• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 4:25pm
Jake's View
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 12:53am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 12:53am

Wasteful subsidies miss the point on real innovation

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


Jake van der Kamp is a native of the Netherlands, a Canadian citizen, and a longtime Hong Kong resident. He started as a South China Morning Post business reporter in 1978, soon made a career change to investment analyst and returned to the newspaper in 1998 as a financial columnist.

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.



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There are three things that are missing if Hong Kong is to become a hub of innovation
1.) Top notch talents going into science and technology. All the brains in this city rush into either finance, law, or medicine. Engineering is seen to be for those who could just make it into university. For any types of innovation, the disruptive kind or incremental kind, the best talent is the pre-condition.
2.) The daring and risk taking mentality. By risk I do not mean calculated risk, but throwing yourself into the unknow and embrace the uncertainty. Hong Kong people are very risk adverse, from entrepreneurs, to the investors and customers. Innovation by nature involves change, change involves uncertainty, and uncertainty do lead to failure. Hong Kong needs to change from the mentality of 'failure is not an option' to 'failure is what makes us better'.
3.) Large home market. As a city of 7 million people, it is not sufficient for innovation to grow to a scale that can take over the world. For this, Hong Kong people must embrace the Chinese market, this is the only way to stay competitive in the global stage.
To *****
To be a hub in x, y or z is by now a wrong thing to do for government and people to marshal their city’s resources to become. Hong Kong should learn a lesson that egging on the entire society to excel in doing one thing that by past experience tells us not only it creates consequence for most people but in the long term the very survival of Hong Kong. We should all be more cautious about this lunacy that thinking Hong Kong or any place in the world can be a hub.
It is really a lunacy too that plays stupidly into the hands of the clever businessmen in Hong Kong. A cultural hub in West Kowloon is a property development project.
Oh dear, HK has just got VERY crowded - 700 million people?
John Adams
You have hit the nail on the head again, as usual , Mr van der Kamp.
Innovation in a highly crowded city like HK where we all live and work in shoe boxes (except stock brokers and cartel tycoons ) and where the majority of our work force is involved in logistics of one sort or another means "doing what we always did , but doing it better and faster and more efficiently and in a smaller space".
That's why the company I work for used our Hong Kong office as the guinea pig for introducing SAP to our Asian offices. Our HK staff did "the best as best can be" with SAP and thus set the benchmark for Asia.
Everyone has heard of SAP, and rightly fears it ( SAP = "Stops All Processes") but HK hit a home run for our Asian companies, and once we got the system working here, it was downhill all the way , even in China.
That's also why we have a multitude of little companies in Tokwawan specializing in custom-made furniture and cupboards. That's hardly hi-tech, but it's a helluva lot more use to those who live in shoe boxes than silly gadgets invented by government - subsidized nerds.
Or LKS's sons.
HK is already highly competitive in what matters.
And we would be even more competitive and helluva lot richer if cartel- tycoons like LKS would cease their stranglehold on most of our daily lives
1. Have a serious immigration policy to bring in diverse and more innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs (i.e., reduce the proportion of the kind that here already in larger numbers)

2. Flush the current innovation commission and newly formed bureau - there are too many scientists and too many bureaucrats.
Else, just risk being a place for good food and finance.
"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." I suppose the misguided programs and advice for HKG to invest in "innovation" is a direct result of the bureacrat's (and Li's) blindness to the true nature of innovation.
Innovation is a form of invention of lower order. It is applying improvement over something that has been invented sometime ago. I like to make further connection between innovation and connection. The old saying – necessity is the mother of invention that I would apply it equally in saying that necessity is the mother of innovation. Hong Kong like India, a country which I wrote about despite of its abundant computing talents can’t do much with it to advance computer technology because there is not much necessity to do so. Hong Kong and India have abundant cheap labors which greedy businessmen want even more to do all things humanly without the need of inventing or innovating anything.
Secondly, innovation takes uncertainty like invention in the beginning. Hong Kong’s expansive shoebox size urban living squeeze everyone out of room and money to dare to brace uncertainty by renting space at the Cyberport. Remember Steve Job started his computer adventure in his parents’ garage which is free of rent to him. Walt Disney must thank to the mouse he saw in his garage where he converted it to be his studio. Hong Kong took a commitment and gambled its future in property speculation. Many became billionaire but for the rest of the majority we literally has no room for doing anything else. No innovation or invention.

LKS is very aware all I have observed. That is why instead investing in Hong Kong on technology innovation he recently invested in a kid of 15 yeas old in UK for his invention in an app. His call for Hong Kong government to invest in technology etc is ingénue but more likely a digression to kill the CY Leung’s proposed expenditure on social problem. Shame on him.
John Adams
Classic drivel by LKS …
“Instead, Li said, the city should model itself on Singapore by investing in innovation and technology.”
Great idea, how about we give one of your sons a vast piece of land to build some sort of cyber technology hub, we can call it…..


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