Hong Kong needs to think way out of the box to realise its own digital innovation dreams

Our town is custom made to host a world pilot project for electric vehicles, for new ideas in waste disposal and recycling, for fully funded health care and for a hundred other great advances

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 11:04pm

Hong Kong has been ranked 68th in a global smart city index – way behind its main rival Singapore which came in second …

– SCMP City, November 9

The first thing in any survey of this kind is to ask who conducted it and what authority they have for their findings.

The answer in this case is a Swedish website called EasyPark which was set up 12 years ago as a smartphone app to help drivers find pay car parks in crowded cities and which has now grown outside Sweden.

As to its authority, well, as I say, this is a Swedish app that helps drivers find pay car parks and has ambitions to become more. I do not say that this condemns its findings on the spread of technology – but I do say that it makes them just a touch lightweight.

I am sure, however, this has not detracted from their appeal to the Singapore Ministry of Information. When I used to visit more often as an investment analyst it was rare to pick up the local news sheet, Pravda (Party Rendition and Authorized Version of Daily Announcements), and not find that Singapore had been named the world’s No. 2 brass doorknob maker or awarded some similar accolade.

We in Hong Kong, on the other hand, appear to relish finding foreign think tanks that tell us we have been yesterday’s thing but have now fallen way behind, in a “goodbye Hong Kong’ kind of way.

Thus let me put a little perspective on Singapore and fancy technology.

Very little of it is Singaporean technology. In manufacturing investment it is about 90 per cent foreign owned and most of the proceeds go right out again to the foreign owners.

The result is an income balance now running at a punitive deficit of about 6 per cent of gross domestic product. This figure should actually be positive with foreign investment of a consistently enormous current account surplus. The foreign cost of Singapore’s vaunted technology edge, however, is just too heavy.

[Instead] what we have are over-promoted civil servants pretending to be politicians but with no ideas of what they should do other than be fervent patriots and anticipate all of Beijing’s unspoken wishes before they become spoken ones.

The chart thus shows you what is left for the average inhabitant of Singapore to spend after all these exactions. Singapore’s personal consumption expenditure comes to about US$19,000 per capita at prevailing exchange rates and is falling. The equivalent figure for Hong Kong is US$30,300 and rising.

This is what emphasis on fancy technology does to people’s livelihoods. Yes, you can get a world No. 2 rating from a Swedish car parking app, but it puts a real dent in your living circumstances. We in Hong Kong are No. 68 on EasyPark’s ratings.

I am not saying that Singapore has no lessons to offer us. The bureaucracy down there starts at civic administration and we could certainly use some of their people here.

Our town is custom made to host a world pilot project for electric vehicles, for new ideas in waste disposal and recycling, for fully funded health care and for a hundred other great advances.

What we have to take us there, however, are over-promoted civil servants pretending to be politicians but with no ideas of what they should do other than be fervent patriots and anticipate all of Beijing’s unspoken wishes before they become spoken ones.

And when they try to think outside this box all we get is proposals to spend billions on innovation in digital technologies to become copies of what they conceive to be the advanced societies of Singapore, Shanghai and Shenzen.

Yet they don’t know quite what they mean by innovation other than fancy digital devices or social media apps that have all already been invented.

Bureaucrats don’t do innovation. Bureaucrats administer and one good way to start doing is to ignore lightweight Swedish innovation surveys and concentrate on real civic efficiency.

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