Hong Kong has been seeking to transform itself from a traditional economy into a digital city, with the government introducing various initiatives, such as huge investment in digital infrastructure and new policies to draw in talents into local startups, to help fuel the process. However, the work has only begun and the territory still has a long way to go before it can truly claim to be “smart”.
To make real headway on Smart City development and allow the city to catch up with rivals, a key need is for the government to go through a transition of sorts and function as a digital enabler rather than serve as just a policy maker.
Given this, all eyes are on what steps authorities will take to push forward the Smart City Blueprint which was released in December 2017 and deals with six major aspects: smart mobility, smart living, smart environment, smart people, smart government and smart economy.
As Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, prepares to deliver her annual policy address on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see how much time she will devote to the Smart City plan in her speech.
While the major focus of her second policy address will no doubt be on land supply, in view of the worsening housing situation in the city, it is possible that Lam will also dwell on the Smart City topic at great length and list out the progress in making Hong Kong a digital city, carrying forward a theme from her maiden policy address last year.
While the government has fulfilled some pledges such as launching a HK$500 million technology talent scheme and setting aside HK$10 billion for university research funding, other commitments in innovation and technology are either still in progress or have seen no progress at all.
Overall, the government seems to believe that money can solve all the issues, while ignoring some key aspects that can help emerging businesses. What industry and startups really need, observers point out, is a government that is friendly and tolerant of new business models, such as those related to sharing economy and the use of big data.
Among other things, there has been little or no progress in areas such as opening up government data and reviewing outdated laws that come in the way of development of a sharing economy.
In one example, Uber and other ride-hailing services still have their legality questioned by Hong Kong authorities. In July, more than two dozen Uber drivers were held guilty of driving passengers without a hire car permit. That came at a time when the traditional taxi operators are seeking to raise their fares as much as 25 percent.
In addition, the government is yet to take the lead and urge all public transport operators to open their real-time data for the public. It’s true that some bus operators like New World First Bus and City Bus have been offering real time bus data through smartphone apps. But the data is still fragmented without systematic organization.
For example, Hong Kong people cannot find a real time transit route from Quarry Bay to Cheung Chau on a single platform. They may need to first find the next bus schedule on bus operator’s app, then find the next ferry on ferry operator’s app. Life could be easier for commuters or travelers to calculate their journey time if all transport data was mandatorily opened to all.
It’s true that Hong Kong has been making progress in recent years on the journey toward a digital city. Government officials do recognize the importance of innovation and technology development and are urging new companies to establish their businesses in Hong Kong.
However, the efforts have yielded limited results, in part due to the high cost of setting up base here. Extremely high rental expenses have prompted many firms to think twice before coming to Hong Kong. It doesn’t help startups if they have to spend a lot of money on office rents, rather than allocating the funds to business development and research.
In the financial sector, the government has opened up the market through the introduction of virtual banking licenses to allow new entrants to provide banking services using new fintech. But for the public transport sector, authorities are still reluctant to issue more licenses for ride hailing service. That would further drag Hong Kong as a smart city, given that such services can help digitize the city transport network with data.
In a study “Smart City Development in Hong Kong: Barriers and Challenges” released this week by Tianda Institute, Pauline Ng, head of the think-tank’s Hong Kong Policy Research Center, said the government had failed to make Hong Kong people realize that turning Hong Kong into a smart city was a common goal that required everyone’s participation.
Ng, a former Legislative Council secretary, also noted that the Smart City Blueprint unveiled last year was far from being a long-term strategy with vision. The think-tank official said she hopes Carrie Lam will provide a clear strategy in her policy address on utilizing the city’s strengths to achieve the long-term goal.
Tech giant Google recently pointed out that part of the problem for turning Hong Kong into a smart city is an institutionalized mindset where many in Hong Kong feel that they do not have to innovate and keep pace with change. They are comfortable with the status quo. That is because Hong Kong has been relatively prosperous for some time now, especially compared to its neighbors.
Such mindset will be detrimental for the long-term good of the territory, and needs to change. In this, the government and the public have to both adopt a new way of thinking and help build a better future for the city.
For now, let’s wait and hear what Lam says in her policy address tomorrow and if she raises the stakes further on the Smart City vision.
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