‘Only those who can see the invisible can do the impossible.’ This quote has been attributed to a number of people, including Albert Einstein, who needs no introduction, and Bernard Lown, who invented the first heart defibrillator, among others. It basically implies that, to do something deemed impossible, one needs a farsighted vision of something beyond today’s reality. That is how radical, nonlinear progress is made. Leaders travel and create fresh paths. The rest follow and prosper.

US President John F Kennedy made a historic speech in May 1961, urging the country to envision the landing of an American on the moon. He saw the invisible with a clear vision. Eight years later, the impossible was achieved, with Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon.

Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called upon his compatriots in March 1971 to ‘build a fortress in every home and face the enemy.’ A clarion call for freedom and independence. He saw the invisible with a clear vision. Nine months later, the impossible was achieved, with a new country, Bangladesh, born out of a bloody liberation war.

Bangladesh’s longest-serving premier, Sheikh Hasina, made a clarion call for an across-the-board digitalisation scheme, coining it as Digital Bangladesh, in 2008. This was before starting her tenure. She saw the invisible with a clear vision. Thirteen years later, a previously poverty-challenged country became a tech-enabled middle-income economy, beating all odds.

Standing at the crossroads in December 2022, Hasina announced a smart-country scheme to navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, coining it as Smart Bangladesh. Yet another invisible target that she saw with a clear vision. Bangladeshi policy-makers need to get onboard with the vision to achieve this new impossible.

Understanding a smart nation

A Google search of ‘smart nation’ gives Singapore’s definition at the very top. It features the country’s bold vision for tech-enabled nation-building. The case is similar for other countries that have adopted their own smart nation policy. Bangladesh has also joined this club. Conceptualising a Smart Bangladesh certainly embeds technology. More importantly, it embeds a collective national aspiration of becoming an advanced economy by transcending the so called ‘middle-income trap,’ which many Asian countries have not been able to escape.

Smart Bangladesh embeds a collective national aspiration of becoming an advanced economy by transcending the so called ‘middle-income trap,’ which many Asian countries have not been able to escape.

To put it differently, Smart Bangladesh fosters equitable progress. In order to build a smart nation, Bangladesh must first fulfil certain key performance indicators (KPIs). At a minimum, with a self-instated deadline of 20 years, the country must:

  1. Be high-income, with a per capita income of more than USD 12,500;
  2. Be poverty-free, boasting 0% extreme poverty and less than 3% ‘moderate’ poverty;
  3. Have high human development, with universal health coverage and 100% high school education;
  4. Ensure sustainable urbanisation, with 80% urbanisation and 100% electrification (with a big share of renewables);
  5. Offer every public service, in a customer-centric, paperless and cashless manner.
An engineer installing rooftop solar panels with support from a high-tech companion drone in a village close to Dhaka city, Manikgonj, Bangladesh, March 2021 | Photo by Sebastian Groh / SOLshare.

Equitable prosperity is what Smart Bangladesh is about. Contrary to the popular understanding, technology is merely an enabler, not the goal. For Bangladesh to achieve its smart nation KPIs, the scheme has four core elements:

1) Smart citizen; I am the solution: Bangladesh went through one of the world’s longest school closures during the 2020 covid-19 pandemic. Sheela, a middle-school teacher from a remote village in the eastern part of the country, saw her students were falling behind. Schools were closed but education, surely, could not stop.

She decided to ‘be the solution.’ Through the Teachers’ Portal, a collaborative government-led innovation, she knew how to design digital content for physical classes. She soon translated her teaching using DIY-designed social media live and video-conferencing modules.

Sheela’s story was not unique in Bangladesh; many self-driven teachers innovated solutions to continue education virtually during the pandemic. This translated to thousands of hours of digital content delivered over the widely aired Parliament TV channel (which became Education TV). In a short span of time, 100,0000 hours of live lectures had been disseminated via social media platforms.

Much like these self-driven teachers during the covid-19 pandemic, every citizen will be empowered to be the solution in Smart Bangladesh. Collectively, they will contribute to nation-building. Citizens will no longer rely on those in power, be that the government or the private players, for solutions.

