Hong Kong’s smart city ambitions must be powered by tech-savvy people
Yam Ki Chan says the government’s grand plan to promote innovation won’t get far without efforts to accelerate digitisation in SMEs, strengthen e-government services, and popularise STEM education in schools – in other words, make technology accessible to the masses
The annual tradition of the Hong Kong chief executive’s policy address is almost here. In her maiden address last October, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced an ambitious plan to diversify Hong Kong’s economy by promoting innovation and technology. The government then released the Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong and allocated HK$50 billion towards technology-related initiatives.
The government’s objective and commitment are welcome, but the road to a smart city remains bumpy. In a recent phone survey, Hong Kong residents rank the city third in an assessment of smart cities in the region, behind Tokyo and SIngapore.
So what should Lam focus on for this year’s policy address to ensure a smooth ride for her innovation and technology push? Based on the latest Smarter Digital City white paper by Google and Ipsos, the focus should be in three areas: economy, ecosystem and education. Specifically, the government must offer incentives to accelerate digitalisation within small and medium-sized enterprises; make data accessible and useful to address pressing challenges in the city; and, develop the digital talent pipeline by promoting STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and vocational training.
Hong Kong’s larger corporations are keen on a digital transformation, with 85 per cent having increased their digital investment this year and 93 per cent planning to further increase their investment levels over the next two years.
However, its SMEs are behind. Only 50 per cent see digitisation as fundamental to their business.
To ensure inclusive growth in a smart digital city, the government should provide incentives and support to SMEs to accelerate their digital transformation. In particular, SMEs should be encouraged to adopt solutions that would help them compete against larger enterprises, such as cloud services. These could not only help SMEs scale up faster, but also enhance cybersecurity. The government should join providers on cloud training programmes to build skills and accelerate technology adoption.
Accessible and useful data is a necessary building block for a smart digital ecosystem, and underpins the adoption of key technologies like the internet of things and artificial intelligence. The government should reassess its policy to drive e-government initiatives, similar to Britain’s Government Digital Service and the Australian Digital Transformation Agency.
Hong Kong should also reiterate its enduring support for a free and open internet, a competitive advantage for Hong Kong in driving research and development and the digital economy.
The process for procurement should also be revamped to stimulate innovation in the digital ecosystem. The current process is designed for purchasing infrastructure – bridges and roads – but not the digital goods of the 21st century – software and apps. Software development requires iterative testing to discover user behaviour. An agile and end-user-focused procurement process would allow the government to develop better digital services and use its fiscal strength to stimulate a smarter digital ecosystem.
Hong Kong must develop a smart education and talent policy. According to our Smarter Digital City Whitepaper, only 14 per cent of residents believe that Hong Kong is successfully developing digital talent who can apply technology and science in practice. While 54 per cent of corporations believe it is important to have staff capable of data analytics skills, 70 per cent of them have difficulty recruiting such staff.
If Hong Kong is serious about smart city development and being a hub for data insights, creating a talent pipeline is essential. To nurture local talent, Hong Kong must embed computational thinking into school curriculums, train teachers, and work hand in hand with the industry to determine what sort of vocational skills students should be proficient in.
Free programmes are also available for use to help students learn computer science in the classroom and after school.
To complement the development of local talent, a thoughtful policy is needed to attract global tech talent.
Hong Kong has all the essentials to become a smart city. How might we make Hong Kong a smart city and a talent hub internationally? Policy is the first step in setting the direction and environment. But there’s no silver bullet and the government cannot do it alone. Government, businesses and residents all have a role to play if Hong Kong is to succeed in building a smarter digital city.
Yam Ki Chan is head of public policy and government affairs at Google Hong Kong