Taking a closer look in Istanbul.
Güven Sak


ISTANBUL â€" Anyone who has ever visited a toy store with a child who doesn't really know what he wants can understand Turkey"s technological predicament. There is the mad run from shelf to shelf, listening to the child explain why he desperately needs toy after toy. And then, in the end, there is the parental lecture about a limited budget and the need to focus on something he really, truly wants.

Turkey's quest for national technology is very much like that. The country wants to produce a "national airplane." Turkey thinks it desperately needs a "national car." Turkey believes it must also develop a "national vaccine." The country wants all that and more â€" and right now.

There is a naive belief that these ambitions can all be achieved with a room and a desk. We have many places in our foremost universities with names such as "vaccine production center."

So what's driving all this, and why is it so wrong?

China spent almost $300 billion for research and development in 2014 compared to the $8 billion Turkey invested as it talked a lot about "producing national technology." First of all, if a country wants to build any new technology from scratch, it can't be done with spare change like that. When you look at the R&D budgets of the world's top 20 private companies â€" mind you, not countries â€" Turkey ranks equal to Google, which is ninth.

Secondly, consider the top three companies when it comes to this expenditure: Volkswagen (automotive), Samsung (consumer electronics) and Intel (information and communication technology). These three have a combined $40 billion R&D budget. Each company is a leader in its field, focusing on one specific area with more money than Turkey's entire R&D budget. And with that kind of money, nobody is trying to produce cars and medicine at the same time.

So what's the solution? First, Turkey must accept that there is no such thing as a "national technology" in our day and age. What Turkey really seeks is technology transfer. Sadly, our engineers have always looked at other designs without thinking about why things were created the way they were, and they've adopted production procedures again developed by others. It's time to change that.

Look at the Chinese experience: It was foreign investment and technology transfer that catapulted high technology exports to represent 25% of its total exports in 2012, up from just 5% in 1992. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Any technology that is spread over the country's economy is national. Trying to create anything else is just like insisting on buying a new toy.

A country like Turkey can't do everything at once with its limited economic means, its R&D budget and number of engineers. Technology that is flexible enough to expand to other sectors must be preferred. The best example of what not to do is Turkey's past experience with state-foundation companies within the defense industry, such as ASELSAN. Unproductive technology transfer is a waste of resources.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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