Last Sunday, I served as a discussant on a session on ICTs in a series of webinars brainstorming ideas on how things can be made better in post-conflict Jaffna. More or less at the same time, I was invited to discuss the ICT elements of the 2021 Budget by Sirasa. The program was broadcast on 2 December 2020.
The overlap between the two assignments was on the budget proposal to promote the ICT industry through the building of techno parks in five region locations at the cost of LKR 10 billion. Here is what I said in the two venues, and also wrote up for the Daily FT.
The Government has allocated the rather large sum of Rs. 10 billion for setting up five “fully-fledged plug and play Techno Parks in Galle, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Kandy and Batticaloa Districts”. Previous budgets included such allocations for such parks by slightly different names, but none were built. It appears the liking for these things comes from officials rather than politicians.
The Malambe IT Zone was established under President Kumaratunga in the 1990s. It was not easy to attract companies to that location which was considered too remote. We could not even persuade HSBC to locate its regional centre, which is not a hive of creativity, in Malambe. They insisted on the present location on Parliament Road.
The value of the Malambe IT Zone has greatly increased now with the Athurugiriya Interchange and would have skyrocketed had the now aborted LRT been completed, but most of the land is already occupied, not necessarily by IT firms. Still the early difficulties illustrate the challenges of setting up technology parks.
They are fundamentally different from the industrial parks our officials are familiar with. The companies that locate in such parks place a premium on attracting and holding employees. The people who work in software firms and creative industries do not particularly like suburban or rural locations; they do not want to spend hours commuting. They like the benefits of agglomeration. That is why Silicon Valley emerged around Stanford University and why Bangalore and Gurgaon, with all their shortcomings, emerged as centres of IT. Coffee shops and bars play an important role in the success of IT parks.
Artificially creating techno parks in the middle of nowhere is a recipe for failure. Government officials are incapable of designing and managing such parks. They should commission studies of what has worked here and abroad and encourage private firms to build and manage technology parks in locations that will attract companies and employees.
On what basis were five districts picked for locating the parks? It would be useful to understand what happened to the tender that was floated by the Export Development Board in 2019 seeking to identify a suitable building and operator for a tech park in Jaffna. Just because something was started under a different government, it should not be abandoned. By most measures, including the quality of the educational system and the success of initiatives such as Yarl IT Hub and Uki Coding School, Jaffna is an obvious candidate, though much remains to be done on the leisure and entertainment side.