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Hong Kong economy

When planning for Hong Kong’s future, prepare for change

Christine Loh says all organisations, including the government, should expect the unexpected and frequently reassess their plans, keeping in mind how many events from the past century weren’t predictable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 11:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 7:37pm

Making predictions is an uncertain business. We think we can make educated guesses by reflecting on facts, past events, trends and so on. But betting on what will happen – to Hong Kong, for instance, by the fateful year of 2047 – is risky.

What will China be like by mid-century? There is no shortage of guessing about the future of the European Union and how the United States will evolve as developing countries surge.

Linton Wells II, a distinguished American defence expert, noted in 2001 how hard it was for specialists to look at what the world might be like in 2010. In a memo to his superiors, he cast his eye backward to show the hazards of prediction.

In 1900, the dominant power was Britain, which regarded France as its major competitor. By 1910, Britain would ally with France against a rising Germany. In 1914, a world war would be triggered by a Serbian assassinating the heir to the soon-to-be defunct Austro-Hungarian empire. By 1930, the Great Depression was under way, and while experts didn’t think there could be another devastating world war, one took place in the 1940s. By 1950, the US was the greatest power.

The next few decades saw the US and Soviet Union as the two dominant powers competing on many fronts, including proxy wars here and there. The US would lose a war in economically backward Vietnam. US recognition of China in 1972 was a surprise; the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 was astonishing. At the time, few people had heard of the internet and how it would change so many things by the 2000s.

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Wells’ warning about the fallibility of prediction to his superiors in 2001 was that he couldn’t be sure what 2010 would be like but it would not be what people might expect, and “so we should plan accordingly”.

If Wells were preparing his memo today, he would certainly have something to say about wars and instability in the Middle East, terrorism, global financial crises, and the unmistakable rise of China in economic, social, technological and military terms.

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Wells’ advice to plan for uncertainty is important. Implicit in this is that there could be different futures we should think about. Change is hardly ever linear and could diverge in different ways.

For Hong Kong, identifying major challenges matters for all organisations, including government, industries and companies. Frequent assessment and reassessment are also necessary. If there is no such process in an organisation, it is time to make arrangements for uncertainty planning.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability