Jake's View

Wasteful subsidies miss the point on real innovation

Improve people's livelihoods and that's when creative ideas will flow from a broader base

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 12:53am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 12:53am

Li [Ka-shing] advised the city's government to invest more in innovation and technology to improve competitiveness and not to focus solely on poverty relief.

SCMP, March 7

I have my doubts about the effectiveness of the poverty relief measures administered by our government but I am certainly much surprised to hear that it focuses solely on poverty relief. Where did Mr Li get the notion?

I have an idea, however, for achieving his objective of greater investment in innovation and technology. It is to bring relief from poverty to as many people as possible. This is a sure-fire prescription for putting brainpower to creative work.

In my view, both Mr Li and the people in government responsible for wasting HK$600 million a year on hundreds of little itty-bitty technology projects that never go anywhere have somewhat dated ideas about the nature of innovation.

Things have gone past the day when the likes of a Thomas Alva Edison could say to a handful of workshop assistants, "Let's invent the light bulb", and then do it.

The innovators are many and mostly anonymous

I shall grant you that it still seems so occasionally when there is a sudden breakthrough in technology, as for instance when the invention of the transistor led to the integrated circuit and all the digital information devices we enjoy today. Then you get a Sony, a Microsoft or an Apple Computer.

But things quickly settle down again. Sony is a sad relic of its heyday and Microsoft was never really anything but a one-client law firm set up to establish and protect rights to ideas it took from others. Even Apple is now sorely taxed to come up with new things to do with the integrated circuit.

Most of all they are exceptions, comets briefly here and gone. Far more representative of advances in technology are aircraft engineers who steadily make little improvements in Boeing and Airbus products, shaving off a little weight here, adjusting the metallurgy somewhere else. It all adds up to cheaper and safer air travel. They have done more for you than Bill Gates ever did and all of it is innovation.

Real technological advance these days comes from thousands of ideas streaming together from fundamental scientific concepts to factory applications. They bring steady improvements to all technologies and every now and then push the limits of what is possible a little further out. The innovators are many and mostly anonymous, adding their own little ideas to the small part they know of the stream. They are to be found everywhere that human endeavour is free to develop itself.

In this town, they are largely at work at the end of the innovation chain, arranging distribution of consumer products around the world and helping determine how much effort should go into any initiative, a process we call pricing. It requires a great deal of creative thought.

But our government scorns it if even recognising it. To our bureaucrats, innovation is a process of getting worldwide credit for devising fancy digital devices. They promote this flawed concept with subsidies that take no account of the marketing skills in which Hong Kong specialises. We now thus have 3,922 projects that have been sponsored by the Innovation and Technology Commission. Almost all of them are outside that stream of innovation in which the rest of the world participates. They are mostly idle diversions dreamed up by academics who are demon writers of grant applications and devote their little creative talent to constant repetitions of one theme song - "Gimme More Money".

If you really want to promote innovation in Hong Kong and improve competitiveness, Mr Li, then do what you can to dissuade the government from wasting our resources and steering creative energy into these dead-end pursuits.

The key to joining the real worldwide stream of innovation is to give as many people as possible the ability to join it and this is done when they do not have to spend their entire working days struggling just to feed and house themselves.

When prosperity reaches down to them, the result is a natural blossoming of innovation across the entire range of human initiatives. There is nothing anyone else has to do then. It comes of itself.