Going Digital

Realising the dreams of a Digital Bangladesh for all

Seven years and many grey hairs ago, two friends and I authored a book together on the digital transformation taking place in the country where we made bold proclamations on everything from widespread digitalisation of government services and ubiquitous computer-based education to booming software and IT services exports and a deeply entrenched knowledge-based digital economy. The book’s eponymous title was pregnant with the promise of digital emancipation. Today that promise, though partially realised, looms as a Pyrrhic victory casting gloomy aspersions over the dreamscape.

Since the mid-nineties, the whole world has been in thralls of the digital dreamscape. Every few years a new Internet search engine like Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, Google or Yelp came along; a new email service like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or Google Mail flourished; a new way to bare your soul to anyone via MySpace, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr or Twitter became available; a new messaging service like ICQ, Skype, FaceTime or Snapchat helped us connect to all and sundry; a new payment service like Square, Pogo, or Bitcoin hobbled along; a new mapping service like MapQuest, Google Maps, TomTom or Waze bamboozled us with uncannily accurate road directions; a new video service like Flickr, Hulu, Vimeo, or YouTube kept flooding us with videos of all kinds; and many other such crazy innovations kept popping up like stars on a virtual sky.

These web services and Internet applications became the cynosures of the cyber-world that commanded millions of dollars in start-up funding from sharp-eyed venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz co-founded by Marc Andreessen—the developer of the first web browser ‘Mosaic’ or from tech-savvy angel investors including celebrities like Ashton Kutcher of Two and a Half Men fame. Many a time these stellar web businesses brought billions in market value to entrepreneurs and investors alike. Presumably, there have been more self-made billionaires in the last two decades than in all of human history. And the pace of the cyber juggernaut is accelerating as we speak.

While we are mesmerised by several hundred-billion-dollar valuations of Apple, Google, and Facebook, cyber pundits are already talking about the next killer app or the next search engine darling. And just imagine that 15 years ago nobody heard of the present-day 545-billion-dollar behemoth Facebook. Its purchase of Instagram in 2012 for a billion dollars raised a lot of eyebrows until the world was stumped by Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for USD,19 billion in 2014. At the time of purchase, Instagram was two-and-a-half years old. To top the cyber-race to a billion dollars, in 2013 a barely-two-year-old Snapchat made headlines by turning down a three-billion-dollar cash offer from Facebook.

Speculations are rife in the blogosphere that in a few years we might even have a billion-dollar cyber start-up that might be only a few weeks old! Most of these audacious entrepreneurs are in their twenties and thirties and some are even in their teens. With such gold rush in cyber-space, no wonder young people the world over are totally psyched about becoming the next tech billionaire. All the mega stars of the cyber world are based out of the US and almost all of them are located in Silicon Valley—the tech industry wonderland straddling the narrow valley in between Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley.

However, there are thousands of other success stories that escape our attention as news of the giants of the tech world starve the minnows of press and media coverage. The lion’s share of these medium to small stars of the cyber juggernaut are from outside the US and therein lies our hope, nay, our dream of catching a slice of the cyber supernova blindingly unfolding before our very eyes.

Unfortunately, we are still ill-prepared to give our dreams a chase as severe weaknesses in both demand and supply sides of the industry douse our entrepreneurial fire and kill any budding cyber idea before it even has a chance to hatch.

On the demand side, neither have we been able to create a substantial e-commerce market locally nor have we been allowed to tap into the global e-commerce market. This failure is largely due to the absence of enabling regulatory and infrastructural environment both of which require positive interventions by the government and the legislature. Regulations and rules concerning online payments, digital transactions, IP telephony, mobile value-added services and data privacy are some of the areas where huge relaxations and opening up are required. In the last two decades, while the world raced ahead, we only made plans and bickered on implementation.

On the supply side, the failures are many; we failed to create industry-specific skilled human resources that would have allowed entrepreneurs and investors to leapfrog the steep learning curve of cutting-edge technology; we failed to establish IT parks to insulate the entrepreneurs from the nefarious power and internet disruptions of the country; and we failed to adopt venture-capital-friendly regulation for cushioning the high risks associated with cyber investments.

Just as cyber businesses can create huge wealth out of thin air in a stride, a thriving cyber entity of today can also vanish into thin air tomorrow. In social media, MySpace and hi5 were huge hits at one time and now most people don’t even remember them. Same goes for Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo—search engines that ruled the day until Google came along. The cyber space is the new world that has already been discovered but a world that is continuously shape-shifting. Enterprising visionaries are fast claiming large chunks of that world but rapid changes in the landscape throw open new opportunities for land-grabbing all the time. Sadly, we are nowhere on the scene.

In all this doom and gloom, we still see scintillating signs of the promise we hold when a barely-eight-year-old local e-commerce venture gets an equity investment from the private investment arm of the World Bank at USD 10 million valuation, or a three-year-old local bike-hailing service gets valued at over USD 40 million. Many more are waiting in the wings only if we let them fly unhindered. The nation as a whole reached nine figures in software services export several years ago and is on course to reach ten figures within the next three years. However, we stand witness to the gradual transformation of a sleepy agrarian economy of the early 20th century into an emerging industrial hub of the 21st century that is steadily embracing digital technologies in all spheres of its socioeconomic activities. It may be impossible to imagine what the next 100 years will be like but it is certain that without a firm footing in the digital way of life, we shall be relegated to the gutters of history.

Despite a world-class ICT policy adopted nine years ago and the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ vision espoused by the government, we are not seeing any quantum leaps in digital developments. We have achieved a lot in the last 20 years but those are only incremental and disjointed developments that are pathetically short of an ecosystem that can spawn and nourish the digital dreams of our young IT entrepreneurs. These young entrepreneurs are well-poised to chase the cyber bounties not as a rainbow always just out of reach but as real-life incarnations of the next Alibaba.com—the e-commerce monolith of China—or the next Flipkart.com—the first billion-dollar e-commerce site of India. If any place in the world has the imaginative power to rewrite the knowledge of yesteryears, it is the land of Satyendra Nath Bose, Lalon Shah and Rabindranath Tagore. Government policymakers, please unravel the shackles and let no one hold us back.

Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd.

Email: hnkarim@gmail.com

Source: The Daily Star.


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