Greater Bay Area could be Hong Kong’s ticket onto the tech innovation train
Regina Ip says given Hong Kong’s limitations, the government’s attempts to spark innovation will only bear fruit if the city can capitalise on cross-border collaboration
Ever since he took over as Hong Kong’s financial secretary in January 2017, Paul Chan Mo-po has allocated record amounts to boost Hong Kong’s innovation and technological development. In his budget for 2018-19, Chan set aside an additional HK$50 billion (US$6.4 billion), in addition to the HK$10 billion he had reserved last year.
Of the resources allocated, HK$20 billion will be spent on developing the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the Lok Ma Chau loop; HK$10 billion for research in health care, artificial intelligence and robotics; HK$10 billion for research under the Innovation and Technology Fund; and HK$10 billion for enhancing research and incubation at the Science Park.
Watch: Lok Ma Chau Loop – an overview
The amounts represent a quantum leap in the resources Hong Kong devotes to technological development, even though Hong Kong still lags significantly behind Guangdong province and neighbour Shenzhen in the percentage of gross domestic product expended on research and development.
The generous support, albeit belatedly, is part of the national drive to boost “high quality”, tech-based growth across the country. The questions are not whether such efforts are too little, too late, but what is truly achievable within our city, and what benefits technological development can truly bring to the people of Hong Kong, within or outside our city.
In pushing Hong Kong’s tech development, we must be clear-headed about our weaknesses and strengths. First, Hong Kong cannot possibly be a base for research in core technologies, such as the China Spallation Neutron Source in Dongguan, which legislators visited as part of their Greater Bay Area tour last weekend. The facility undertakes research in fundamental physics, which has a wide range of applications in structural biology, biotechnology, chemical and engineering materials, just to name a few.
Hong Kong, being part of Guangdong geographically, is located in a relatively seismically stable area for constructing such a massive underground, accelerator-based facility. However, not only would it be much more expensive to build such a facility in Hong Kong, the long time it would take to complete public consultation and secure the funding would simply make such a project in Hong Kong not viable.
Before the reunification, Hong Kong still had an industrial base, three Motorola semiconductor design and packaging plants, and other semiconductor-related industrial operations. The government then had worked hard to woo semiconductor giants to establish silicon foundries in Hong Kong, so that Hong Kong could capture core technologies in chip-making. Again, the prohibitive cost, lack of government subsidy, the high-risk environment for the chip-making business, and Hong Kong’s small market, combined to render such efforts futile.
Granted, the quest for core and enabling technologies needs not be the holy grail of business cities like Hong Kong, which, despite the pile of cash it sits on, is severely limited by the grave shortage of land and lack of interest in basic science among the city’s brightest and best. Yet even among business cities, Hong Kong lags woefully behind its competitors in the use of new information technology.
For example, Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department started consultation in April 2016 on the launch of a “single trade window” – an information technology platform for the one-stop lodging of trade and customs documents. It is unclear how long it took the department to develop the electronic platform, but the system will not get to Phase 3, which permits lodging of documents by mobile technology, until 2023. The timeline for innovation compares poorly with mainland cities, which have gone cashless and paperless in huge numbers of government and business applications.
Hong Kong used to be held up as a skilful user of technologies, despite its inability to innovate. But now it looks like entrenched bureaucratic red tape, systemic resistance to change, and lengthy and politicised consultation and funding processes have held back Hong Kong in the use of information technologies.
Hong Kong’s universities do not lack world-class professors. But engineering departments have regularly complained about the lack of new undergraduate students with the necessary training in calculus and linear algebra, a must for studies in advanced mathematics and engineering.
Big data and artificial intelligence are now being touted as bright spots for Hong Kong’s tech development. Again, Hong Kong, a city of 7 million, is hampered by the limited data at its disposal, and bureaucratic hurdles which have made open data even within government well nigh a mission impossible. A commonly cited example for ridicule is the lack of a common data pool even between the Hospital Authority and the Health Department.
Legislators on the recent visit found, to their pleasant surprise, that some of Hong Kong’s top engineering professors have left for the Greater Bay Area to hatch start-ups in robotics. WeBank, China’s first internet bank, proudly paraded top management of Hong Kong origin or educated in Hong Kong’s universities.
There is hope for Hong Kong’s tech future, only on condition that cross-boundary collaboration is made possible by the Greater Bay Area development. Talent flocks to where opportunities abound, and the promised dismantling of barriers to the flow of talent, funds and data within the Greater Bay Area provides the only sure-fire way out.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party