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Innovate this

Published: 
Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On the eve of the Ministry of Planning’s big conference next week (the VII Americas Competitiveness Forum) some news from India might help to place it in perspective. An article on CNBC (September 18) “India’s Lost Generation” by Neerja Jetley, (since circulated to other Web sources) painted a different picture of India from the tech-driven powerhouse that recently launched a successful unmanned mission to Mars.

The Indian education miracle, which supposedly produced a stream of skilled graduates might not, it seems, be all it was thought. According to the article, instead of English proficient, tech-savvy graduates, a Singaporean lecturer found out of a tertiary class of 100, none spoke or understood English, or had heard of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. That incident confirmed what many surveys, CEOs and studies had been saying for years.

The main reason is “dismal education standards” and political money in the education system, turning institutions into diploma mills. The consequential risks of such a state (illiterate populace with a high sense of entitlement and low skills), the article concluded, were “systemic” and included increased violence and crime and stunted economic growth.

So: money pumped into education resulting in large numbers of graduates, but no increased productivity; a drought of skilled and unskilled labour in public and private sectors; escalating violence and social chaos. This all sounds eerily familiar; much like here, in fact, where despite the government’s trumpeting its achievements in education, the situation is dire. The 2014 World Economic Forum Competitiveness Report gives some details.

Corruption, inefficiency and poor work ethic were the top three factors stymieing development. At number six was the incapacity for innovation. T&T ranked 102 in capacity to innovate out of 144 countries; 117 in company spending on R&D; 106 in university-industry collaboration; and 118 in government procurement of advanced tech products. From this it’s reasonable to say we stink at innovation and are afraid of change (as in acquisition of and funding research into new technologies).

But there are contradictory data. T&T also ranks an impressive 39 in availability of scientists and engineers, and 64 in technological readiness. This means there’s a massive disconnect between potential and praxis, what’s on paper and on the ground (ie, number of tertiary graduates and school enrolment vs actual skills delivered, and quality of potential staff). It could also mean, more importantly, that talent is ignored, and/or migrates.

The stymieing of talent (and forcing it to emigrate) is a perennial issue no one wants to deal with or even acknowledge. As intimated last week, this environment holds talent and integrity in contempt, preferring smartmen and loudmouths, and massive amounts of social capital leave with the droves of emigrants.

To cope, the society has come up with compensatory, self-soothing mythologies—in effect consoling ourselves that despite many and increasing problems we are amply stocked with talent and skill. Hint: it’s all in our wonderful Carnival.

Wrong.

The reality evaded by these delusions is perhaps the most under-reported failure of the government: education and transformation. In their four years, the PP has not only done nothing to fix the problems in education, they’ve been incapable of articulating a vision of the society which differs significantly from the PNM’s. The failure to transform is visible in the WEF data in terms of lack of innovation, but also in the society’s persistent, loutish idea of itself (“Carnival people”).

Nowhere was the PP’s cluelessness, as far as a vision of the society goes, more visible than in its bungling of the 50th anniversary of Independence. The most memorable thing was the $7 million music album which wasn’t. This was quickly followed with a blunderbuss shot of absurd policies for the creative industries. 

A consultation was held in September 2012 at which Culture, Diversity and Planning ministry officials were roundly abused by representatives of arts groups. Predictably, nothing happened, except that the arts groups were abused right back in policy, or the lack of. (All dealt with in this space, so no need to repeat.)

But now comes to the pinnacle of the PP’s failure: the VII Americas Competitiveness Forum conference whose main theme is innovation. This might be a good place to disclose that I was hired to write something for the conference. I signed a contract a few months ago, but quit a few days later.

Line Minister Bhoe Tewarie’s remarks on the conference Web site perfectly illustrate the PP approach to all things subtle and nuanced: a mixture of mamaguy, cliché, and no grasp of the enormity on whose brink they stumble.

He writes: “In the Caribbean, we have many examples of innovation through our music, fashion, literature and tourism. We recognise that in order to increase our resilience, an innovative approach is fundamental. Consequently, we will lead the regional effort to strengthening the development process in the Americas.”

Right. From its triumphant series on the human imagination, which started from the premise that four people on a dais can tell people how to be imaginative, the planning minister is now going to tell people how to be innovative by putting a bunch of people on stage to talk about how they innovated, and hope it rubs off.  

It hardly needs to be said that the conference is a massive waste of money. You can’t teach people to innovate any more than you can teach them to be imaginative if they live in a perpetual angry, violent, stressed-out state. (The book is Scarcity, by Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.) But it should be said that, as illustrated in the Indian situation, the consequences of this fundamental misapprehension of education, innovation and creativity are dire, as we see every day. 

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