A new tech bureau can help Hong Kong get on board the smart-city trend

Gary Wong says Hong Kong officials can make a good case for a tech bureau if they link it to a smart-city vision

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 1:49pm

The Legislative Council will resume its meetings next week and the government is expected to submit to the Finance Committee a funding application for the establishment of an innovation and technology bureau. As lawmaker Charles Mok pointed out, the government has to spell out the bureau's purpose and functions if it is to convince legislators and the public of the need to create another bureau in Hong Kong.

To achieve this, the government should consider giving the proposed bureau the lead role in drafting Hong Kong's evolution into a smart city.

Successful smart cities have to be built on public participation; citizens are the ultimate end users

Last month, the Commission on Strategic Development looked into a Central Policy Unit research report on smart cities and suggested ways Hong Kong could move in that direction. The report can be seen as an effort to get Hong Kong to "catch the last wave" of the smart-city trend. The city certainly needs to be "smarter". It currently lacks three conditions to move ahead: first, a policy bureau taking the lead in straightening out internal division of labour and listing a clear strategy and objectives; second, robust development in information technology industries; and, third, policy formulation that embodies strong public engagement.

In Hong Kong, the workload for developing a smart city has been distributed to various bureaus and departments; there is no clear strategy or objectives. At the moment, the Development Bureau watches over Kowloon East's smart city pilot scheme, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau is formulating the "Digital 21 Strategy", while the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer is taking care of the integration of electronic public services.

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This arrangement stands in stark contrast to the situation in Singapore, which formulated the "iN2015 Strategy" back in 2005 to develop its information and communications technology sector and set out a long-term planning blueprint.

Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority is steering its smart city development. Its iN2015 steering committee liaises with different departments, universities, research institutes, and public and private corporations, for projects. On top of all this, Singapore has outlined six strategic targets it wants to meet, including specific indicators on economic and social development.

As each of these targets has measurable goals, the government regularly reports its progress and performance to the public.

Here in Hong Kong, the government would gain my full support, for one, if it were to adopt the Commission on Strategic Development's recommendations . However, it should work quickly to put forward a smart city blueprint, clarify the role of the proposed innovation and technology bureau and use sound policy language, to help ensure lawmakers approve funding.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has yet to develop its IT industry. Though the city has the technology and infrastructure to cater to the needs of an intelligent city, investment growth in related research has accounted for less than 1 per cent of Hong Kong's gross domestic product in the past few years. For example, such investment in 2012 amounted to about HK$2 billion. This percentage of investment is far behind South Korea's (3.6 per cent), Singapore's (2.6 per cent) and Taiwan's (2.3 per cent).

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According to a survey conducted by the advocacy group Momentum 107, many smart-city apps introduced by the Hong Kong government are not proving popular - some had fewer than 1,000 downloads. South Korea, on the other hand, launched its "Smart Seoul 2015" programme in collaboration with leading IT companies like Samsung and LG back in 2011.

Currently, the Seoul metropolitan government is also working with corporations to develop 37 types of IT apps. The "Mobile Seoul" app, for example, uses a location-based service, allowing members of the public to find nearby toilets, hospitals, supermarkets, bus stations, libraries, and the like by using their mobile phones or laptops.

Hong Kong needs to develop its information technology industry if it wants to play smart.

Third, urban development projects seldom adopt a bottom-up approach in Hong Kong. However, successful smart cities have to be built on public participation; citizens are the ultimate end users. Take the example of Copenhagen. The city has encouraged the use of intelligent bikes to encourage people to cycle more often. The bikes feature energy-storing batteries and GPS systems to help cyclists identify jam-free routes. At the same time, the government also took the initiative to enhance biking facilities along the cycle tracks and established service stations where riders can fix their bikes if necessary.

Other cities have built "smart" homes with special sensors installed that feed information to a centralised computer that controls various appliances. Some are even equipped with facilities to measure people's heart rate and blood pressure, and automatically send reports to doctors.

Though Hong Kong's government has suggested several measures, such as introducing "smart" traffic lights, real-time parking information and Wi-fi street lamps in East Kowloon, the city still lacks a timetable and performance pledges - and a bureau that is responsible for policy formation and coordination.

Lawmakers will soon reconsider the funding request for the bureau.

If the government can explain the relationship between a smart city and an innovation and technology bureau, increase its investment in technology and design its own version of the "Our Singapore Conversation" initiative - to hold a dialogue with citizens from all walks of life, to engage them in developing policies - then the public and lawmakers will have the confidence to buy into the idea.

Gary Wong is a governor at the Path of Democracy policy think tank and a Chevening Scholar