22 May 2019
The HKeMobility app aims to provide a quick and more convenient way to search for routes of different transportation modes, journey times and fares, as well as disseminate real-time traffic news. Photo: HK Govt
The HKeMobility app aims to provide a quick and more convenient way to search for routes of different transportation modes, journey times and fares, as well as disseminate real-time traffic news. Photo: HK Govt

Smart City path needs to be inclusive and bottom-up

The Hong Kong government recently launched the HKeMobility app. After downloading it onto their smartphones free of charge, residents can use it to plan trips around the city by road, rail, foot, and so on. It includes special features for the visually impaired and the elderly.

However, the app instantly met with criticism. Several bus and train operators have not allowed their fleets’ real-time location information to be included in the app, on the grounds that the data is a commercial asset. In order to find when the next bus or train is leaving, users need to go into the operators’ own online platforms. It is not a major inconvenience, but it is an example of the problems Hong Kong has in achieving its aim to be a “smart city”.

Perhaps another example is payment systems. When Octopus cards were first introduced over 20 years ago, they were a major step towards a cashless society. Since then, Mainland cities have clearly overtaken us – most people there pay for taxis and even goods in street markets with their phones.

A third example might be healthcare and medical data. Many patients would benefit from a system where medical records could be transferred seamlessly and securely between public and private health providers. It would also help the government, for example by improving data on health trends. There are obviously confidentiality and technical issues, but a major problem is getting different sectors to work together.

The government last year launched a smart city blueprint. It is a very broad vision covering transport, energy saving, digital personal ID, open data, fintech and the sharing economy. As well as transport, payment and medical record systems, it means things like driverless vehicles, remote sensing systems to monitor recycling bins and cleanliness of streets, LED street lighting, a more walkable urban environment and intelligent buildings.

The Innovation and Technology Bureau stresses in the introduction to the blueprint that a “smart city” is people-focused. It is primarily about the needs of residents and visitors and the quality of life.

One challenge for Hong Kong – and many other developed economies – is that many “smart city” outcomes require planning and coordination. A seamless digital payments system needs complete cooperation on GR code or other standards between banks, payment services, technology providers, regulators, big and small retailers and people like taxi drivers and hairdressers. In a free market environment like Hong Kong, this is a potential problem. We will get there, but it will take time.

The good news is that not all features of a “smart city” come down to advanced technology or centralized planning.

Many think-tanks, academics and professional institutes are working on various ways to make our city more sustainable. Some focus on relatively small-scale concepts, which would be relatively easy to implement and could be applied on a bigger scale later.

I recently heard about a “smart city triangle precinct” proposed by several urban planning groups and students.

The triangle precinct is the part of Central around the old Central Market, the PMQ culture hub, the newly opened Tai Kwun heritage and arts center and the streets up the Mid-Levels Escalator from Hollywood Road. The three points of the triangle are major heritage renovation sites, and will be attracting more and more visitors into a district already popular as a retail, restaurant and residential area.

The proposal essentially focuses on improving walkability and enhanced public space in the crowded neighborhood of narrow streets. While it specifically concerns just one small geographical area, this is a key component of “smart city” transport and quality of life.

Efficient and green transit networks, apps showing you which bus to catch, intelligent traffic signals, congestion charging and autonomous vehicles are all important. But “smart city” mobility must include pedestrian connectivity and walkability around people’s destinations. And pleasant street environments and public spaces are essential to quality of life.

This is just one example of a specific proposal for one neighborhood. But it is an important reminder that Hong Kong’s progress towards a “smart city” needs to be an inclusive and bottom-up process.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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