Let’s design HK 3.0
Lessons from Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower: courage and commitment
The passing of maverick architect Zaha Hadid echoes a special link to Hong Kong in the form of one of her seminal designs: a fluid, ship-like building inside the campus of Polytechnic University (PolyU). Home to the school of design, the Jockey Club Innovation Tower is a paragon example to what I call “Let’s design HK 3.0”.
Let me explicate by unpacking these three terms.
“HK3.0” represents another economic focus for Hong Kong: it continues the transformation from trading (HK 0.0) to manufacturing (HK 1.0) to services (HK 2.0). My claim is simple. Hong Kong needs another transformation to maintain its unique edge as a global quality city. Complacency is detrimental when competing with the likes of Shenzhen, South Korea, Singapore, Shanghai, and other players. A specific direction must be found – I believe “innovation” is the next economic focus (HK 3.0).
By the 1990s, Hong Kong’s leaders felt that local entrepreneurs needed to compete more in the global market. To bolster the innovation ecosystem, they launched a few programmes including support for early-stage funding and innovation hubs (Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corporation).
Even though some people may think the government is doing too much, in fact it is too little for the 21st century competitive landscape. Just giving space, or money, is not enough. In the age of globalisation and digitalisation, locale must offer much more. DJI, the drone global leader, rumoured to be worth US$10 billion, was founded by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology graduate Frank Wang in 2006, and moved to Shenzhen soon after. DJI has 3,000 employees – many of them could have been based in Hong Kong. DJI demonstrates the duality of government-led innovation. We see, in the DJI case, both the potential (of ideas created in Hong Kong), and the missed potential (of innovation departing Hong Kong for “better” places). To enjoy the long-term impact of innovation in Hong Kong, and to justify the public investment in innovation (in universities, industrial parks and other policies) we must design the entire innovation value chain for one purpose: quality jobs that stay in Hong Kong for the long run.
“Design” hints a focused directed effort, and not as a side – nice to have – tangent action. Design is about making choices. Design starts from understanding the past and present, and then setting the future. Design – as a discipline – is not just about how things work and feel. It is about how things could and should work and feel. Design is about proposing more attractive solutions to existing realities.
Design, in this innovation context, is anti-laissez-faire. The role of government is to take chances; to bet on certain domains, and to push, entice, and encourage innovation based on the unique factors of Hong Kong.
A leading government does not mean spreading the bets, or fixing the markets – it means betting on winning domains in a big way. It also means making sure the benefits of such bets come back to the public for quality of life and further investment (and for offsetting the failures of some of these big bets).
“Let’s” means that government should lead by working with the private sector. The motivation, speed, and flexibility of the private sector – even competing players in the same domain – work best following the direction set by government. The visible hand of the government should lead the invisible hand of the private sector.
Even more, “let’s” is really “let + us.” The leader should let the “us” – namely the community or the crowd – become a part of designed innovation. Modern technology like Wiki, Airbnb, and Waze demonstrate how the “us” become a critical part of the equation. Often modern innovation lies in opening up or unleashing the creative potential of the community at many levels. For example, in our own research work, we strive to bring together community business leaders to co-create customised innovation tools for larger and smaller enterprises.
Architecting such an innovation ecosystem by a government is complex and, frankly, still an open question. Can Hong Kong build the government systems and structures that can take the longer view? That, on the one hand, will not be subject to political pressures of four- or five-year terms, or ephemeral Weibo/WhatsApp politics; and, on the other hand, will overcome fossilisation of regimes.
The answer lies in the right combination of visionary public leadership and strong public institutions that enable such leadership, as well as protect from it, to facilitate longer-term locale value creation. This is the art of visionary public leadership.
“Let’s design HK 3.0” has some examples already. Hadid’s Jockey Club Innovation Tower demonstrates such visionary leadership. In the 2000s several Hong Kong leaders focused on one asset – established in the 1960s, PolyU’s design school decided to morph it into an international player by committing the funds, and then commissioning out-of-the-box thinker Hadid, to build “a beacon structure symbolising and driving the development of Hong Kong as a design hub in Asia”. This icon demonstrates two key HK 3.0 traits – courage to choose a domain (“design research and education”) and commitment to focus in the form of time, attention, and money (about HK$250 million courtesy of the Hong Kong Jockey Club). I’m positive that this courageous and committed decision will have direct impact on the quality of life in Hong Kong for decades to come.
Other obvious domains like smart city, health care, internet of things, and financial technology, as well as less obvious domains such as micro-robotics, mindfulness, tourism, and education technology – have the potential to be HK 3.0 domains that, in turn, can propel Hong Kong, China, and the world, to continuous upping of quality of living.
The key is visionary leadership with the courage to choose domains and commitment to focus on these domains. Now, Let’s design HK 3.0.
Yesha Sivan is visiting professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s school of design