More needs to be done to make Hong Kong a smart city

December 19, 2017 11:59
The Smart City Blueprint includes proposals covering various areas of city life – from trials of driverless vehicles to electronic identities for all residents to enable them to make quick and secure online transactions. Photo: AFP

Last Friday the Hong Kong government announced a new Smart City Blueprint to promote the use of innovative technology in the city to provide a smarter digital environment for all Hongkongers.

That's a laudable, though belated, move. But the government itself should be at the center of such a transformation to ensure the success of all the initiatives. Otherwise, the blueprint will just be one of those ill-conceived, poorly implemented plans that eventually die in the hands of a stifling government bureaucracy.

The five-year plan includes proposals covering a wide range of areas of city life – from trials of driverless vehicles to electronic identities for all residents to enable them to make quick and secure online transactions.

The blueprint includes the integration of three government transport apps into one to provide better user experience and access to real-time transport information, big data analytics and the deployment of smart street lampposts.

It's great to see the government getting serious about innovation and technology development, although many of the ideas incorporated into the blueprint are not exactly new. For example, the launching of a faster payments system is part of the digitalization plans of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the smart lamppost project was being bandied about by Lam as early as last October.

However, all these changes should begin within the government. And the first thing that the government should change is the mindset of bureaucrats, who by the nature of their role as preservers of the status quo, are resistant to change. They lack the flexibility to embrace change or adapt to changes. They tend to impose rules that stunt growth, stifle innovation and frustrate the search for possibilities.

One clear example is the deployment of mobile payment systems. 

While Hong Kong’s Octopus stored-value card has been leading the way in electronic payment in the past two decades, the government should also acknowledge the giant strides taken by mobile payment systems such as the NFC and QR code, which use online payment technologies as differentiated from the traditional offline technology.

Unfortunately, the government has not bothered to consider the enormous possibilities of adopting these new payment technologies and just allowed the Octopus to dominate the market. In fact, the expanded transport subsidies scheme will be implemented through the exclusive use of Octopus.

It's not really hard to understand the government's preference for Octopus. The payment system is owned by MTR Corp., which is majority-owned by the government. Therein lies the rub. The government may have a conflict of interest in setting the city's mobile payment policy.

If the government wants to be perceived as fair, it should open all the public transport systems in the city to all mobile payment technologies. There is no excuse for Hong Kong to prevent the use of Apple Pay or Android Pay in public transport as other developed countries have these services in place.

In fact, Lam should use the influence of her office to urge Octopus to open its platform to different mobile payment firms to allow the technology to develop in the city, and encourage public transport firms to accept different modes of mobile payment.

The blueprint includes a smart mobility section that illustrates how technology can change Hong Kong people's way of commuting. Basically, it is talking about the development of connected vehicles in the city. But the section only mentions the integration of government-developed mobile apps that provide transport information, as well as the installation of "in-vehicle units" that allow motorists to receive real-time traffic information and pay tunnel fees.

However, the blueprint fails to mention the actual development of a connected vehicle system and the required 5G mobile network technology. Smart mobility is not just limited to the provision of information to help commuters. It should also help drivers to use the road in a smarter and safer way.

The measures listed on the government blueprint may be just the beginning of Hong Kong's bid to enter the 5G world. The connected car will play a key role in future transportation systems as it can ensure safe driving via the 5G network. For example, the car's sensor can send a signal to another vehicle to avoid a collision.

However, the 5G standard will not be adopted until 2019 at the earliest as the government is taking its time to allocate the 5G spectrum. That means mobile operators won't have enough time to deploy the network and launch the service by 2020, as planned by other operators in other parts of the world.

The government also needs to open the city's street networks to have the necessary vehicle sensors installed. All these foundation works should be done as soon as possible to allow mobile operators to launch 5G at the earliest possible time.

It should also be noted that the document does not include the promotion of open data policies and a sharing economy, which had been proposed in an earlier consultancy study.

It is quite disappointing that the government is ignoring what really matters to make Hong Kong a smart city.

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EJ Insight writer