Often, technology transfer is a side issue in formulating development projects. There has been confusion too in defining technology transfer and setting the goal. Hence, the time has come to make it clear. From the perspective of development urgency, technology transfer must be the first goal in engaging with foreign entities, whether as joint venture production partners or contractors. If the absorbing capacity is an issue, it must be addressed first before we proceed to take loan and engage foreign entities. The next issue is– what to achieve out of technology transfer? The goal must be clear-assimilating what the partners have and acquiring the capability of advancing them further. The advancement must take place at a faster rate than competitors, including technology-providing entities. Consequently, a technology-receiving entity, whether a country or a firm, must win the global race to graduate from technology importer to exporter. Such success from technology transfer is a vital development issue for a country like Bangladesh, which aspires to be an advanced economy within a specific timeframe. Certainly, Bangladesh cannot achieve the desired state by technology import through debt accumulation. Time is running out to graduate from debt-driven technology import. The urgency of graduating to technology exporter through technology transfer has assumed paramount importance. Furthermore, the goal must include turning technology providers into importers of the advanced version. It should be extended further in turning inventors into importers. Preferably, a goal should be set to make inventors’ capability completely irrelevant by winning the reinvention race. The question could be– how is it feasible to achieve such a goal from technology transfer? Are there examples? To meet the urgency, what should Bangladesh do and how?
First, let us accept that no natural resource-poor country has reached an advanced economic state without being a technology exporter. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are examples from Asia. A country like Bangladesh can never get high income status by selling low-cost labour and importing all others. It does not matter whether the bureaucracy is capable or the education system is strong enough. If Bangladesh wants to achieve a high-income status, we have only one option-turning technology exporters into importers and making inventors’ abilities obsolete. To achieve it, we must win the global race through superior performance in incremental advancement and reinvention.
Let’s draw lessons from the rise of countries to high-income status through the graduation from technology importer to exporter. It begins with the graduation of the USA. In the 19thcentury, the USA used to rely on import of technology from Europe. They used to harvest natural resources like timber, wool, and fish and process them with imported technologies. But with the urge to reach high-income status, the USA started advancing European inventions faster, reaching the exporting level. Let’s look into the rise of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. All of them have little background in invention. They started transferring technology from the USA, primarily through licensing and assimilation. Unlike other less developed countries like Bangladesh, instead of just operating and making copies of foreign technologies, they started advancing them. They often outperformed the technology exporters, turning them into importers. In some instances, notably Japanese companies, the exporting state reached through the reinvention of American and European technologies, making inventors’ competence obsolete.
Let’s look into a few specific examples. Japanese Toshiba entered the hard disk technology race 20 years later than its invention by IBM. But within a decade or so, Toshiba succeeded in making its hard disks better and cheaper, resulting in turning the USA into an importer. Eventually, Toshiba reinvented the hard disk as a solid-state disk drive, turning IBM’s magnetic plate-based hard disk competence irrelevant. Like Toshiba, many other Japanese companies have shown similar performances in various products such as automobiles, semiconductors, consumer electronics, high-speed rail, camera, and light bulbs. Similarly, Taiwan’s rise is attributed to semiconductor technology. It all started in 1974 by importing a tiny silicon wafer processing plant from American RCA for $4 million. But unlike Bangladesh or other less developed countries, Taiwan focused on improving it with its engineers, making America entirely dependent on Taiwan’s high-end microchips. And the same story is true behind the rise of South Korea. China has been trying to do the same. China’s story began with advancing the transferred high-speed rail technology into superior performance.
Well, there is no doubt that Bangladesh must graduate as a technology exporting country. But can it be achieved through assembling and manufacturing taking the advantage of low-cost labour, subsidies, cash incentives, etc? For sure, no. Should Bangladesh attempt to invent and innovate completely new products through basic research? Of course, no. First of all, we seldom succeed in inventing. Besides, all inventions begin the journey at a loss, taking a long time to reach profit. Even if they do, they will likely be taken over by competitors through superior performance in incremental advancement and reinvention.
Bangladesh has only one option to rise to the high-income status. It must enter and win the global race of existing inventions and innovations. And this is to be done through technology transfer-not intellectual property infringement. Through learning in doing and licensing, Bangladesh should acquire emerging technologies underpinning all kinds of products, starting from expressways, clean energy, automobiles, high-speed rails, metro rails, shipbuilding, semiconductors, robotics, intelligent machines, bridges to wireless communication. By the way, making an entry and succeeding in copying is not good enough. The country must acquire the capability of advancing them through incremental advancement and reinvention. However, that is not all. The success will be distilled from winning the global race by offering better quality at less cost in less time through the cumulative effect of ideas. It’s worth noting that no amount of subsidies, tax differentials, low-cost loans, infrastructure uplifting, and cash incentives will create success. The question could be: is Bangladesh financially capable? Asian success stories started the journey when they were far financially weaker than Bangladesh is now.
The next issue is– how to pursue this mission. It begins with understanding the global wealth creation dynamics in a competitive market by leveraging technology possibilities. Hence, the journey should start with researching unfolding dynamics and educating a critical mass of academics, professionals, bureaucrats, policymakers, economists, entrepreneurs, investors and media personalities. Instead of asking lenders or development partners, Bangladesh must finance and lead this mission with her people and money. Eventually, this exercise may take the shape of an institution like the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) of Taiwan. Once a critical mass understands wealth creation dynamics from technology possibilities, actions of making entry through technology transfer and winning the global race through superior performance will highly likely start unfolding-opening the path for Bangladesh to reach high-income status.
Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D is academic and researcher on technology, society and policy.