Sunday, February 12, 2017

Innovation – try speaking truth to power

And that is what the blog constantly seeks. Eight years on the blog gained the acceptance of an arm of mainstream media, to be part of the ThINQ network. Thanks to, in particular to its Digital Content Editor, Ms. Sara Isabelle Pacia.

The blog which is focused on the economy emphasizes reinvention – reinventing ourselves – if we are to overcome the grim reality that we’re the regional laggard. And from the get-go the writer would share the postings with 50 columnists in an effort to engage the media. And 10 of them (or 20%) rejected the postings, and this sender; not surprising given Pareto’s 80-20 rule.

In fairness, the postings are not exactly politically correct. And as the genesis of the blog explains, the effort is to echo the frustrations expressed by friends and relations – who were the ones to urge the writer to do something despite being based overseas. The blog isn’t meant to be a feel-good enterprise. And so the writer gives a lot of credit to the rest that continue to tolerate the postings – with some even dropping notes of encouragement.

Given the first piece that the Inquirer chose is about innovation, let’s build on the topic of innovation in the context of reinventing ourselves. In a hierarchical culture like ours, speaking truth to power can be a good starting point if PH is to ever be an innovation culture. 

Clearly, the postings aren’t conventional by PH standards, being outside the box if you will. And inherent in how the writer frames them follows a problem-solving process. It is not to come up with a “bright idea” – which many would associate with innovation – but to identify a need, a human need, to raise man’s wellbeing. And in the case of Juan de la Cruz, to progress from an underdeveloped to a developed nation. It is beyond CCT and similar initiatives that have defined inclusion PH-style.

For example, how would we frame the impact of the AEC on the Philippines? Given OFW remittances are the major driver of the economy, our impulse is this economic union will boost employment and raise remittances. And because we import more than we export (a clear disadvantage versus our neighbors who have it the other way round) our mindset says industry is not our competitive advantage.

As the blog has argued, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think Vietnam. Otherwise, how will our mindset influence the pursuit of the various industry road maps that ideally must be designed to: (a) raise our competitiveness; (b) expand the economy; and (c) generate greater wealth? Not a surprise, we’re going nowhere – because we aren’t truly committed to development? And it goes back to the elements of what has become our culture? Parochial. Insular. Hierarchical. Paternalistic. Political patronage and dynasties. Oligarchic. Culture of impunity.

But reality bites that we can’t keep an eye on the ball? And denial like ignorance is bliss?

The blog has identified two influences, values if you will, that inform our culture: (a) respect for elders, and (b) our religion. Yet, the discussions aren’t meant to make us disrespectful or to forego our faith, but to meld reason and faith, not an original to be sure, but brings Thomas Aquinas to mind.

The blog also makes references to the writer’s MNC career and his development work in Eastern Europe (over the last 14 years) to stress that the postings are real-world learnings while citing relevant bodies of knowledge. They have likewise called out our chattering classes because given our hierarchical culture, wittingly or not, we (all) that represent this segment of society can fall into the trap . . . that rank has its privileges. It’s no different from a caste system.

And why beyond an inefficient bureaucracy, corruption is endemic – to the point that ours is a culture of impunity – where functionaries can be emperors in their little kingdoms. Which we have accepted as a given even when Rizal says, he who submits to tyranny loves it.

The bottom line: We are unable to imagine and visualize a future for Juan de la Cruz that is open, egalitarian, free market and founded on the rule of law? In one word, prosperous – or wealthy.

How many of us would say that our economy is fundamentally strong and self-reliant because of OFW remittances and the BPO industry – with due respect to the Central Bank? Because of linear thinking, we can’t stray away from “the box” – that has boxed us in for decades?

And now that the world appears to be in a state of flux if not a full-blown crisis, we found a great distraction in globalization and technology. What is reality? In framing these realities and challenges we cannot ignore a critical dimension, i.e., where we are in the development curve. And it is not rocket science – despite Brexit and Trump and the growing populism in the West.

On the other side of the globe is China and India and before them the Asian tigers. And even earlier Japan Inc. And what is their common denominator? Globalization and technology. And the free movement of goods, capital, technology and know-how elevated these Eastern countries, their competitiveness as well as their economies.

But because we were left out, we needed company, like the US and the UK? Misery loves company. Nations rise and fall but PH isn’t the one to rise if we don’t shape up.

