To drive innovation from the bottom up, Hong Kong needs deregulation from the top down

Sunny Cheng says the quality of local transport apps is but one example of institutional complacency, and it’s time for the government to shake up monopolies and create opportunities for the public to innovate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 7:14pm

How innovative are Hong Kong’s organisations? Take Octopus; they have created a humble innovation, Octopus O! ePay. The name is hard to remember, and the app little-used. For another example, look to our bus companies. They have created many apps for checking routes, but it’s necessary to open several to look up alternate routes. Our Transport Department also has an app. It’s a bit better, but hardly user-friendly.

All of this shows that innovating from the top of complacent organisations is seldom efficient; top executives are often obstacles to change.

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Our systems are not rotten, but they are complacent. Breaking up the monopolies, deregulating systems and not spoiling them with more power and incentives is one path to innovation. Didi Chuxing, China’s Uber, exemplifies the government breaking up the established interests of taxi operators.

Here in Hong Kong, the locations of all buses are available through GPS, and the government can access this data. If data were provided freely to the public, a team of high school students could develop better bus apps than we have now.

Locking up the data will never get us anywhere. Hong Kong has a huge data depository of human movement in Octopus, recording users’ times and locations. If data becomes publicly accessible, we can make a smarter city in no time. We need government deregulation, shaking up monopolies and creating opportunities for the public to innovate.

Another government function is to create high-value jobs for the young. The US Food and Drug Administration’s conservative regulations help big biopharmaceutical companies take advantage of the high costs of drug development to kill off innovative market entrants. New drugs become astronomically expensive to develop, with the latest cancer immunotherapy treatment costing US$373,000.

Japan has pursued a path similar to the US, but has found drug development lagging behind the needs of its ageing society. A few years ago, Tokyo changed its policies to encourage development of innovative cell therapies. More than 100 US cell therapy companies started research and clinical trials in Japan. It created new jobs for thousands in biotech.

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“Smart policies” should shake up our establishments, deregulate conservative regulations and create new high-value jobs for our youth.

The Japanese Pharmaceuticals and Medical Device Agency has set an excellent example. In just a few years, they have become the world leader in cell therapy, the result of smart policy initiatives.

Dr Sunny Cheng was a senior manager at Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Commission