President Ranil Wickremesinghe emphasized that the government is placing special focus on integrating economic and technical sectors through advancements in computer and information technology.

The President highlighted the vision to transform Colombo Port City into a financial zone facilitating offshore activities and attracting investments in Sri Lanka, with a strong emphasis on the development of enterprises and the utilization of digital technology by both local and foreign investors.

President Wickremesinghe made these remarks during the opening of the 2024 ‘DigiEcon’ Global Investment Conference, commenced today (25) at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo. 

The conference, themed ‘Harnessing Sri Lanka’s Untapped Potential,’ aims to showcase the country’s investment opportunities.

He stated that Sri Lanka needs digital cooperation with India and China who are giants in the field. 

“We are situated between two giants in this sector, China and India, covering both hardware and software. We need to utilize that knowledge and cooperate with these countries,” he said.

He also outlined the government’s plans to build national infrastructure under the Science and Technology Development Act, which established the National Science and Technology Commission and the National Science Foundation. 

“We are now introducing new laws to supplement it. Firstly, we will create a Chief Technological Officer, who will be the chief technological advisor to the government of Sri Lanka. Then, we will establish the Technology and Innovation Council, which will fund commercializing research.”

He said the government will also support pure and applied sciences through the National Science Foundation. “We aim to create a system for commercializing research. All government funding for pure and applied research will go through the National Science Foundation, which will set priorities and monitor performance”. 

The President said the government is also establishing the Digital Transformation Agency. “Initially focused on computer and information technology, we are now integrating economic and technological aspects. The final new institution we are introducing is the National AI Centre.”

He further said that Sri Lanka must establish the infrastructure for high-tech cities. “We are looking at one in the outskirts of Colombo, which at least have 100 acres or more. Smaller areas like Jaffna and others could have their own cities, with about 25 to 50 acres, depending on the available land. One major high-tech city will be in Colombo, and if possible, another in Kandy.”

Following the opening session, a panel discussion took place, featuring participation from Chief of Presidential Staff Senior Advisor to the President on National Security Sagala Ratnayaka, Minister of State for Technology Kanaka Herath and Minister of State for Investment Promotion Dilum Amunugama.

Additionally, President Wickremesinghe met with the Global CEO of IFS, Mr. Mark Moffat, in conjunction with the conference.

Addressing the gathering, the President further said:

“If you are looking at fast growth, then certainly the digital economy and the whole innovation system are essential. We started with tourism and agricultural modernization. This is another fast-growing sector that has been identified. So how do we promote it? Where do we go from here?

So, what is it that we have, and what is it that we need? Firstly, we need to look at how we can expand this sector of the economy. How can the digital economy and innovation in the field of digital technology help us? At the moment, we have identified areas for development. Agriculture modernization will go hand in hand with the expansion of the digital sector. We are looking at modernizing agriculture into smart agriculture. We are a country where the average holding is sometimes less than one acre, but we are trying to increase it to two or three acres. Look at the potential we have there.

Secondly, if you look at any sector to expand, there are two factors to consider: the economic crisis and the utilization of technology. We also need a workforce capable of developing and applying that technology. I will say a few words about what we hope to do. As far as the digital economy is concerned, we have identified it because, as Mark said, there’s a growing demand. Additionally, look at the demand that is going to come up in Asia and Africa. We are situated between two giants in this sector, China and India, covering both hardware and software. We need to utilize that knowledge and cooperate with these countries.

We have already started discussions with India in the private sector. SLASSCOM and NASSCOM are cooperating, and we hope there will be more. We are trying to build this commerce and are also getting help in building up our national platform. Initial discussions have started with China, and we hope for a successful outcome.

Here we are in Asia, and this is where we have to move forward. We need to look at different areas, and I must mention the Port City project, which we want to proceed with. In Colombo, we aim to create a financial zone that will also provide for offshore activity, encouraging investment in Sri Lanka. With that said, the rest of the work will be left to you: what enterprises to develop and how to use digital technology.

Regarding infrastructure, we are building national infrastructure under the Science and Technology Development Act, which established the National Science and Technology Commission and the National Science Foundation. We are now introducing new laws to supplement it. Firstly, we will create a Chief Technological Officer, who will be the chief technological advisor to the government of Sri Lanka. Then, we will establish the Technology and Innovation Council, which will fund commercializing research.

We will also support pure and applied sciences through the National Science Foundation. We aim to create a system for commercializing research. All government funding for pure and applied research will go through the National Science Foundation, which will set priorities and monitor performance. All state institutions must comply with this, and those seeking to commercialize research will go through the council. This system will be open to both the public and private sectors, as well as universities, which have been left out previously.

We are also establishing the Digital Transformation Agency. Initially focused on computer and information technology, we are now integrating economic and technological aspects. The final new institution we are introducing is the National AI Centre.

These initiatives require human resources. In the short term, we may produce more, but we may not have enough. We might need to bring in trainers from outside, and if so, we shouldn’t hinder this. The more we train, the better the results. Internally, if we need experienced people, we should allow that for a short period while ensuring companies are not disrupted and that Sri Lankans can progress in the medium term.

We will now restructure the entire vocational training system. Instead of having multiple authorities, there will be one central authority with nine provincial agencies. Vocational colleges will integrate various training centres run by different authorities, converting them into vocational colleges.

Regarding technical colleges, we are planning to establish new institutions focused on technology and management, awarding associate degrees. These associate degrees, which take about two years to complete, will allow graduates to upgrade their qualifications at vocational and technical universities, the Open University, or any other university, to achieve bachelor’s or master’s degrees. This approach will benefit those in higher education and university education.

We are discussing with India the establishment of a Chennai IIT campus in Kandy. Additionally, we are starting three new universities following the KDU model. The first is the University of Kurunegala, which is being planned with three campuses, one in Sitawaka, and the third somewhere outside Colombo, possibly in Gampaha or nearby. These universities will focus on technology and management, and we will collaborate with other foreign universities to offer various courses.

Some universities that currently do not offer engineering programs will be allowed to introduce them, and we will ensure that AI is taught there.

We have a number of students who are studying in the arts faculties in the arts stream. Now, employment is a problem for them if they are looking at government employment. What we are discussing now is to see if there are firms capable of taking them on while they are in university, studying subjects such as geography or others. These students will become proficient in IT and English, so they can find employment.

This initiative will provide employment opportunities for a certain number of people. The government will fund this. In any case, it’s better to fund them in IT rather than creating additional jobs as development officers, for which we have no money. So, we are prepared to discuss with you all how we will establish these schemes, which will work. Then, let’s see whether some of the companies will really focus mainly on training others in the digital economy itself.

I don’t want to take any more of your time, but we must establish the infrastructure for high-tech cities. We are looking at one in the outskirts of Colombo, which at least have 100 acres or more. Smaller areas like Jaffna and others could have their own cities, with about 25 to 50 acres, depending on the available land. One major high-tech city will be in Colombo, and if possible, another in Kandy.

This is our current thinking. We will focus significantly on human resources development and research. The rest is up to you. We must now look at how we can find more capital, possibly at a slightly concessional rate and development financing for you to get ahead.

I’ve just explained what we hope to achieve in the coming years, and I hope you will contribute to enriching the future of the country and influencing government thinking.”

–PMD