Colombo Tech City is a project that the government of Sri Lanka has formulated for the development of the country, with particular emphasis on the area of scientific and technological innovation. It is the government’s major concept for developing the “Western Megapolis”, its ongoing project to convert Colombo and its environs into a multi-million population conurbation – whereby it hopes to haul the rest of the country into the 21st century.Tech cities exist elsewhere, points out Rahula Senanayake, Deputy Director (Promotion) at the Tech City project, in China, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. “Even in India they have 100 tech cities, whereas we have only one.”
However, the going is slow. The project is a many-faceted one, requiring the participation of multiple parties, and a slew of preliminaries for it to get off the ground.
In the first place, there is the need for a policy to be hammered out for the development of this type of hypothesized city.
This is complicated by the division of responsibility between different ministries, departments and authorities. Senanayake says that the policy framework for the Colombo Tech City is in the process of formulation but it is delayed, “because in Sri Lanka it is connected to different ministries.”
“We are under the Megapolis Ministry,” he elaborates. “This is a ministry where some of the identified projects to be implemented are taken forward, whereas other ministries have their focus on the subject area. So, automatically science, technology and innovation goes directly to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
But the project itself continues with our ministry. So some policy matters, need to be discussed, we should not allow overlap. It is a problematic question.”
Another issue, which causes considerable delay, is procurement of land for locating the Tech City projects.
“You especially need land for the development of this project,” Senanayake explains. “Land area is a question at the moment, because many of lands on which we have planned on developing Tech City projects, belong to private stakeholders, it is private property, so the government needs to acquire these lands.”
The Land Acquisition Act gives the Urban Development Authority (UDA) the power to carry out the process of acquiring suitable lands. However, the procedure is time-consuming.
When the Colombo Tech City proposal first emerged, the Sri Lankan university system was not included in the concept. However, about six year ago, the idea of integrating university campuses came up. Accordingly, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development included this notion, of universities connected to the Tech City Development Project, in the master plan.
“We have allocated a certain acreage, 15 or 20 acres,” says Senanayake, “for the Colombo, Sri Jayawardana Pura, and Moratuwa universities, so that they are directly connected. Now all the infrastructure facilities are being done. Other infrastructure services such as electricity, water and road networks are also now underway.”
Consequently, academia, and beyond, have linkages to Tech City, so that when a university comes up with research and development (R&D) concepts, they can be commercialised, associating with the process not only the younger generation, but also higher scholars at the universities – including the process of innovation and innovation within the entire Tech City programme.
It is an evolving programme. The new Technology Facility of the Sri Jayawardana Pura university took the first steps, and now Colombo and Moratuwa universities have developed their faculties dealing with research and innovations along the same lines.
Research and development is not simply the purview of academia, however. For it to be vibrant, in needs to tie in with functioning areas of industry and services.
“We are also expecting research in the health care field. There are thousands of research institutes, whom we are inviting here. However, just a research institute on its own cannot survive, so we discussed the matter and decided on research based on a hospital. Patients using the hospital could be charged for the medical services they receive.
We think private parties would find this concept attractive.In order to attract vibrant start-ups, the business incubation system will be adopted – to facilitate small and medium enterprise development and innovation from among the younger generation. Senanayake expects this will enable knowledge acquisition and innovative product development.
“We are aware of other countries, who are very successfully doing this, so we are bringing academia into close proximity and making the required facilities available. Apart from the business incubation centre, we will, provide the commercialisation, linkages, and prototype production. We will provide the physical building for the incubation centre.”
Although there are several small business incubators in Colombo, this one will be larger. Tech City invites the small incubators to link up with them, so that they could also benefit. The business incubation centre will be linked to government agencies, but also to the private sector – “we realise that government institutions cannot do anything unless linked to the private sector,” adds Senanayake.
“So this would be Mahenwatte, in Homagama Tech City ” he explains. “The whole area will be one ecosystem, where your research institutions labs and academia universities and the students and the other SME support services, with a shared resource pool. That is what have made successes of Silicon Valley and other world famous tech cities.”
The Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, the NSBM Green University, the military research unit and Standards Institution are up and running at the Homagama Tech City. Apart from that, John Keells and several other private institutions are connecting up. ICT-related companies have requested facilities such as supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops in the vicinity, to serve their staff.
“We have requested famous suppliers to go and see and open up even temporary facilities, we can provide accommodation. We are planning to have an iconic building, called the ‘Iconic Building’. It will be facilitating all shopping, restaurants, car park and leisure areas, and everything else required. Even housing will also be provided in that complex.” Senanayake stresses that, for the private sector to invest, they need profit margins, to achieve which they must be able to go to profitable or bankable projects, otherwise there would be no point their investing. “That is why we are carefully selecting some projects. Private sector investors, whether local parties or foreign, they need to get a return, so they need carefully designed projects, not on such the iconic building, If it is merely a symbol, it would not be bankable. In order to make it bankable, we added many components inside the building.
The Iconic Building is envisaged to contain vehicle parking, government or non-governmental office area, a shopping mall, and housing, on all of which of money can be made. The multi-faceted facilities are linked to the Iconic building to make it an economically feasible, bankable project.
“The staff of Jayawardana Pura, Colombo and Peradeniya universities may make new appointments to these faculties, at least 1,000. They need facilities. So we have an immediate need for 1,000 housing units.”
Scholars, workers other staff members, who settle with their families, need education for their children. Since ending their children all the way to Colombo is difficult, they need educational facilities in the area. A very good government school, Mahinda Rajapaksa College, is located there. “However, some people might prefer a private educational institution. We have identified this need.
We have identified the land, and we need investment to run a private school, even up to university level.”
The Tech City master plan calls for providing employment to150,000 people. At the first stage, Universities are expected to provide over 2,500 new jobs in the three faculties they will set up at Mahenwatte. Another 2,500 job opportunities are envisaged in the next four years, making a total of about 5,000 new jobs, in the near future.