Second blog in line of narrating my experiences and thoughts about Arfa Software Technology Park (ASTP), Lahore.
Along with dominating the Skyline of Lahore, ASTP have already started dominating ICT environment of Lahore in particular even if you want to believe it or not, everybody in the industry knows about it and everybody is talking about it!
How it brings in a cultural shift?
Arfa Software Technology Park, Lahore
It’s iconic! .. will be the most short and precise answer!
It represents a 180 degree shift, it’s like giving people hope and landmarking something which our government rarely think about. ICT has it’s root in academia, it is something which directly create knowledge based economy, it directly get benefited by higher education standards, it directly create value for the country by giving jobs to the people and automating several tasks which eats up billions of rupee every year with little outcome (road traffic signal automation, tracking of police vehicles, automatic number plate recognition of each vehicle entering in the city etc. Yes, these all benefits are still a distant dream and we are still pleading turkish government to help us in them without realising how we could do them all at home in few million rupee rather than giving away billions of rupee but that’s another debate!) and it brings in billions of dollars each year without exporting tangible goods, we actually export just knowledge!
The state of ICT based companies in Lahore
- There are about 20-25 large companies in Lahore which have 100+ employees and I am not talking about Mobilink, Wateen etc. Likes of such companies are Teradata, Nextbridge, TRG, Netsol, Game View Studios, Sensys, Intech, System International etc. these are just the few which I can count from top of my head! Most of these companies are located in posh residential area of Lahore city with Gulberg being the most populated and other’s are scattered around in DHA and Johar Town. Few are in commercial plazas such as Shaheen Complex and only a handful have their own buildings such as Netsol. Remaining which are in residential rented buildings, with 100+ employees you can’t fit them all in one building, so, a number of them have to rent multiple buildings with operations staff scattered!
- Then there are small companies which are mostly Elance and oDesk based and they are also located in small residential buildings around the city. Although small and out of international exposure, each of them have revenue in terms of thousands of US dollars every month! Most of this income is undocumented as almost all of them are non-registered and running thorough personal bank accounts of owners. Fair enough for them but they also need mentors and proper subsidized office space to gain exposure and growth!
- Local ICT industry also include large call centers which work for local companies as well for companies which are established abroad in UK and USA and call centres always have staff in multiple of hundreds.
In such situation ASTP being iconic automatically becomes a hub, it has 17 floors, 3 gone for shops, 14 remain – 5 of which are already gone to Punjab Government and remaining floors come to a grand total of 9! 3 floors were for incubator offices (8th, 9th and 10th) and office size range in these floors is from 211 sq. ft. to 900 sq. ft. Now the actual situation on the ground is:
- 4th and 5th floor gone to LDA (Lahore Development Authority) and Punjab Police for their IT related projects
- Reportedly 9th floor (which is originally for incubator offices) is taken by Chief Minister Punjab himself for his personal secretariat
- 11th floor is taken by PITB (Punjab Information Technology Board)
- 10th floor was originally designed for incubator offices as well according to original prospectus of ASTP (formerly LTP) but marketing staff don’t show it any more to small companies so odds are that it has been rented out as a whole floor to a large company
- 1 floor in a technology focused building is gone to Danish Technology University (this idea can only come in the mind of Mian Shehbaz Sharif – CM Punjab)
In this situation, out of 17 original and 14 office floors, 9 are available to local ICT industry for which this building has originally been constructed. Out of 3 floors for incubator offices, only 1 is in the market and PITB people are also thinking about it to rent as a whole floor to avoid rent collection fatigue (really?)
Potential of Cultural Shift
Still, this place has a lot of potential as a breeding ground of a lot of start-ups in the city as I can see a lot of buzz going around with-in, people networking with each other, events are already getting hosted in already functional auditorium!
The need of the hour is to promote a culture which shifts our industry’s focus from an outsourcing based to start-up based industry. Believe me with outsourcing we are going nowhere! A lot of companies here take projects from Internet or western agencies, do the hard-work and get some money at the end, while where we ship our hard work, our name hardly goes forward, we never get recognition of any kind! Secondly, yes developers get money for their work but they never socialise with each other, they never think about developing something new, to try their luck and bring in millions of dollars by selling their own products, the result is that most companies here are not focused on increasing their knowledge base (most developers and companies are happy working on WordPress and Joomla while world is making HTML5 based mobile apps), nor do they think about innovation!