To be sure, the world continues to evolve. It is the law of nature. Man cannot be frozen in time. Should we wonder that our BPO industry, the other leg of our economy, is being threatened by technology? Until we learn to reinvent ourselves, que sera, sera?

It is common knowledge that like any industry, our call centers must move up the value chain. And our friends from India are showing us the way. Yet we like the feel-good sense that they are shifting their call centers to PH, forgetting that we are being thrown these lower value-added enterprises while they gear up to be more globally competitive.

We talk about the Chinoys, that make up the bulk of our billionaires. As old friends and neighbors from Ayala Alabang shared with the writer’s family over the yearend holidays while visiting the US, SM has overtaken the Ayala malls in moving up the value chain. That the Mega Mall is no longer the Mega Mall of old nor is the Southmall, the upgrades coming after the creation of Aura.

In short, innovation need not be earthshaking. As the blog would argue, innovation is driven by the hierarchy of human needs, not innovation for innovation’s sake. It is leveraging the natural and social sciences. 

For example: “[There] is the need for macroeconomics to learn from other disciplines in both the natural and social sciences in order to seek a different perspective on individual behavior and system-wide dynamics . . . [T]he profession has borrowed too little from other disciplines and become a methodological monoculture, with the associated risk that everybody in the field can be wrong in the same way and at the same time.

“[On the other hand] most social scientists sensibly thought that interdisciplinary knowledge was better than knowledge obtained by a single discipline.” [The major blind spots in macroeconomics, John Lanchester, The New York Times, 7th Feb 2017]

As some would know, the writer has worked with his Eastern European friends to adopt the discipline (a carryover from his MNC background) behind innovation. And while their starting point was to set up R&D and marketing under one roof, the cross-disciplinary approach to product-need identification and product development is imperative.

Which brings us back to the two influences, values if you will, that inform our culture: (a) respect for elders and (b) our religion. And so how we frame the challenge of development, for instance, is undermined by the restrictions of the perspectives we carry in our bag of tricks. Recall Einstein: the value of education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think – not to restrict the mind, if you will.

The evidence? Our inability to move up the development curve. Whether it is the Manila airport, a saga that has been running for decades or the longevity of the jeepneys or the ever worsening Metro Manila traffic, they are all a manifestation of our comfort zones. We are always caught in the chicken-and-egg dilemma because we don’t stray away from the box. And it explains why our kneejerk is technology is bad, like globalization is bad; and by extension, development is bad.

Our neighbors are on to their latest state-of-the-art airports, and we’re still on the drawing board. Have we learned from the fiasco of Terminal 3? How about a modern public transportation system? And basic infrastructure to move people and commerce and the economy forward? Despite PPP, we’re still the least able to turn dreams into reality. Call it political will that is fundamental to development and nation building.

Think of a caste system – for example, that only four major conglomerates have been bagging PPP contracts per BMI analysts and are atop the totem pole – when we frame our worldview and consider how it impacts our problem-solving, and why innovation is not us. Instead: Parochial. Insular. Hierarchical. Paternalistic. Political patronage and dynasties. Oligarchic. Culture of impunity.

We have to speak truth to power – and get over our denial. And what about our professed moral superiority given EJK is confirmation that ours is a culture of impunity not the rule of law?

“Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow? And that they will be such is not to be doubted, for he who submits to tyranny loves it.” [We are ruled by Rizal’s ‘tyrants of tomorrow,’ Editorial, The Manila Times, 29th Dec 2015]

“As a major component for the education and reorientation of our people, mainstream media – their reporters, writers, photographers, columnists and editors – have an obligation to this country . . .” [Era of documented irrelevance: Mainstream media, critics and protesters, Homobono A. Adaza, The Manila Times, 25th Nov 2015]

“National prosperity is created, not inherited. It does not grow out of a country’s natural endowments, its labor pool, its interest rates, or its currency’s value, as classical economics insists . . . A nation’s competitiveness depends on the capacity of its industry to innovate and upgrade.” [The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business Review, March–April 1990]

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” [William Pollard, 1911-1989, physicist-priest, Manhattan Project]

“Development [is informed by a people’s] worldview, cognitive capacity, values, moral development, self-identity, spirituality, and leadership . . .” [Frederic Laloux, Reinventing organizations, Nelson Parker, 2014]

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