Hong Kong needs more than good infrastructure to create a thriving internet economy

Waltraut Ritter says the government’s promotion of an internet economy through better hardware is missing the more vital elements of skills, mindset and networks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 3:26pm

The government recently staged its first Internet Economy summit. Why now? Globally, the annual Internet Governance Forum and the OECD Internet Economy summits have provided a stage for governments and other stakeholders to discuss the data-driven internet economy.

In his speech, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Hong Kong’s world-class infrastructure is a good basis to harness the internet economy, while Xu Lin, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration, said China has now reached nearly 50 per cent internet penetration, providing a historic opportunity for a transformational upgrade.

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Without doubt, the internet is a critical piece of infrastructure underpinning the economy and society, but today’s discussions on the data-driven economy go beyond infrastructure and are about the skills and mindset, capabilities, networks, and innovation systems needed to turn data into insight, thereby creating knowledge-based capital.

The migration of economic and social activities to the internet is possible through the dramatically lower cost of data collection, storage, processing and computing power. How this data will be governed is a policy issue, not an infrastructural one.

Most companies’ business models centre around using scattered data to enhance and predict customer behaviour.

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Yet at the Internet Economy summit, the voice of customers was absent, leaving a one-sided chorus of corporates with little concern for the potentially intrusive nature of new services created through data. If trust and relationships are a core issue in the data-driven economy, as has been suggested, then the views of citizens, as users and consumers, should be included.

The out-of-touch nature of the summit was also apparent in the memorandum of understanding signing on “smart city collaboration” between Hong Kong and the mainland to encourage government and private enterprises to develop better transport, health and sustainable living. Elsewhere, such partnerships were long ago replaced by models of open innovation and public-private-people partnerships to embrace bottom-up participation.

Equally, open data is not only an ingredient for start-ups, but also a basis for accountability of government decision-making.

The summit also talked of increasing free Wi-fi hotspots as a way to become a smart city, another sign that we are still in the infrastructure mindset.

To build a sustainable future for Hong Kong’s data-driven economy, we should look beyond the government-business nexus and its technocratic visions.

Waltraut Ritter is a member of the government’s Digital 21 strategy advisory committee