Thursday, April 17, 2014

The time for the ITB is now

Charles Mok defends the government’s decision to create an Innovation and Technology Bureau as a move long overdue.
The government has presented a proposal of establishing the Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB). Do we really need an ITB?
First of all, let’s ask ourselves, are we satisfied with the state of our economy and its outlook in the long run? 
 
In LegCo debates, most of the members speak in support of promoting innovation and technology industries as a means to make Hong Kong’s economy more balanced and less reliant on the so-called ‘4 pillar industries’. Over the years, the government has introduced numerous funding schemes and technology infrastructure projects to boost the technology sector. Yet today our economic structure has hardly changed and the innovation and technology industry still remains nascent (generating only 0.7% of GDP in 2012, with no increase in the past 4 years at all). 
Our neighbouring economies have grasped the opportunity of the technology-driven economy to generate growth and transform, thanks to having top-level organisation that focuses on strategy and policy-making, as well as ensuring the follow-through is done properly. 
 
Our neighbouring economies have grasped the opportunity of the technology-driven economy to generate growth and transform, thanks to having top-level organisation
 
Singapore has a National Research Foundation directly reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office and a research board, A*STAR, that executes policies. Taiwan has established a board to oversee technology and scientific development since 1960s and has recently upgraded it to ministry level. South Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning devises national strategy for technology development and is mandated to review and upgrade its strategy every 5 years.
 
In Hong Kong, technology is only one of the policy areas under one of the branches of a policy bureau. The CEDB simply has too much on its plate to give technology the attention that matches its importance.
 
Even since the replacement of the Information Technology and Broadcasting Bureau in 1998, and subsequently the Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) in 2007, the information technology (IT) sector has been calling for the establishment of a technology bureau responsible for policy issues on IT, innovation and technology, and broadcasting.
 
The existing Communications and Technology Branch of the CEDB handles a whole range of heavy-weight policies such as telecommunications, broadcasting and creative industry, not to mention the SCED already needs to take care of commerce, industry and tourism. What we need is someone to be accountable, to look at the big picture, to work with different departments together and to be the champion of technology at the top level. Under the current structure, this initiative has to compete with loads of other equally important policies, and I would argue that insufficient attention results in slow implementation and lack of priority.
 
Part of the underlying reasons why we lag behind has to do with our manpower and education policy, our society’s culture and other systemic factors. I am not saying that having a Secretary and a bureau will change everything, but taking a first step is what we need right now to make progress. 
 
What we need is someone to be accountable
 
The government’s current proposal is relatively modest compared to the 2012 re-organisation proposal, which included the Technology and Communications Bureau. The government now suggests adding 8 new posts and reshuffling 26 existing posts from CEDB, Innovation and Technology Commission and Office of the Government Chief Information Officer. The ITB will cost over $32 million in its first year. I have previously proposed including the OFCA as part of ITB after the amendment of the Telecommunications Ordinance and Broadcasting Ordinance, and I still think it is best to put these policy areas under the same roof.
 
Investment in innovation and technology must be long term and persistent
 
One might think is this new bureau just going to do more of the same from the past. Many doubt what the new ITB can actually achieve. But the crucial thing is, do we want to let the current CEDB continue to waste our time and effort or take advantage of the government’s initiative to turn technology into a boost for our economy, a medium to improve standard of living for citizens, and most importantly, and better jobs for our young people. I choose the latter.
 
Colleagues in the LegCo often talk about the lack of upward mobility or types of jobs for young people. We debate this over and over again. Hong Kong cannot only rely on the graces of the Mainland government to survive and must look to the next wave of ‘innovative economy’.

From a pragmatic point of view, investment in innovation and technology must be long term and persistent. What society gets with the new ITB is a confirmation that our government is willing to take technology seriously, a Secretary to be charged with making progress, and a chance to get something done properly. Let us focus on making sure how this bureau will meet the needs of the industry as well as public expectation, instead of treating it with suspicion.

Published in Harbour Times (April 17, 2014) 

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