How Hong Kong can become a smart city with a connected future

W. David Stephenson says with a few common-sense steps, the city can be a dominant player in the internet of things movement

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 5:11pm

During the question-and-answer session after I recently spoke to Hong Kong leaders in the internet of things movement, I was asked whether the city could become a world leader in the concept, which involves connecting a wide range of things, from assembly-line equipment to dairy cattle, via the internet.

I instantly answered “yes”, because barriers to entry are so few, the necessary steps are relatively easy, and the potential benefits to the city and its economy are so great. Hong Kong is already ranked 13th in the world in terms of the number of internet of things firms with headquarters here (my home, Boston, is ranked fourth, largely because of our educational leadership).

READ MORE: Boom in Internet of Things devices draws more hardware start-ups to Hong Kong as connected gadgets take off

Here are the common-sense steps the city should take to become a dominant player in what many have predicted will become the next major economic transformation.

The first step is one local activists have just taken: create an internet of things community. The event at which I spoke was the first sponsored by the new Hong Kong Internet of Things Association. The similar one in Boston that I head is now three years old, and has almost 2,000 members. Forming a network is a crucial step, because it is inherently collaborative. For example, Apple’s HomeKit now allows someone to simply say, “Siri, it’s time for bed”, and that voice command can trigger collaborative action by a variety of devices from different manufacturers, such as turning down the thermostat, locking the front door and turning off the lights, which makes each of these internet of things devices more valuable than they would be in isolation. An association that brings together all practitioners will create synergistic benefits for all of them.

Second is a step that will pay dividends no matter how much of a global internet of things power Hong Kong becomes. The government should embrace the “smart city” concept in which a wide variety of municipal functions become more efficient, economical and responsive by being internet of things enabled. This is particularly true for functions that are so critical for a city of Hong Kong’s size and population density, such as traffic control, mass transit, electricity, and water and sewage.

From what I have gathered from media reports, most internet of things initiatives in Hong Kong have been experimental and of limited scale, such as the government’s East Kowloon Smart City project which hopes to create a low-carbon, green community and increase walkability. Cities that have launched comprehensive smart city programmes, especially Barcelona, which has projects ranging from free Wi-Fi to health monitoring for seniors to an app to find parking spaces, have realised tangible benefits while cutting operating costs. That will be the case for Hong Kong as well.

Sometimes these initiatives tap into the collaborative nature of the internet of things to produce a public benefit that would be hideously expensive if it was carried out by municipal workers. For example, in Boston the “Street Bump” smartphone app uses the phone’s sensors to detect if the user’s car hits a pothole, then instantly reports the exact location to the city’s Department of Public Works. In essence, every driver becomes a de facto department employee!

Cities that have launched comprehensive smart city programmes, especially Barcelona, have realised tangible benefits while cutting operating costs

One move that could spark such initiatives would be for the city to release a wide range of real-time data on everything from transit to rodent inspection. (Access to historical data is still valuable, but real-time data allows smart programmers to create apps that can help people really capitalise on this information, such as apps that let you know when the next bus will really arrive at your stop, as compared to when it’s scheduled to arrive). I was a consultant to District of Columbia chief technology officer Vivek Kundra (later the first US chief information officer) when he led the way in this field in 2008, not only releasing a range of real-time databases, but also holding a contest to develop apps to capitalise on the data, resulting in a wide range of helpful tools for city dwellers. Cities worldwide have since followed suit.

Finally, Hong Kong can increase its chance of being an internet of things world leader if activists here join in the worldwide “things network” movement that aims to create city-wide, free networks for internet of things data exchange, in essence turning an entire city into a laboratory for experimentation.

This campaign, which was crowd-sourced by only 10 enthusiasts in Amsterdam last August, successfully created a city-wide data network in less than a month, using 10 “LoRaWan gateways” costing US$1,200 each. Such “long-range, wide-area networks” are particularly suited to the internet of things because they demand little power, have a range of up to 11km and low bandwidth. They don’t require passwords or mobile subscriptions and have zero set-up costs.

READ MORE: Internet of Things leaves no place to hide

There are already 27 cities pursuing “things networks”, and the parent organisation is making the concept even easier to deploy through a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to build a new gateway that would only cost US$200. Unlike the full involvement of governments in initiatives such as opening city databases, a “things network” is best done by volunteers, so it will not be co-opted by official government agencies or commercial interests: it is most powerful if it is open to absolutely anyone who wants to try out a smart internet of things idea, while also potentially saving the city the cost of administering an expensive programme that could instead be run by volunteers at little cost.

W. David Stephenson, of Stephenson Strategies, is a world thought leader in the internet of things, and founded the Boston Internet of Things Meetup