Carrie Lam policy address 2018
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Hong Kong is being held back from becoming a smart city by a variety of factors, according to think tank’s report. Photo: Roy Issa

Time for Hong Kong government to get smart about modernising city, think tank says

Six-month study by Tianda Institute led by former Legislative Council head finds general public does not understand why being smart city is important

The general public’s limited understanding of what it means to be a smart city is just one of the things slowing Hong Kong’s development, according to a report from a private think tank.

Other reasons for local failings in innovation and technology include the lack of a holistic approach, and not enough skilled workers in the sector.

Led by Pauline Ng Man-wah, the former head of the Legislative Council’s administrative wing, the study came just two days before Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor unveiled her second policy address.

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“One of the major barriers we have identified is the lack of understanding among general citizens on the need to become a smart city, and what they are expected to contribute to it, or benefit from it,” said Ng, the head of the Hong Kong Policy Research Centre of the local think tank Tianda Institute.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been urged to provide a clear strategy for turning Hong Kong into a smart city. Photo: Winson Wong

The six-month study was conducted through literature review and focus group discussions, along with interviews with different key players, including smart city pioneers, advocacy groups, consultants, lawmakers and academics.

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“Many people think it is only about information technology, and has nothing to do with them,” Ng said. “The government has failed to let them realise turning Hong Kong into a smart city is a common goal which requires everyone’s participation.”

Officials released the city’s Smart City Blueprint last December, which mapped out development plans for the next five years to make better use of technology. But Ng’s team argued it might only end up wasting public funds if key obstacles were left unaddressed.

Ng said the blueprint was merely, “a summary of all the initiatives which the government has prepared and is capable of implementing within five years”, and was far from a long-term strategy marked by vision.

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“A lot of European countries, and the United States, have defined a smart city as advancing sustainable development, people’s quality of life and the environment, but Hong Kong still defines the idea with digital performance and data speed,” she said.

“I hope Lam would provide a clear strategy in her policy address on how to utilise the city’s strength to achieve the goal in the long-run.”

Pauline Ng Man-wah, director of Hong Kong Policy Research Centre under Tianda Institute, says the government needs to come up with a holistic strategy. Photo: Jeffie Lam

A lot more could have been achieved if the government had got the citizens involved in the movement, Ng continued, citing the administration’s reluctance to open up more data over privacy concerns, a move which has constantly put it under fire.

Ng said the Australian government, which used to face the same problem, had earlier conducted a consultation to gauge people’s opinions on how far they could accept personal data being made public. It discovered many did not mind, as long as they were not identifiable.

Hong Kong must step up its game to become a smart city

“The government needs to give Hongkongers the confidence, and explain why it thinks it’s worth it,” she said. “Of course, it is important to build trust.”

In comparison, Singapore – the city’s key rival – has done better by having a stronger coordination between the private and public sector in terms of data sharing, she added.
Labels of digital payment (from top) Visa, WeChat Pay and Alipay are displayed outside a boutique at a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Lam’s administration should set up a new office to coordinate the smart city development, the think tank said. Photo: Reuters

Meanwhile, the study also pointed to a lack of talent in the city, as well as within the government, as one of the key challenges.

What’s holding Hong Kong back from becoming a smarter city?

Ng said the administration should not only rely on external consultants, adding the city must strengthen its effort in developing STEM education.

Lam’s administration should set up a new office to coordinate the smart city development, the think tank head suggested, as there were limits to what the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer could do.

The new office should not only provide technical support to different projects but also offer training to civil servants and the private sector, Ng added.

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“Building a smart city is not just about information technology. It is to improve the quality of life for everyone, and it requires the coordination of every bureau.”

The report is to be submitted to Lam and the members of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council.

According to the 2017 Smart City Index, compiled by Swedish firm EasyPark, Hong Kong trailed other major Asian cities such as Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo in harnessing advanced technology and building it into its basic functions.