2) Smart government; the govpreneur: Ashok, a local government agriculture officer, was worried seeing farmers deal with crop failures and yield loss. He realised that they often could not reach him for support. In 2014, he attended a government-sponsored ‘empathy training program,’ where he learnt to leverage tech to resolve the problem at hand. Thus, an app, Krishoker Janala, was born. Through this, farmers and local agriculture officers can detect crop diseases by matching pictures from the field. After piloting, the app has now been adopted by the government’s agriculture support agency (the Directorate of Agriculture Extension). The app has seen over 150,000 downloads.

Initiatives such as Krishoker Janala will create ‘govpreneurs’ (government officers empowered to be entrepreneurial) like Ashok. In Smart Bangladesh, this will become the norm. In a government that puts the people first, government officers will have entrepreneurial space to rewrite the rules of service delivery. This will enhance trust in the government.

3) Smart society; leave no one behind: Imran, a person with visual disability, applied for a credit card at a local bank. Despite complying with all the requirements, his application was rejected. After he lodged a complaint against the financial institution, it was heartening to see the response. Bangladesh’s central bank took on the case and conducted an assessment of the barriers for people with disabilities in access to financial services (be these conventional or mobile banking services). The issue was soon resolved, and Imran received his credit card.

Imran’s case is a ‘leave no one behind’ example, which will proliferate in Smart Bangladesh. Those in need – the disabled, the marginalised, minorities – will not have to seek affirmative action. Inclusion will be designed into public services.

4) Smart economy; my village my town: Arti, a young girl, lived in a remote riverine island called Char Kukri Mukri. When her father got sick, she thought she would take him to the distant town for treatment. This would be expensive for her family. She had two options: one, a telemedicine service at her fingertips; or two, go to a close-by community clinic (with a doctor and free essential medicines). Bangladesh has a community clinic for every 6,000 people daily. They are the grassroot primary health centres, edging the country closer to universal health coverage.

In a smart economy, no Bangladeshi, whatever their location, will be deprived of essential facilities.

Arti was able to use both the options for her father’s treatment. The covid-19 pandemic saw the proliferation of telemedicine services, even in rural remote areas. These innovative healthcare delivery options – a blend of physical and digital – are examples of how urban amenities can reach rural marginalised communities.

In a smart economy, no Bangladeshi, whatever their location, will be deprived of essential facilities. They will not need to leave their homesteads for lack of human development services.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

Transformations in education, agriculture, financial inclusion and healthcare are just a snapshot of what is possible in Smart Bangladesh. The country will just need a culture of innovation.

The renowned management consultant Peter Drucker, whose writings have contributed to the foundations of modern businesses, famously said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Developing a strategy for Smart Bangladesh is not going to be enough. A culture to see the invisible and achieve the impossible needs to be nurtured.

Challenges to Smart Bangladesh

Bangladesh has a transformative vision to be smart in just two decades. It is important to recognise the challenges to achieving this vision:

Enabling tech vs dividing tech

Technology can be a great equaliser for nations. This is particularly true for lower-income countries, which can gain the most. It has surely helped Bangladesh leapfrog its economy in over a decade since 2010.

Firmly in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Bangladesh is already seeing the pace at which technology can change the world. But caution is the need of the hour. Technology has allowed nations to grow but it has also increased inequality because of unequal digital access.

A quality digital experience continues to be beyond the reach of almost 3 billion people across the world because they are not on the internet. Digitally, there has been expansion but not inclusion. The covid-19 pandemic in 2020 made this clearer. Society witnessed how a digital divide contributes to a socioeconomic divide. A widening digital divide stems from a failure to institute citizen-friendly policies. Bangladesh should take lessons, and institute three important policy measures, to combat the digital divide:

  1. Public–private partnerships to ensure affordable access to high-quality broadband, at homes or workplaces, regardless of location. Until such access is achieved, Bangladesh’s 9,000 digital service provision centres and the National Helpline 333 can act as the ‘poor’-person’s access to the digital world.
  2. Design digital products to ensure they are ‘marginalised-friendly.’ For instance, they need to be intentionally designed for people with disabilities, for the elderly and for the less literate. Why not deploy an artificial intelligence (AI)-supported voice interface for someone who cannot type?
  3. Massive digital literacy programs across the entire populace. This will improve individual, firm-level and national productivity. Even the operator of an electric saw to slice fish needs basic digital skills. The car driver needs digital skills to read maps. The roadside vegetable seller needs digital skills to receive payments using QR codes.

