Science Park, Cyberport and other bureaucratic misadventures

‘Business development that relies on the heavy hand of government to make it work is business development doomed to failure’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 10:44pm

Another nail has just been banged into the coffin carrying hopes of developing hi-technology in Hong Kong. It may not be the biggest of nails but the announcement that the government has given up on digital radio broadcasting, indeed it plans to withdraw the service, make the SAR the first jurisdiction to have failed in introducing this not so new technology.

Elsewhere in the world digital broadcasting has been a massive success, fostering a proliferation of new radio stations while delivering high quality sound. In Hong Kong the extreme nervousness about content and the reluctance to challenge the vested interests of existing radio license holders combined to ensure that the digital radio experiment failed. Not only is this defeat an indication of the government’s failed broadcasting policy but for many local residents it means returning to either non-existent or barely audible radio reception.

In the background the Innovation and Technology Bureau is rapidly becoming a bad joke

Meanwhile, also on the consumer technology front, we have seen the problems over the introduction of the admittedly problematic Uber car-booking service, mainly because Hong Kong bureaucrats can’t get their heads around how to regulate it. The most visible result of this indecision is the conviction of five Uber drivers for using their cars illegally.

In the background the Innovation and Technology Bureau is rapidly becoming a bad joke. It is supposed to be encouraging hi-tech start ups but does so by introducing all manner of bureaucratic schemes that are designed for masters of form filling but not for innovative techies. These bureaucrats are happiest when finding ways to regulate technology.

Meanwhile if you really want a good chuckle over the government’s almost aggressive inability to apply new technology (in fact it’s hardly new at all) look at the HKSAR government website, which gives new meaning to the word clunky, is challenging to navigate and, of course, largely free of useful information.

Yet the Hong Kong government keeps chuntering on about commitment to technological innovation. In his last policy address the Chief Executive spoke of how he was planning to make the SAR a “smart city by using innovation and technology to enhance city management and improve people’s livelihood”. Worry not there is a consultant’s study here, presumably much like the myriad of other consultant studies that have either been ignored or worse, adopted.

Why so? Well, just look at the outcome of the many schemes to make Hong Kong a hi-tech centre. Most of them have bricks and mortar at their core, starting with the luxury property development satirically name Cyberport, which has done exactly what to enhance the SAR’s stature in the world of hi-technology?

Then there’s the still expanding Science Park, which has consumed zillions in public funds and bravely announces that its tenants have acquired many patents and are engaged in many new projects. What is missing from these brave announcements is any evidence that this piece of real estate has actually given rise to anything approaching a new and significant business. Yes, yes I know that a clutch of useful apps have emerged from the Science Park but then again a clutch of useful apps have also emerged from teenager’s bedrooms.

Meanwhile modest and maybe high potential start-ups who have tried muscling in on the park’s low rents have often retreated in the face of massive bureaucratic obstacles.

But fear not, the government works on the principle of if your model for technological development fails, try repeating it on a bigger scale, thus we see plans for the new and even bigger hi-tech centre on the border with Shenzhen and more modest plans for a Data Technology Hub at Tseung Kwan O (my, how they love their hubs). Actually this hub might just work because it amounts to little more than providing new space for data processing, a low-tech business that even the bureaucrats might just understand.

And here’s the rub because in the eyes of the government, technology only really develops if the bureaucrats can administer it or, at the very least, find a way of controlling it. Yet the government bureaucracy is filled with tech specialists who are there precisely because really dynamic tech companies don’t want their services.

Business development that relies on the heavy hand of government to make it work is business development doomed to failure. There are exceptions; unfortunately they generally occur when a country is under the extreme pressure of wartime conditions. Presumably no one wishes Hong Kong to be in this situation.

As matters stand we have a government with large amounts of public money at its disposal and an arrogant belief that its bureaucrats know best.

Yet Hong Kong is supposed to be the home of free enterprise. Things only start happening when business leads and government follows, or at the very least does not get in the way.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster