Hong Kong should focus on application of tech, instead of tech innovation

Our strengths lie in refining the good ideas that others have pioneered

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 6:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 10:40pm

“It is not that I don’t like ‘likes’,” said Nicholas Yang, quite rightly as he poo-pooed the lack of “likes” on the Innovation and Technology Bureau’s Facebook page. The Bureau Secretary then put his foot in it by saying that his staff were already stretched to the limit, and that he did not want them to “work to death”.

He has a point. A working innovation and technology bureau is critical to Hong Kong’s economy and needs to be effective, not liked. Yet investment in research and development accounts for less than 1 per cent of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product, compared to the 2 or 2.5 per cent of our Asian neighbours. In most surveys, Hong Kong ranks high in competitiveness but low in innovation.

But how is a city, merely the 14th largest in China, with just 7 million people, sitting on a hilly 80 square kilometres, going to compete in technology with Silicon Valley and Shenzhen? Our talent pool is tiny.

Hong Kong is too small ever to be much good at innovation, but we can be very good at application. Find one good idea globally that would play to our strengths. It would take a serious public sector commitment from the chief executive downwards. We have plenty of human and financial resources. Our educated and motivated workforce is (thankfully) still exposed to international ideas and government has lots of money to invest in infrastructure projects – many massively overdue, as the traffic on Hong Kong Island slows to a slothful 10 kilometres per hour.

The obvious concept is to develop and apply autonomous driving to the streets of Hong Kong. The technology is inevitable. Apple, Audi, Baidu and BMW, Fiat, Ford, GM, Google and Jaguar, Mercedes, Nasa and Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, VW and Volvo are all working on autonomous vehicles to be active within the decade. Global cities will then flood to adapt the technology. Why should we not be first?

Driverless cars remove the need for time-wasting traffic lights and roundabouts. Fewer cars, on more intensively used roads, will dramatically reduce traffic volume and collapse infrastructure budgets. There will be less pollution. Autonomous vehicles will never run out of fuel/battery and will always be on time; dodging traffic jams. Private cars are parked 96 per cent of the time so transport costs will fall through vehicle sharing. It would increase mobility for the young, elderly and the handicapped. Autonomous vehicles will slash the kill rate of 1.1 million lives per year that incompetent human drivers extinguish. We will all be much more economically more productive.

Of course the technology is young and unproven – but the challenges will be solved. The UK Locomotive Act of 1861 required a man to walk in front of a car with a red flag. The Warsaw Convention of 1929 opened up the fledgling airline industry by limiting liability. Did we stop using mobile phones when they were said to cause brain cancer? Now we will use them to work the car.

There will be resistance from those Luddites who say that Hong Kong is too crowded. Our roads are too small. It won’t work in an urban areas. We will have to change our infrastructure. There are issues with insurance, hacking, or jaywalkers deliberately stopping traffic. Opposition will come from the taxi lobby, perhaps even from the Transport Department. Those with vested interests will slam on the brakes. While they are stopped, the rest of the world is moving on.

Hong Kong as a centre of excellence for driverless cars would have huge positive spin-offs, developing innovation in a way that building fancy technology parks and funding small unprofitable businesses cannot. Foreign technology leaders, like Apple or Google, coming in for testing will encourage local innovation. Why buy expensive technology from Singapore in a decade’s time when we can build it ourselves, now? Our intellectual ownership in the application technology could be sold to the Johnny-come-latelies who are catching up – like we normally are.

Most journeys are made for need not fun. Our grandfathers and great grandfathers used to go to work on a bike. Now cycling is an Olympic sport. It won’t be long before driving is for enthusiasts only, some competing for gold medals.

So Nicholas Yang’s job is easy – if he can focus his team on application instead of fantasising about innovation, he may get a few more likes.

Richard Harris is an investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness at Port Shelter Investment Management