Future tech

How Hong Kong’s young innovators can close the tech gap to global leaders

Ken Chu disagrees with naysayers who believe Hong Kong is too far behind to catch up with innovation leaders. On the contrary, we have some comparative advantages and can build on them

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 4:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 8:19pm

The recent InnoTech Expo organised by Our Hong Kong Foundation showcased China’s amazing cutting-edge scientific and technological developments. In his opening speech, former chief executive and foundation chairman Tung Chee-hwa said few Hong Kong people are aware that China is now a leader in science and technology.

The expo was an excellent opportunity for Hongkongers to get inspiration from China’s rapid developments and remarkable achievements in science and technology. To name but a few, China has launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite; become one of the few countries to build its own independent worldwide navigation satellite system, called Beidou, similar to America’s GPS; and has set world records in manned submersible deep-sea exploration.

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As Tung rightly pointed out, a country’s progress and prosperity hinges on its scientific and technological innovations. Britain became a global power as a result of the Industrial Revolution; America’s rise to superpower status was largely due to its superior technological innovations and strength.

But what has all this got to do with Hong Kong? Sceptics argue that it is futile for the city to try to play catch-up with the “big boys” in scientific and technological innovation. Hong Kong does not have the right ecosystem to nurture a suitable environment for cutting-edge research and innovation developments, they say.

Hong Kong is not some sort of Death Valley where science and technology cannot thrive

Yes, a few key elements are missing, such as top-notch scientists, substantial and consistent funding, and a strong government-led base in cutting-edge research.

Most technologically advanced nations produce arms. They were driven to innovate first and foremost to meet their defence needs. Later, such technology made its way into the civilian world, benefiting or reinvigorating the economy. The US and Israel are obvious examples; drones and the GPS used in our mobile phones and vehicles were invented by the US military.

But Hong Kong has no such need.

Besides, there is a lack of scientific and technological talent. And most of our businesses are obsessed with short-term profit. They hardly invest anything in research and development when returns cannot be glimpsed on the horizon.

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The sceptics may be right about the importance of having a suitable ecosystem, but, to me, Hong Kong is not some sort of Death Valley where science and technology cannot thrive. Over the years, our home-based scientists have made discoveries and invented innovative technology that are treasured on the world stage.

In 2003, for instance, a rock sampling tool adopted for the Mars rover by the European Space Agency was designed and jointly created by a dentist and scientists at Polytechnic University. There are many such noteworthy examples listed in the “Innovation and Technology” section on the Brand Hong Kong website. It is no wonder that the world-renowned MIT last year announced the establishment of an innovation centre in Hong Kong. So we should not put ourselves down when it comes to science and technology or innovation.

Today, innovation and technology is so much a part of daily life that no country can turn a blind eye to it. It is the driving force of the New Economy that is sweeping across the globe. The latest annual Global Competitiveness Index showed that Hong Kong’s ranking has slipped to 9th from 7th. The ranking’s creator, the World Economic Forum, cited the city’s lack of capacity to innovate as a key factor. This should serve as a wake-up call.

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As Tung reiterated at the InnoTech Expo, innovation and technology has time and again led to reforms of the world economy. It is the way to sustain growth. Look at the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba or, more recently, Uber and its rival in China, Didi Chuxing. Their success can be attributed to the rise of online and offline social media platforms and innovative apps. These companies have not only changed our way of living but also revolutionised the way we conduct business, marketing campaigns and customer service.

If we don’t [create the right ecosystem], we will lose our talented young innovators and entrepreneurs in these fields to the mainland

Artistic creativity and technological innovation are sometimes two sides of the same coin. It would be biased to believe that the world of innovation requires only science graduates or software programmers; creative people can play a key role, too. For example, in developing smartphone games, visual illustrators and story creators with no engineering or technical background are needed as well.

Hong Kong has never lacked such talent. Our flourishing local film and Canto-pop industries in the 1970s and 1980s are testament to that.

So what can Hong Kong do to boost its capacity to innovate? First, we should provide our bright, creative youngsters with the opportunities and support to thrive in the innovation field. The additional HK$5 billion injected into the Innovation and Technology Fund, as announced by the chief executive in his policy address last year, is unequivocally a step in the right direction.

Second, we should continue to invest in and foster the public’s interest in innovation and technology. Expos and exhibitions offer such opportunities.

In addition, we should blow our own trumpet about the city’s accomplishments in science and technology to boost private-sector confidence in research and development.

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We should also put more effort into creating the right ecosystem for an innovation-based economy. We have the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation and Cyberport to incubate start-ups but, compared with Shenzhen, we should, and could, do more.

If we don’t, we will lose our talented young innovators and entrepreneurs in these fields to the mainland. Because of huge potential across the border, the Hong Kong government should seek to find research or training positions at state-funded incubation hubs or privately owned giant tech companies for our young talent.

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Hong Kong start-ups face a string of challenges: capital investment, high operation costs and a lack of suitable office space are the three most daunting. To help overcome them, we should consider ways to lure not only global tech companies but also venture capitalists and angel investors here as well as find a way to convert half-empty factory buildings in old industrial districts into incubation centres.

In addition, we should foster collaboration between the private sector and universities .

Many challenges and obstacles remain but they are not impossible to overcome. Hong Kong cannot establish itself as an innovation and technology powerhouse overnight but, at the very least, we can use our edge in innovative instinct to leverage the mainland’s strength in science and technology and thus find room for comparative advantages.

Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference