Written by Michael Taylor
Award-winning company Swire Properties invests in numerous projects that improve the quality of life
It is early Tuesday night in Quarry Bay. The scene is the outdoor dining section of a number of bars lining the street running parallel to Taikoo Place, a busy office complex home to both global and local companies, from banks and consultancies to trading companies.
As bar patrons begin to arrive and order what could be their first drink for that typical Tuesday night, well-known concert master John Harding stands in front of a select group of musicians from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and launches into the opening salvo of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
The company which sponsored the concert, which is free, is Swire Properties. For the uninitiated, the company's main business is not entertainment.
The concert is part of the company's efforts in corporate social responsibility - a concept revolving around the idea that corporations should consider the impact their business has on society, and which has taken hold in Hong Kong in the past decade.
Miranda Szeto, head of public affairs at Swire Properties, explained that the company's strategy on corporate social responsibility went beyond organising free open-air concerts, and included other activities with no connection to its main line of businesses.
This year alone, the company organised or participated in more than 770 corporate social responsibility projects. Last year, that number was 800. The company also commits cash and sponsorships.
'We believe in being a responsible corporate citizen, and in ploughing back some of our resources into the society where we have significant investment,' Ms Szeto said. Swire Properties, which was incorporated in Hong Kong in 1972 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Swire Pacific, has had a long-standing commitment to the environment.
It dates back to the days before environmental protection became a hot topic in Hong Kong. The company was the first property developer in the city to have a full-time environmental affairs manager, launching the position in the late 1990s.
'All along, Swire Properties, under the direction of the Swire Group, has been very environmentally conscious,' Ms Szeto said.
But Ms Szeto emphasised that the company had been careful to implement its corporate social strategy into the very way it operated, and embarked on projects that were high profile and socially aware,yet distinct from the company's day-to-day work. Work on Swire Properties' One Island East, at Taikoo Place, began in 2005 and is scheduled to be completed next year. It is the only project in Hong Kong, to date, in which a former industrial site will be transformed into a commercial and residential district. It was done using cutting-edge technology in order to minimise harmful effects to the environment.
'It was developed on a site that originally comprised two old industrial buildings,' Ms Szeto explained. 'We were the first developer in Hong Kong to use hydraulic crusher demolition equipment to demolish the two buildings. This was a more expensive approach. However, we were able to recycle 99 per cent of the construction waste, which reduced the burden on land fills.'
To achieve this, Swire Properties utilised a set of 3D construction equipment and technologies that had never been used in Hong Kong.
'This technology is so accurate that during the whole construction process we didn't have the sort of problems usually associated with construction,' Ms Szeto said. 'It was, basically, waste free.'
When Taikoo Shing was launched 30 years ago, it was the first residential development in Hong Kong to feature integrated landscaping. It won the Principal Award from the British Association of Landscape Industries in 1998.
The company's alternate proposal for the Central Waterfront received an Honour Award for Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects in 2000. The Mandarin Oriental in Miami, Florida, in which Swire owns a majority share, has won the Five Diamond Award, given by the American Automobile Association to hotels and resorts that have high ratings in services, for three years running.
Swire Properties was the first property developer in Hong Kong to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons from its air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. It also helped create a centre for environmental technology to develop sustainable initiatives. The technical services department at Swire Properties monitors its carbon monoxide emissions and takes various energy conservation measures.
'Some of our schemes have received international awards,' Ms Szeto said. 'We are very environmentally driven, and we carry out this assessment in everything we do. To us, environmental protection is not a destination - it is a process. It is the direction that we are constantly reviewing and improving.'
Besides environmental protection, Ms Szeto said that Swire Properties' philosophy also focused on education, arts and culture.
But she added: 'They are all interrelated, and they don't need to be standalone activities. There can be some synergies among these three aspects.'
Ms Szeto cited the example of a programme the company sponsored, called Shakespeare4All, that marries arts and culture with education.
Tutors from the programme visit primary schools for 20 weeks to explain a Shakespearean play to students. Then 100 children are selected to perform at a gala at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Ms Szeto said that combining arts and education in the programme made it more than the sum of its parts.
Art programmes have enjoyed the support of Swire Properties right from the company's inception. It offers financial and logistical support to more than 100 such programmes each year. Included are exhibitions, drama, the visual arts and musical performances.
Swire Properties has also been commissioning and collecting contemporary art for more than 30 years. As a result, it has Hong Kong's largest public art collection on permanent display. Most of these works can be found in the lobbies of its commercial buildings. Free interactive art tours are offered at Island East to both individuals and groups.
'Our belief is that property development is not just about providing functional space,' Ms Szeto said. 'We aim to provide an experience that can enhance the quality of life. Arts and culture play an important part [in this process].'
More than 80 years ago, Taikoo Primary School was built by the Swire Group to provide an education for the children of Swire staff.
While it was handed over to the government in the 1960s, Swire remains the school's governing body, with executives from the group serving on its governing council. The group has also built a new campus for the school in Quarry Bay.