Artificial intelligence vs the demographic dividend

The world is entering a tech era that is threatening to surpass human understanding. AI is beyond divisive. In the words of Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, AI’s impact may be ‘more than those of fire and electricity.’ Meanwhile, one of the ‘godfathers’ of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, who used to work at Google, said that AI could pose ‘a more urgent threat to humanity than climate change.’

There lies the conundrum. AI’s potential appears to be limitless. If harnessed responsibly, it can support developing countries like Bangladesh to jump beyond linearity. Few nations have the competitive advantage that defined the 20th and early 21st century. In the new era, early adaption to AI could pay dividends, the likes of which countries can barely imagine.

But AI is a dangerous tech. When luminaries such as Elon Musk say that AI is ‘far more dangerous than nukes’ and President Putin of Russia opines that the country that leads in AI will be the ‘ruler of the world,’ one has to listen.

If 20th century’s automation was to end for blue-collar jobs, then 21st century’s AI will come for the white-collar jobs. Daron Acemoglu, an influential MIT economist, published a study in 2021 that concluded that ‘half or more of the increasing gap in wages among American workers over the last 40 years is attributable to excessive automation.’

Goldman Sachs in March 2023 predicted that AI would eliminate 300 million jobs in the United States and Europe alone, while adding 7% to gross domestic product. ChatGPT took the world by storm in a short span of six months. The truth is, AI has been steadily replacing white collar jobs for a while. AI is passing attorney bar exams, excelling in standardised tests, producing unique artwork, driving cars, running manufacturing plants, diagnosing cancers, performing complicated surgeries, tutoring children and sending newsfeeds.

Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, has confidently said that deep machine learning will soon write its own software, obviating the need for entry-level programmers. The challenges for advanced economies in the West, as a result of AI use, will be very different to those of the Global South.

For Bangladesh, a nation banking on its demographic dividend, how it operates in the new world of AI could define its next two decades.

What could be a greater threat in an era of a demographic dividend? For Bangladesh, a nation banking on its demographic dividend, how it operates in the new world of AI could define its next two decades. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report of 2023 lists analytical and creative thinking as the two most necessary skills for workers.

As AI replaces jobs that require little thinking, Bangladesh should focus on fostering analytical or creative skills. There must be a shift away from algorithmic, pattern-based skills (in the likes of which AI is already superior to humans) and a focus on more adaptive skills.

Equitable, humane and caring

Bangladesh wants to become a high-income advanced welfare economy by 2041. This is the vision of a Smart Bangladesh. It wants to be a nation founded on a culture of innovation. But this vision will entail more than income measures and economic dynamism.

In 2017, when nearly a million refugees escaped Myanmar’s brutal military crackdown, Bangladesh opened its borders and sheltered them. As arguably the most densely populated country in the world, a resource-starved Bangladesh could simply have turned them away. It would have been the ‘sensible’ thing to do. Instead, Bangladesh opted for empathy and care – despite a host of challenges.

With the talk of the rise in AI and machine capabilities, the race for prosperity threatens the best qualities of being human – to be compassionate. As Bangladesh becomes prosperous and not resource-scarce, it is imperative that it retains its humane qualities. This applies to every Bangladeshi.

The Smart Bangladesh vision is also an equitable one. Its predecessor, the Digital Bangladesh vision, took a bottom-up approach by making public services accessible. Smart Bangladesh must preach the ethos of equitable growth.

To be a ‘smart’ nation means empowered citizens, responsible government officials, a society with no inequality and businesses with no barriers. It is when these four elements come together, boosted by technology, empathy and equity, that Bangladesh will become truly smart.

 

Cover photo ©️ a2i

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the Government of Bangladesh’s a2i programmme supported by UNDP. He is a tech-entrepreneur turned gov-preneur. He co-founded several software and services companies and non-profits in the US and Bangladesh. He is a member of Bangladesh Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force. He pursued his undergraduate studies at Brown University and graduate studies on management, marketing, and education reform at Harvard University, Columbia University, Bradford University, Oxford University and Boston University.