speed breaker after speed breaker after speed breaker. Just ask Google Aunty and she will tell you about the plethora who are like wise not bemused! Read story after story pleading the authorities to do something about it and you will find a common thread. The authorities either justify the need to slow down the denizens or accept the flaw and commit to removing them or simply ignore the request. The last one is often the case of pulpit.

Just like we celebrate outlaws who shoot people in court we seem to have a soft corner for every pulpit that decides to block the road and have innocent children and elderly and challenged folks begging the screeching and halting vehicles for monies. Monies to sponsor more pulpits, grander pulpits, and pulpits that fan the rot in our Pakistan. The state, Pakistan, seems to again be impotent against these false claimants of our beautiful Islam and Pakistan. Love it or hate it, admit it and ride on, Pakistan!

On the way from Booni to Mastuj, Chitral, 2019

Pakistan Motorcycle Stories – Tourism, Cleanliness, Trees, Roads and post COVID-19 recovery!

August 3, 2020

Deosai Plain, October 9, 2019

Distances and destinations define tourism. Tourism brings in revenue—both local and foreign. Local economies around destinations and along the distance thereto, grow. The same can also deteriorate if tourism is not entrenched within an overall “circularity”. The economic system which ensures use of resources such that waste is eliminated is nowadays called “circular”—this is in stark contrast to the “take, make, and dispose” model of the existing linear economic systems. Pakistan, so far, seems to still be on that linear model in tourism; the world, as always, having moved on.

Riding through Pakistan it is evident that in yearning for tourism we are sacrificing the very sustainability and attraction of the destinations and the paths to them. At the core of this is the waste generated and scattered by tourist. It hurts to see this degradation and even more to see that the native dwellers themselves are insensitive to this degradation. It is not uncommon to walk to serene woods only to find trashed bottle of various kinds of drinks and wrappers and containers of food. Cleanliness being next to godliness has gone by the wayside like most godly things in Pakistan.

Climbing to Deosai from Sadpara, October 9, 2019

In the longer term much can be done to eradicate this first tier waste—we must work with all FMCG retailers operating in tourism areas to revise their packaging strategy. In the shorter term, the governments (national, provincial, and local) can use workfare programs to clean up these areas. Local jobs will be generated along with awareness. If the government can pay people to plant trees, they sure as hell can pay them to keep their environment clean. Such program if done properly can be subsidized to some extent by the waste collected and disposed “circularly”.

Roads to tourist destinations in Pakistan need to be rethought. A road cutting through a landscape or a forest essentially divides an otherwise contiguous eco-system. This we all know now. Roads to and through fragile ecosystems—at the very core of tourism—can be slightly more ‘natural’ and less permanent. Lower standard and ‘natural’ roads—like gravel roads—tend to be easier to build and maintain with more involvement of human labor than of machines. More jobs and more awareness! Again, workfare programs can deliver and maintain roads to far flung tourist destinations and most of us riders enjoy tearing down dirt roads anyways.

There is no harm in people making an effort to get to where they want to go—this is what adventure and tourism is all about. It is not shiny roads that bring tourists but clean and secure natural ecosystems protected by their owners! Nature is balance and maintaining that balance is good tourism. Ride on, Pakistan!

Lower Kachura, Skardu, October 8, 2019

Pakistan Motorcycle Stories – Corruption, Pulpits, and Injustice!

Jul 24, 2020

Riding out to Tirah over the weekend before Eid-ul-Azha, reminded me about all what is right and wrong about Pakistan.

Tirah valley stretches through Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai Agency, in our beloved Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. While deciding this to be a destination for a weekend adventure ride from Islamabad our aim was simple—get back on the road and discover a part of Pakistan which by all research and intel was breathtakingly beautiful and not spoiled by tourism, yet. Hidden in that was a subliminal desire about looking at how people of the area are rebuilding lives after the insurgents have left. Returning people and returning lives are stories best read with one’s own eyes.

Yes, Tirah Valley is beautiful! Yes, the people are busy rebuilding lives. Yes, security, or a modicum of it has returned. Yes, the army and the local lashkars have done a great job in clearing out the insurgents. Has normalcy or a semblance of it returned? No.

Look below the veneer and you see three things knowing at the roots of life and peace and prosperity returning. Corruption, pulpits, and injustice. The same three things eating the roots of Pakistan.

The roads that lead you there are littered with corruption. Corrupt institutions in cahoots with more corrupt institutions being manipulated by even more corrupt people. It is not the heady scent of a bumper Marijuana crop that exalts your senses rather the stench of rotting human souls which makes you wonder how the denizens breath and carry on normal lives. That, Pakistan cannot even ensure proper road to its citizens a few hours from its capital and cannot smell this stench is telling evidence of a failed state and its derelict and dysfunctional institutions.

Scattered aplenty amongst this stench and poverty are gleaming mosques—each outdoing the other’s splendor. There seems to be race to adopt bespoke personal interpretations of religion and gather the largest flock. Easy to do, given the absence of education—the sheep! Dig deeper and you find that there is no Pakistani narrative, only that of the local pulpit. The pulpit that pits its followers against the neighboring pulpit. Pakistan, the land of the pure and the nation formed in the name of Islam has no writ on these pulpits. Yes, these pulpits are multiplying, and their mosques are gleaming just like fool’s gold, built with monies that add to the stench in the name of salvation hereafter. Life is a living hell.

The people trying to rebuild their lives are sincere and the youth still have the heady euphoria of a victory recently past. They struggle to find a narrative and even more to find justice which protects their dreams and their yearn for their land. The corrupt road builder is in cahoots with the corrupt policeman who present corrupted facts to the corrupt judge who takes bribes from the youth while the local imam bows to all the corrupt gods and chastises the youth—for their desire to be alive! The people live in hell. The hell of insecurity and injustice. Where is the government, they ask? Check post after check post after check post after check post—of corruption, of pulpits, of injustice.

They wake up one day and fight with the local army check post, being sold the night before to the only unifying narrative—that of the injustice that Pakistan has done to their lives. You know the rest, and so does Pakistan.