Pakistan is a tremendously interesting country. A history and present reality as textured and complex as the marvellous ‘phool patti’ artwork which bedecks many if not most of the country’s trucks. Hand-painted truck bodies in technicolour, with bells, chains and all manner of jingling pieces swinging or bouncing off some vestige of one glittering personalised vehicle after another. Aesthetically preeminent amongst these automobiles are those which have had their steel bodies either augmented or entirely replaced with handcrafted wooden constructions. What proportion of these vehicles are imported new and immediately retrofitted from bumper-to-bumper is hard to deduce with an untrained eye, but it presumably cannot amount to an inconsiderable number.
Seeking to familiarise oneself with the myriad of tribal, sectarian, socio-economic, geographic, historical or whatever other variables which influence the nature of modern-day Pakistan, as well as those geo-political and geo-strategic considerations most enduringly acute for the country on a regional or super-regional basis, is a very tall order indeed. It would demand years of attention and, to the horror of modern Man, the requirement to enthusiastically read materials beyond the pop-up headlines of some vanilla news media production. However, a good place to start for an initial spot of ‘toe-dipping’ situational awareness is to reference a map - Google Maps will do - as there is much to be learnt from geography alone.
At first glance, one should notice that the country is bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, China, India and the Gulf of Oman. Even with minimal appreciation for historical context and legacy political affairs, this should provoke a recognition that a day in the life of Pakistan, from a geo-political perspective at least, is rather labrynthine. For those with some degree of reasonable knowledge pertaining to a combination of the traditional status of relations with India following partition, the related squabble over Kashmir, the troubles cross-border in China’s Xinjiang Province, the importance to Pakistan of their in-country portion of China’s gargantuan ‘belts-and-roads’ initiative, the perpetually unstable Afghanistan, the global criticality of the Strait of Hormuz, and what may be considered Iran’s generally unwelcome World view since 1979, it will be well understood that even the best of a le Midi Bouillabaisse would be of comparatively pedestrian intricacy when likened to that of Pakistan’s daily geo-political breakfast.
Swatting all the above mentioned ingredients aside, pay attention to one dimension - that of the approximate 380-odd km distance by road from the Indian border on the eastern outskirts of Lahore, to the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. This is of cardinal importance, as the terrain between these locations is relatively easily passable by mechanised and motorised infantry. Moreover, close air support launched from Indian territory enjoys the possibility of supporting invasion forces for much if not all of this distance. And from the point of view of Pakistan, who have long feared and prepared for a conflagration with India, should they face a successfully orchestrated invasion, the opposing forces would decapitate the capital city after overcoming a distance approximately equating to that between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, London and Blackpool, or Houston and Dallas. Furthermore, a strike of this momentum would sever what is a narrow country in two. Game, set, match. A strategic defence planner’s veritable nightmare.
Also notice that Islamabad is in very close proximity to the contested regions of Kashmir. However, Kashmir and the territories east, north and north west of Islamabad are mountainous in the extreme, meaning that shorter distances from a bird’s eye perspective are rendered far more defensible, and are unlikely vectors of invasion (unless you are an American and see terrain as irrelevant to modern warfare).
What does this mean, and how is this at all relevant to technology? It concerns what is termed in geo-political and military parlance as ’strategic depth’ - room for preparation and manoeuvre. Which Pakistan has little of. Accordingly, Pakistan has been deeply historically interested in its border regions with Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribes resident thereabouts. Influence in these nigh on militarily impenetrable mountainous regions and amongst these tribes to the west of Islamabad provides some degree of possibly useable haven in the event of the need to retreat from Islamabad and reform some measure of defensive posture, should India conduct an effective blitzkrieg invasion from the south east. Understand this and you will understand far more of the geopolitics of this region.
Conceptually, strategic depth is as applicable geographically and militarily, as it is economically, industrially and technologically. However, whereas geographic strategic depth cannot be readily altered, as the terrain and borders are what they are, strategic depth from an economic, industrial and technological dimension can be thoroughly broadened following logical policy impositions and discipled governance. In this regard, Israel post 2003 or so has dramatically expanded its economic, industrial and technological strategic depth. Singapore and South Korea the same since the 1960s. Australia from the mid-90s, and New Zealand a little thereafter. South Africa, conversely, has dissolved its strategic depth and very materially so. The reasons for this dissolution are complex and can be heartily debated, but fact that such dissolution has transpired is irrefutable.
