Flaws in Hong Kong’s approach to innovation apparent in Mil Mill row
- The government has its sights set on developing more glamorous, hi-tech sectors, but it must think carefully about Hong Kong’s place in an already established supply chain
- Moreover, neglecting home-grown innovation and industries does not send the best message
Both the Environmental Protection Department and Mil Mill’s landlord, the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, say they have done their best to accommodate the needs of the recycler, even though its current site is to be set aside for other industries. The episode reveals a lack of long-term vision for the city’s technological development.
Speaking at an event organised by the Stem Education Alliance on September 26, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu once again stressed the government’s determination to transform the city into a technology hub.
Yet even if the government prefers to develop a hi-tech electronics industry, there are still two problems. First, has it thought about where Hong Kong should position itself in the supply chain? We are no longer in the 1980s, when the industry was in its infancy and companies in the United States were beginning to outsource some of their production overseas.
The second problem is that Hong Kong relies too heavily on free market thinking. Again, this might work for a young market and when no political intervention is involved. But that is not the case here.
But beyond these concerns, the lack of attention being paid to home-grown industrial innovation sends the wrong message to local companies. The government plans to open a large-scale pulping facility in Tuen Mun in 2025, which it says will be able to process all locally collected drinks cartons. Yet there is no reason to abandon what we have already built.
The treatment of Mil Mill reflects Hong Kong’s attitude to non-finance or non-computer technological innovation. It sets a precedent that may discourage businesses from investing in other types of technology, even though they may hold greater opportunities for Hong Kong than specialised technologies that are already being developed elsewhere.
Innovation is more than an economic calculation. It requires more than land leases, tax cuts and attracting talent from overseas. It requires long-term commitment. To create a foundation for sustainable innovation, the city needs to focus on what it already has, and offer support and scope for development in those areas.
John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong