Want Hong Kong to succeed? Bring in the immigrants, says expert

Entrepreneurship expert says allowing diversity will help city remain innovative and competitive

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 4:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 4:00am

Allowing immigrants into the city will help Hong Kong achieve long-term success, an entrepreneurship expert says.

"There are very real physical limitations in Hong Kong, but I take the stance that anti-immigration policies are bad," Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School said.

"When you become part of the establishment, it's harder to see the way the world is changing, and something else will come along and supplant it."

Birkinshaw was speaking at the University of Hong Kong's Innovation in Action forum.

Silicon Valley's success, he said, came from the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs who did not quite fit into the city at first and who looked to carve their own cultures and niches into the California landscape.

Yat Siu, founder and CEO of technology company Outblaze, echoed Birkinshaw's view. "Immigrants are hungry, desperate, and they don't fit in," Yat said. "I know it's controversial, but bring in more [mainland] Chinese."

These are timely words, as Hong Kong vies with other cities around the world in its ambition to become the next Silicon Valley, with the government investing millions in technology ventures such as Cyberport and the Science Park.

This is also a volatile time for the city, as it works to maintain its place as one of the world's top business and financial centres, competing against mainland cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai.

For Hong Kong to avoid stagnation and to move towards becoming a truly innovative city, Birkinshaw has some advice.

Hire the "unreasonable" people who challenge the status quo, give ideas time to grow, be tolerant of uncertainty, listen to people at the bottom, and be prepared to fail if you truly want to innovate, he said.

"At [animation film studio] Pixar, they say every movie is terrible in the beginning," Birkinshaw said. "It's that ability to say that, that allows them to make great movies."

Any government looking to foster innovation, he said, should steer away from directing the ideas, but rather provide support in terms of education, infrastructure, and open policies to make entrepreneurship easier.

"After a while, every big company becomes blinkered. Even [late Apple CEO] Steve Jobs, had he lived longer, would have been known for that," Birkinshaw said.

He admitted the difficulties of applying his Anglo-American model to collectivist and deferential cultures in Hong Kong, on the mainland and in South Korea.

"I'd say it was a half success," Birkinshaw said, speaking about his experience as a consultant for Korea Telecom. Some new products were developed after a four-year innovation scheme, he said, but there was a company culture that stopped other ideas from being realised. "That just means the managers have to work harder to make the views of those at the bottom heard," he said.

Birkinshaw has also been a consultant to companies including construction firm Arup, mining firm Rio Tinto, Swiss bank UBS and the BBC.

About 150 participants from the Hong Kong government and corporations such as the MTR took part in the forum.