Nevertheless, a characterisation of the nature of this dissolution is important, in order for it to not simply be seen as another negative and almost irreversible outcome of decades of poor stewardship. Detail is important, not just the headlines. Let us dive...
‘A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination… or a headache’
Catherine the Great
The establishment of a scalable frontier technological innovation capacity is dependent on the existence of a highly industrialised economy. And the attainment of a highly industrialised economy is depended on a combination of state policy and consumption, efficient governance (not necessarily democratic to a traditional western standard), a high-functioning academic sphere, access to capital, a flexible and responsive labour market, the protection of property (not just land), and a broad societal devotion to principles of meritocracy. The cream must be encouraged to largely whip itself into being and rise to the top.
Pivotally, when surveying Worldwide the greatest innovations of the post-industrial revolution age, the role of government as an active supporter and consumer of their economy’s frontier innovation outputs is of extraordinary importance. The bewilderingly phenomenal SpaceX and many of the other US tech behemoths have generated significant proportions of their early revenues from US government contracts (often from the aerospace, defence and intelligence functions within government), and accrued a not inconsiderable benefit from some degree of thoroughly strategic state and/or federal incentivisation scheme - and so they should. Although even the US government can very often be a disabler of innovation, par for the course with almost any institutional system, against all its self-imposed bureaucratic inertia it still serves to liberally grease the wheels of technological innovation. The proof is in the pudding, and Capitalism wins.
The process and status of industrialisation and that of its hideous counter-point, de-industrialisation, are subject matters which appear to be more commonly remarked upon in general societal discourse over recent years. It is perhaps one implication of the stunningly predictable and wholly inescapable outcomes of the economic self-immolation that was Lockdown lunacy. Following years of disengagement and apathy insofar as the more granular details of state policy is concerned, voices from within the global citizenry are at long last being unmuffled and seem to be penetrating the media oligarchy with questions regarding supply chain redundancy, strategic industrial competencies and the like. Thank the remaining Pope, and God Bless Benedict’s cotton socks.
However, de-industrialisation is a term which describes something beyond a process or status - it describes a phenomenon. A phenomenon due to the fact that what begins as policy naïvety, ideological dogma, and some amalgam of ignorance and perverse incentivisation within institutions, quickly morphs into a self-perpetuating vortex of socio-economic degradation. An expedition to apocalypse, and in consideration of the original Greek meaning being that of an “uncovering”, it very much manifests as the stripping of civilisational development to reveal societies uncovered by sustainable socio-economic prosperity.
The horsemen of the deindustrialisation apocalypse must be appropriately recognised and understood by society at large in order for their terror to enjoy any possibility of arrest and reversal - first by means of whatever weight of influence be possessed by informed societal opinion within the architecture of the relevant political system.
The visage of the first wraith is the most discernible, that being the loss of capital infrastructure in both the public and private sector - mothballed factories, defunct railway lines, crumbling training colleges and disaffected populations thrust in ever greater proportions to the lower rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy. And the talking heads of the unaffected respond by stating that negative employment outcomes can be resolved by simple retraining schemes. Enough said.
With rusting steel and the ‘re-wilding’ of industrial parks emerges the second wraith prominent, manifest in the precipitous decline in the availability of high-end technical expertise. It begins with the largely unrecognised vanishing of highly skilled welders, and ultimately strides resplendent within the field of view of urban professionals as these formerly middle class citizens recognise their waning ability to either find or afford a decent plumber.
This is paralleled by an almost more consequential loss - that of processes, systems and doctrines. It is one thing possessing machinery and engineers or other highly skilled technical expertise, but it is an entirely different matter knowing how to organise them. Wraith tertius is thus far the most imperceptible and simultaneously the least forgiving.
However, it is the 4th horseman which hangs and draws the remnants of the battered industrial physique, before delivering the coup de Grace and quartering the so condemned - the final industrialisation tax is that of the loss of innovation capacity. Absent the infrastructure, the expertise and the doctrines, frontier innovation becomes almost impossible. The society may consume mobile phones and build miscellaneous attention consuming apps, but it’s innovation mobility unknits as if a doldrum-trapped mariner beset by scurvy in the Age of Sail.