With ASTP, we can create a whole eco-system for entrepreneurship! This building will serve as a networking hub automatically, investors and developers will come together and that will be the start of something bigger, the government just need to faciliate the change rather than doing things which it is not ment to do.
How other’s did it?
We all know Mountain View (famously known as Silicon Valley) as Mecca of ICT but what made it turn into a Mecca? US defense department! They first made a missile factory in the area, then HP was born and by late 50s they were making electronic components for defense factories in the area and they had more than 10,000 employees, that made everybody around that area an engineer! Then Standford University opened an innovation center spread over an area of 50 acres! that all happened in 40s, 50s and 60s and today we have a place known as Silicon Valley, the birth place of literally everything we know in the field of ICT. These factors were just catalysts, people automatically did the remaining job!
What our Government is doing?
Exactly what they are famous to do!
Instead of giving the projects to local companies, our government is pleading Turkish and other foreign companies to take billions of rupee and automate our systems. Do we really think that we can’t do those projects here? Take a chance, you will be surprised! Our ever energetic Chief Minister is offering 2 billion rupee to a turkish company to install automated traffic signal system in Lahore, did he have any idea what a change this money can bring to local industry if he let that money flow within Pakistan? But no, why we would give it locally, first if that would be awarded locally, the project will be scooped by some cousin of someone sitting in the government and that cousin would still be a student somewhere (exactly what happened in irrigation telemetery project, reportedly) and then a whole cycle of corruption will start and nothing will get delivered, that’s another debate but corruption is a controllable factor and only takes intention, right?
- Technology University in ASTP
As of what I will think about the scenario is that the CM must have seen the building first time and must have thought ‘uh, such a huge building, I should not let it remain empty and turn into a white elephant, let’s start a technology university on a floor here!’. A wonderful idea Sir but ‘a’ building is not the right place for it. Universities should be at open places with plenty of space for labs, playing grounds and class rooms. One floor of a technology building is not enough!
Secondly, it will destroy the working environment, students are mostly non-serious about facilities they would use while in business, facilities and time essentially translate into money! There will be a problem of security, students will use same elevators which would mean they can go on any floor and will put a strain on building facilities for which it is not designed.
There is a plus point that a university will encourage academia and industry collaboration but that is already happening, we recently went on a talent hunt to COMSATS (CIIT) which is 13 Km from Thokar Niaz Baig (literally 13 km out of the last corner of the city!) and we had no problem, we were there exactly out of the need and we were happy doing that! We knew we are going to meet students, idea of meeting students in our own elevator instead of someone who is working on a cool mobile app and need partner? – shrugs!
- CM himself on 9th floor?
What are you doing there Sir? We will be most happy with the thought that our CM has his own office in the building and he sometimes come and sit with us. We will be happy because we will have a chance to interact with CM, give our input into the existing and new technology projects and maybe if the presence of CM can become catalyst in joining hands with foreign governments! (Pay attention: I am talking about taking projects and doing them here rather than pleading other governments to do our projects!)
But what a CM would be doing on a whole floor? Sir, there are more than 500 small companies in this city, they all need to grow, they all need to become likes of Apple and Microsoft and they can! Instead of taking up their space, you should be providing them space! We don’t need your 200 useless secretariat employees sitting with us, instead we will be happy sitting with 200 innovators who can bring real change.
Continues CM presence will also bring in security challenges for the businesses inside the building, if CM should come, it should be granted a low-key event status and his presence should not hinder business activity.
I will conclude this blog by congratulating previous and current Punjab Government to construct a hub for the industry at a right place and with right facilities and I will hope that now on the operational side Punjab Government will also show the same spirit and will prove itself a catalyst in creating a knowledge eco-system to encourage entrepreneurship and bring value to the country rather than creating obstacles in the process!