Stop complaining about Shenzhen: here are three steps to make Hong Kong an innovation and technology magnet

Tony F. Chan says Hong Kong can meet the challenges of a hi-tech global economy by adopting a culture that accepts risks, developing an innovation ecosystem where the government, private sector and families pursue the same goal, and by taking advantage of its status as a unique part of China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 11:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 6:12pm

There has been a chorus in Hong Kong of late about promoting innovation and technology: a relatively new bureau in the government; the chief executive’s budget request to support the sector; and, Beijing’s new policy allowing funds to support research here.

While this is a relatively new phenomenon, innovation and technology’s importance as an engine for economic growth and betterment of human life is not new. From the invention of steam engines to the development of artificial intelligence, it has repeatedly created new economies and transformed our lives. Seven of the world’s eight largest companies by market capitalisation today are in innovation and technology: Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent.

That the top five are American did not happen by accident. The US has made innovation and technology part of its national strategy for many years. Most advanced economies, from large to small, have as well. Hong Kong, however, seems to have opted out, and the other Asian tigers have surpassed us.

But I believe Hong Kong has many of the key ingredients to be successful in innovation and technology: an international city, English-speaking, international legal and business systems, a well-educated workforce, world-class universities, free access to information, and leverage on the fast-rising Chinese economy. Just the presence of Shenzhen presents unrivalled advantages; with the Greater Bay Area initiative, opportunities can only be more plentiful.

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The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship has always defined Hong Kong’s success, although traditionally it has never been in technology. Recently, however, we have seen a change: Hong Kong has produced a few “unicorns” – pre-IPO companies valued at greater than US$1 billion. So, maybe we are finally turning a corner.

There are several challenges we must overcome to become successful in the new innovation economy. First, and most important, is a change in our culture and mindset. We must be willing to accept that innovation means trying new things and being open to new ideas. We need to take risks, but also accept and learn from failure. Innovation usually leads to uncertainties and disruptions, contrary to Hong Kong’s prevailing culture of preferring stability.

We also have to understand that rapid technological change means we have to adapt: the hot topics of today – like artificial intelligence or robotics – are likely to be replaced, and our investment strategy should allow for this. Finally, our administrative culture has to change the mindset of “do less, fewer mistakes”.

Also, look at our students’ choice of studies. The most desired university programmes in Hong Kong are medicine, law and business. The top Diploma of Secondary Education scorers choose majors in these fields, almost exclusively.

These professions enjoy highly respected, stable and well-paying careers, but how are we going to develop innovation and technology successfully if our best minds are not taking part? A lack of tradition and successful role models feeds doubts and negative impressions.

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Some have advocated that Hong Kong build science magnet high schools to group like-minded students together, give them a more advanced and faster innovation and technology curriculum and, most importantly, show them that their talent and interests are valued.

The second challenge is the need for an innovation and technology ecosystem. We need the government to provide policies and funding, universities to produce world-class research and develop student talent. But we also need the private sector to chip in, invest in innovation and technology and provide internships, scholarships and seed funding.

We need parents to look beyond their own experiences, to the future their children have to live and work in, and accept that their children’s talent and interests may be different from theirs.

Can Hong Kong universities and experts work together under one roof?

We need to realise that each stakeholder has their own role. In our rush to get on the innovation and technology train, we should be careful not to push all our universities to focus on “applied research” and fail to emphasise fundamental understanding. A university’s role is to produce fundamental understanding and educate society’s next generation.

We need to realise that we need money, but we need talent even more. We should invest in educating local students, but also continue to attract and welcome non-local ones.

The third challenge is how, under “one country, two systems”, we can leverage China’s strength, resources and policies, while maintaining Hong Kong’s unique and competitive systems.

We should use all means to find ways to benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative, the Greater Bay Area and the research funding from the mainland. But we should also contribute. It’s time to stop complaining about the competition from Shenzhen and find ways to leverage the advantages it has to offer.

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For example, as president of HKUST, I am proud of our alumnus Frank Wang Tao, no matter where his company, DJI, is located! The mere fact he was educated in Hong Kong benefits the city, no matter where he chooses to build his career. We should welcome the best but also wish them well wherever they go.

The best way to contribute is to do something that leverages our intrinsic advantages and uniqueness. For example, Hong Kong can form a new university in innovation and technology for the Greater Bay Area that adopts a novel way of educating students for the new economy. It can leverage the abundance of advanced technological enterprises in the area and educate a new kind of workforce for them.

This would provide unprecedented career opportunities, attracting students not only from Hong Kong but also globally. It can be private, supported from the private sector and successful alumni.

If this sounds far-fetched, it’s worth noting that such a university already exists in China: Westlake University in Hangzhou, which I have dubbed “China’s Princeton”. Additionally, several university presidents in Shenzhen have proposed forming a Greater Bay Area “joint university”. If we don’t hurry, others will take the initiative.

Hong Kong had the “can-do” spirit when it formed HKUST almost 30 years ago to address a challenge of the 1997 handover. Now we have a new challenge, and new opportunities, and we can do it again.

Tony F. Chan is president of HKUST and founding member and director of the Academy of Science Hong Kong