Where does this leave South Africa, where Nanodyn has made its home? Well, the answer is a complicated and inescapably emotive one. South Africa never attained an end-to-end highly industrialised economy, as much of the population has for generations been left brutally suffocated of any meaningful economic opportunity, either deliberately or by means of complete malevolent negligence. However, it did attain one of the highest states of industrialisation then visible globally as it entered the 90s. Notably, much of this status of industrialisation was achieved with homegrown innovations due to the circumstances of preceding decades. And the State played a very material role in this innovation competence being achieved, through extensive supporting programmes which integrated objectives, incentives and activities between the academic sector, training institutions, state owned enterprises, the private sector and so on. Although at the exclusion of the majority of the population, and having leveraged off the labours of the excluded majority, this technically impressive industrialisation status and innovation competence was truly realised. And to a degree generally underestimated and disrespected at the time, whilst largely unknown of to any meaningful extent by subsequent generations. And knowing of it is important, as societies need to be reminded of what they are capable of achieving if their expectations of themselves and their institutions are to be thrust skyward.
Sadly; however, this once mighty sovereign asset, a chamber of jewels to a value thousands of Cullinan Diamonds strong, was not harnessed as a radiating nucleus around which the development of a systemically prosperous and ethically robust society was ventured. Instead, the whittling away of this once substantial battery of acumen has been the outcome for a menagerie of reasons not worth exploring, as this composition has already well exceeded its intended length. Needless to say, government since the 90s was not the sole custodian of this hard-earned competency, nor has it been unaccompanied in its maltreatment thereof.
Nonetheless, this industrialisation status existed. And, critically, even though the attainment of this status was actively propelled by government, a very substantial portion by design cascaded throughout the private sector. But the wellspring was undoubtedly the state, manifest in the then highly successful institutions of Eskom, Sasol, Iscor, Kentron, Somchem, Pelindaba, LIW, OMC, the CSIR and a legion of others engaged in verifiably state-of-the-art innovations - the state was South Africa’s innovation centre of gravity.
Today, the South African state is almost entirely bereft of innovation expertise, or indeed a capacity to provoke it anywhere in the economy. The private sector; however, has retained a meaningful degree of frontier innovation competence, arguably the greatest extent of which resides in small and medium sized enterprises, following the accounting technocracy-led purge of once formidable engineering competencies within large corporates (a global phenomenon). And many of these remaining innovation-competent enterprises are extraordinarily good at what they do. Feather, bantam and flyweight organisations perhaps, but practitioners of the innovation martial arts that are not to be trifled with.
Interestingly, many such organisations have either consciously pursued or naturally gravitated towards some combination of the following three-pronged commercial strategy in order to prosper as innovation enterprises in an economy devoid of supportive state engagement: 1) Remain a private enterprise of a manageable size - don’t institutionalise and become of a scale that is only viable with the state being a major demand centre; 2) Maximise the proportion of revenue earned from abroad, particularly through collaborations of some degree in aspiring innovation economies, like those of the Middle East; 3) Be sufficiently technically agile as to be capable of pursuing a broad diversity of technological endeavours and; thus, attain a diversified customer base.
The result has been the development of an incredibly hardy range of enterprises, generally superbly conditioned to function effectively in circumstances of tremendous uncertainty, whether such uncertainty be commercial, political, societal or technological. In fact, uncertainty is often consciously or unknowingly embraced. The South African appetite for uncertainty, or ‘uncertainty threshold’, is perhaps higher than many citizens and businesses have come to recognise. Likely far higher than that of equivalently technically sophisticated organisations in the so-called ‘1st World’. And the capacity of South African enterprises to prosecute incredibly complex R&D objectives in such conditions has, accordingly, morphed into an under-appreciated superpower. Perhaps the term ‘micropower’ or ‘nanopower’ is more apt, in order to reflect both that the enterprises in question are of small to medium scale, and that it isn’t a ‘power’ that has yet demonstrated its ability to lead programmes or endeavours at scale (Examples like the SKA and one or two others aside). Whatever it is, and however difficult or impossible to quantity that it may be, for a World of increasing volatility and uncertainty, it is most definitely a well-established power to be harnessed wherever possible, and by whatever means.
