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Bangladesh could learn a thing or two from Taiwan

DHAKA — Innovation has been the dominant catchword in the last few decades. It usually happens with the development of a totally novel idea, or around the alteration of existing ones, and is sometimes enough to disrupt the whole system. However, pursuing innovative ideas is about balancing opportunities against risks. There is always a chance that innovation might not work out but there are also ways to address that.

Taiwan, the tenth most innovative economy in the world, is also one of the world's biggest semiconductor suppliers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan was similar to Bangladesh in a lot of ways — dependent upon foreign aid for development. But that changed pretty quickly when Taiwan decided to pursue a strategy to build wealth through innovation.

The risk of an economic downturn was reduced with the privatization of government organisations which made the system more efficient, and emphasis was put on education with a special focus on engineering and innovation. They also realized that being stagnant was never a choice as other countries would soon catch up and rival them with cheaper prices.

Bangladesh has yet to pursue a similar policy shift and remains stuck with a much smaller and sluggish economy. We lack understanding of what innovation means. Most of us consider it to be something in the line of a very sophisticated product that is unattainable. We do not think along the lines of a new market segment, value added services, or find a new way to an old business model. We simply do not want to cross boundaries.

This is partially because it is easier and cheaper to imitate. People innovate when they see that innovation will give them a competitive edge, and they will put in their resources only when they see that they will get a premium price for it.

Bangladesh with its 160 million people should have been a lucrative market for any investor. This sheer number of people represents a huge market, where people are interested in producing, buying and consuming innovative products. It calls for frugal, scalable, trustworthy and user-friendly innovation which clearly the manufacturers are unable to tap into.

Our market works best when we come together, when interactions between multiple stakeholders happen. Having a shorter innovation cycle, especially in agriculture, clearly requires multidimensional involvement from all the patrons in this effort. However, despite the advantages of a holistic approach, the firms still continue to shy away from interaction and we are left with a low level of innovation despite Bangladesh's huge human capital resources.

Where we are at the moment is not the worst place to be nor do we need any revolution to turn things around. What we need is to look at the challenges that stop us from moving forward and find a way out. We only need a few of the firms to move away from the old, traditional practices and think about ways that will eventually put enough pressure on their competitors and the overall market will evolve to be more innovative.

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