A group of 3-4 young adults walk into the function room of a Colombo hotel, carrying an ordinary clothes rack to which a folded tent-like contraption is attached with wires. Then when one member proceeds to give ‘directions’ through a mobile phone, the unmanned ‘tent’ moves and covers the rack similar to a foldable fabric [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Young ideas to grow Sri Lanka – Comment


A group of 3-4 young adults walk into the function room of a Colombo hotel, carrying an ordinary clothes rack to which a folded tent-like contraption is attached with wires. Then when one member proceeds to give ‘directions’ through a mobile phone, the unmanned ‘tent’ moves and covers the rack similar to a foldable fabric top covering an old convertible car at a press of a button.

It is a clothes rack with a sensor that detects rain and immediately covers the rack of washed clothes set out to dry. This was one of many ideas that this group of young people had developed over a 24 hour IT marathon known as a hackathon. There were some 15 teams and 150 participants in the hackathon conducted by a well-known Sri Lanka software developer on whose platform these people-friendly ideas were to be created.

Over the 24-hour period, the young adults ate, had short naps on bean bags and generally were clued to laptops and coming up with innovations that would make life easier for society. Here is a sample of their ideas: A smart vacation portal which provides a remote power system that can control the power from outside your home with a target audience of 1.5 billion homes across the world; a shop web to locate shops; a website for drivers like global drivers’ website – Uber; a classified ad portal; a safe home monitor that can control lights, fans, AC and send a notification if there is a security breach and also operate as an early warning system for home disasters; a kitchen-related web; a jobs web that matches carpenters, masons with customers; a tuk tuk taxi service; an easy car parking portal, etc.

All these ideas were driven toward making life easier and convenient to society with a small price to pay for such convenience.
There was no time-wasting. Teams had to come up with an innovative product with a business plan with revenue earning options. The 24 hour period was probably one of the most productive in the lives of those 150 young people.

Now ask these youngsters to, for example, sit in the well of parliament (while the MPs watch from the gallery) and come up with ideas on how to develop the country, how to manage finances, how to move to a fully developed society from an emerging economy, and, they would probably come up with a model growth path far better than our parliamentarians (not that some of our MPs are incapable but unfortunately politics and rhetoric stand in their way).

The few hours spent at the hackathon listening to these ideas, the confidence in which they communicated their thoughts and how quickly they transformed these into workable projects was time well spent, far productive than sitting at many (often time-wasting) committees in the public and private sector. These young adults had no hang-ups. No chip on their shoulders. They were all equal to the task – whether it was an undergraduate from the universities of Moratuwa, Peradeniya, Rajarata, Sabaragamuwa or Jaffna. Some of the outstation students may not have had the communication skills of a Colombo colleague but they amply made up the flaws with innovation skills and confidence. They all had the same tools – a laptop, a platform to build their ideas and a speedy Internet connection.

This generation has ideas and they have the tools to develop these ideas … far better than Sri Lanka’s once staid scientific and industrial research bodies which laboured over research projects, came up with commercially-viable innovations that didn’t see the light of day.

An example of a bureaucracy that governed (rather inhibited) the innovation and creation culture over the past several decades was illustrated at a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat presided over by Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga in the mid 1990s. Speaking at a ceremony to felicitate winners of the annual Sri Lanka Inventions Commission, Ms. Kumaratunga spoke of the time when as Chief Minister of the Western Province she had asked the CISIR (now Industrial Technology Institute-ITI) to provide her details of the research and innovations they had developed. Three to four weeks later she hadn’t yet got a reply from them, illustrating how backward these institutions were or than they didn’t want to share the innovations which would have benefited the public.

Fast forward to the year 2015 and Sri Lankan leaders no longer need to depend on the ITI or other state scientific research agencies (barring the National Science Foundation – NSF- which has been doing some progressive work to help struggling entrepreneurs). Rather they can trawl through the wide range of ideas, creations and ‘ideation’ ( the formation of ideas and concepts) of young Sri Lankans available on the web. Like last week’s hackathon, there are many being held across the year, bringing dozens of young people together and generating ideas for public good. The Lanka Angel Network is a new funding mechanism for transforming ideas to commercial use.

The Business Times on its own has initiated a ‘TechKnow’ section once a month (see this month’s issue on Pages 6 & 7) bringing ideas and innovations from the universities, medical specialists and entrepreneurs and how they are transforming society and people and making their lives easier.

The Government need not look far – overseas or instance – to find solutions to the country’s problems. The authorities need to just tap the country’s youth and the enormous resource of ideas that is coming out daily through the web, and act as a facilitator to take it to the next level.

Business Times columnist Upul Arunajith, in his column appearing next week, cites the words of the great Sinhalese scholar, late Kumaratunga Munidasa who said: “Aluth aluth dea nothakana daya lowa nonagi” (a nation that fails to heed to innovation, will see its progress stalled). Sri Lanka’s Millennials – those born between the early 1980s and 1992 – have shown the way. What they need is encouragement and the right policies from the country’s policymakers.

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