Evidence in support of what could be deemed a peculiar assertion is all around us should we care to look. Sit aboard any flight between South Africa and wherever in the World on Qatar, Emirates or Etihad Airways, and you will find at minimum one South African engineer or otherwise technical professional being deployed on an extraordinarily complicated mission of some description somewhere. Satellites for the unspecified governments, desalination plants for the Middle East, communications interception systems for a NATO military, or weapons systems for attack helicopters in North Africa. The list would fascinate and surprise. And that is before one even cares to visit and come to understand the utter magnificence of our commercial farmers.
Nonetheless, and very sadly, the most vitriolic of naysayers hurling combative refutations of this assertion would be from within South African ranks - being the legions of incurable ‘when-wees’, devoid as they are of any capacity to look forward and not backwards. To be part of the solution, and not the problem. Let us not dwell.
And so, South Africa’s ’strategic depth’ from a frontier innovation perspective is arguably underestimated. Somehow this capacity has remained intact within the SMME economic domain, and developed a Pangolin-like outer armouring of defensive hardiness. Small critter mobility, with just enough ironsides to sustain a thorough and regrettably frequent spontaneous battering. The state is absent where it needs to be present, and a granitic impediment where it shouldn’t be found. But the private sector innovation ecosystem has evolved to miraculously survive. It’s a human thing to demonstrate such hardiness, and a very common South African pastime.
The question is, can South African SMME innovation enterprises learn to ‘swarm’? Can we validate a capacity to execute at reasonably international scale by a heretofore unprecedented means - by working efficiently in large, multi-enterprise collaborations? Collaborations which precipitate into being from the surrounding innovation enterprise ecosystem, evolve in form as per requirement, and then dissolve back into a solution largely resembling its prior state? Is it conceivable that we could even learn to share resources in some intelligent manner between enterprises, whether these be of a capital or human nature? Or ‘sweat’ our capacities in some bifurcated modus operandi, as if a legitimate equivalent of the prohibition era-like laundromat by day, speakeasy by night business practice? Essentially, is there cause to believe that the long-run evolutionary trajectory of this South African frontier innovation ecosystem (should one believe it to exist in the character presented herein) may continue to advanced its competitiveness, somehow manifesting as a competency of systemic agility - a capacity to swarm - and that it not just stagnate and ossify at its present state of being, with hundreds of largely uncoordinated but wonderfully innovation-centric SMMEs?
It’s a big thought. Likely deemed an impractical one. However, does the foreseeable global political and socio-economic foreground not almost demand some innovation economy or body of innovation peoples somewhere to become a type of semi-nomadic, semi-agrarian, semi-urban, semi-monotheistic and semi-mystic techno-tribe? A composite innovation civilisation for a composite World? Should we not seek to propagate a highly-competitive and fluid innovation multipolarity, attuned to a more fluid multi-polar global system? Time will indeed tell.
From a practical sense, all naïve attempts at philosophical swashbuckling aside, South Africa is precisely the opportune economy in which to undertake inherently high-risk frontier innovation, as the prevailing structure of economy possesses the best and worst of everything 1st and 3rd Word, and whatever else may exist in between. It is the perfect environment in which to be imaginative, but practical. Audacious, but economical. Capitalist, but humanist. Meritocratic, but uplifting. The World in one country, undoubtedly.
It is an environment in which technologies are subjected to exacting interrogations of their functional characteristics. Where every weakness will be disabled by dust, shattered by corrugations, lobotomised by load shedding, mishandled, manhandled, misappropriated, tenderedpreneured, and eventually applied to a task so far beyond the imaginations of its creators as to actuate the tomb of Jules Verne.
‘Nothing else in the World…not all the armies…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come’
Victor Hugo, The Future of Man
South Africa is possessed by an almost ceaseless and, to some measure, a beautiful chaos. One which propels ingenuity of a type that can only be realised on the cusp of chaos. The trick is to harness it.
Nanodyn was engineered as an enterprise to harness the ingenuity magnificence of our homeland. And to do so with a thoughtful intent, taking into consideration inter alia variables such as the specific make-up of our operational doctrine, to the precise geographic positioning of the enterprise. In the latter case, Stellenbosch and the Winelands region is a habitat rich with SMME innovation enterprises and has proven to be an entirely sensible home. Perhaps South Africa’s re-industrialisation revolution will be ignited from atop the renowned terroir of what is a most habitable locality? Or perhaps it already has been?
Again, time will tell.
Mr. Andrew Charter, CEO at Nanodyn