How our innovative youth can make Hong Kong even greater

Tony Chan says the city needs new engines of growth, and investment in science and technology is one way to diversify the economy to benefit the next generation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 12:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 12:59am

A decade ago, an ambitious young man named Wang Tao attended Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as an undergraduate student with a dream to develop his own flying machine. Despite having few means, he took his chance and started his own company in Shenzhen. That company, DJI, has turned into the world's No1 drone maker, and is now believed to be worth billions of dollars.

This success story serves as proof that innovation can indeed be nurtured in Hong Kong. But there will always be sceptics who wonder whether Hong Kong should make innovation, and just as importantly, science and technology, a priority. Some will argue that Hong Kong would be better off focusing on its finance and professional service industries. Some will say Hong Kong will only become a talent farm for other competing cities (Shenzhen or Silicon Valley, for example), or for multinationals, which brings little benefit to the local community. Some say that science and technology are high-risk industries and their children would be better off pursuing a stable career such as medicine or law.

These are fair points, which should be addressed. A recent report released by the Legislative Council found that the four pillars of our economy, namely, financial services, professional and producer services, tourism, and trading and logistics, are all slowing and saw their contribution to GDP drop to 58.3 per cent, a trend that began in 2007. That means we must seek new engines of growth, and investment in science and technology will be one way to diversify our economy. Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are all spending much more than Hong Kong in science and technology's research and development. We must change course if our city is to maintain its competitive edge in the world.

I see no reason to fear that Hong Kong will become a talent farm for multinationals and bring little back to the community. The cities of Boston and Pasadena, where the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology are located respectively, would never ask what these schools would do to benefit their community. Their very existence and reputation benefit not only the US, but indeed the world. Ideas are generated in Silicon Valley and products are manufactured elsewhere; that is an example Hong Kong can follow. Instead of fearing an impending brain drain, the right question to ask would be what we can do to bring more world-class company headquarters here to utilise our people's talent.

The time has come for our society to accept that our children's career choices may well be different from ours. Americans, much like us, also embrace the security that comes with a stable job, yet still some dare to try something different.

The likes of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg did not take the path of an ordinary office worker; they wanted to make a difference, had a dream to change the world, and they did just that. US students look at these entrepreneurs as role models who make lots of money and are cool at the same time.

The success of Chinese entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, Pony Ma and Wang Tao will only bring more inspiration to Hong Kong and mainland students alike to dream and make a difference on their own.

The recent push by the Chinese government to make innovation a catalyst for economic growth will only work in Hong Kong's favour: we have all the elements aligned to shine as the new innovation hub for China. The city already has world-class infrastructure, highly regarded rule of law, low tax, a skilled bilingual workforce and excellent universities; our prime geographical location allows us to tap easily into the wealth of resources in mainland China. A number of mainland technology enterprises have already recognised these benefits and opened research and development laboratories in Hong Kong recently, including Huawei, BGI, TCL, Lenovo and DJI. There is no better time to start building science and technology as a cornerstone for our economy.

Hong Kong's younger generations are more ready than ever to embrace this challenge. Mounting evidence shows they are now more eager to take risks and work on their own instead of following their parents' advice to secure a stable career. When Jack Ma came to Hong Kong to host a forum on entrepreneurship in February, more than 8,000 youngsters showed up to listen to him. Co-working spaces, where young people meet and pitch their ideas to venture capitalists, are booming in Hong Kong, and applications for entrepreneurial funding are at an all-time high. A sea change is looming.

As older citizens, it is our responsibility to create an environment where the talents of our young can flourish. The establishment of the information and technology bureau will be an important first step. It should not aim to become a government-owned venture capital establishment betting on risky projects; its mission, I believe, should be to provide long-term planning and infrastructure for the development of science and technology, set policies and incentives to attract talent and investments, as well as inspiring young people in Hong Kong who want to pursue their dreams. A key task is to spearhead programmes for collaboration between Hong Kong and the mainland.

The world renowned MIT Media lab came up with a new motto recently: "Deploy, or Die". That captures the essence of embracing innovation: some of the ideas will succeed; some will fail. But we must not fault our young people for daring to try and having a "can-do" attitude. Let us all have confidence in our young people. We made Hong Kong a great city. They will make it even greater.

We must take fate into our own hands and act. As our financial secretary recently said, quoting Albert Einstein: "If you do what you always did, you'll get what you always got!"

Professor Tony Chan Fan-cheong is president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology