Sunday, April 16, 2017

Letter to Hong Kong -- How Can Hong Kong Become a Smart City?

In recent years, cities around the world are rebranding themselves as smart cities, through the use of information and communications technologies, to try to provide better city services in areas such as transportation, energy and the environment, to improve government services provision and the quality of life for citizens or visitors to these cities.

Hong Kong has joined this smart city bandwagon relatively late, as our current chief executive did not propose to make Hong Kong a smart city until his 2015 policy address. But surely it was better late than never. But what has happened since?

In 2015, our government announced that they will develop Kowloon East into a smart city district. The Kowloon East Office under the Development Bureau hired a consulting firm. Almost two years later, this year, they published a report that suggested a few ideas for trials, including a mobile app to help you walk around East Kowloon, and a smart crowd management system using CCTV surveillance cameras, and so on. Up to now, what we have is a colorful brochure about things to come.

In 2016, after the establishment of the Innovation and Technology Bureau the year before, the new bureau announced that it would hire another consulting firms to draft a blueprint for Hong Kong as a smart city. To this date we are awaiting the result of this grand plan, expected in later this year. In the meantime, to be honest, not much has happened, other than many seminars and powerpoint presentations.

In fact, these were not the only consultants our government hired to study this same topic. Only in 2014, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau also commissioned yet another study and public consultation for our Digital 21 strategy with the title of “Smarter Hong Kong, Smarter Living.” Nobody remembers or talks about that study anymore. So, we have had three consultancy studies in less than four years’ time. In the meantime, again, not much has happened.

In fact, for a long time, not enough has been done in the way of using technology to improve citizen services in Hong Kong, or to use technology to solve the problems Hong Kong faces as a modern city. For example, we have considered electronic road pricing for our Central district for over thirty years. There is still no decision. For more than thirty years, you can pay for your taxi fares in Tokyo with your credit cards, but you still can’t do that here. Instead, our clueless taxi drivers here love to test us, the passengers, on our knowledge of how to navigate the streets of Hong Kong by asking — do you know how to get there? Almost none of them are using GPS.

Recently, our Transport Department has started a test for parking meters to accept some credit cards, in addition to only Octopus. Great. That was only something you could do in other cities for almost twenty years. Today, in cities such as London, New York, LA or in Australia, they can use mobile phone apps to pay for parking meter fees even remotely. Our government officials told us it can’t be done, because they couldn’t get electricity power to the parking meters. What an excuse!

Only last week in Legco, we processed an amendment in law needed to allow drivers to “stop and pay” using Octopus and credit cards with contactless features to pay for their tunnels and bridges fees. But of course, if you have been to toll bridges and tunnels in many other parts of the world recently, you would have noticed that many have no toll booths left at all.

So why are we so behind?

First, our government likes to fund research and build science parks, but not adopting new technologies and applications. If you go to most of our government’s regional sports facilities, you will still see a “cash only” sign at the counters.

Second, according to a consortium of city governments in the U.S., a smart city is about developing technological infrastructure that enables it to collect, aggregate, and analyze real-time data to improve the lives of its residents, with explicit policies regarding smart infrastructure and data, a functioning administrative component, and community engagement. In other words, data is at the core of any smart city strategy.

When I visited Singapore and met with its officials last September, they told me that it was mandatory that no policy decision can be made in government without justification from data analysis. They mean what they say. Two weeks ago, the Singapore government announced that they will tie up with the National University of Singapore to give data science training to 2,000 public officials annually for five years.

Third, it’s the attitude of knowing your weaknesses, and doing something about them. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee recently was quoted as saying to a group of leading international investors that “Singapore could do much more when it came to adopting new technology”. When was the last time you heard any self-critique by our senior government officials in Hong Kong? Not even when they managed to lose over 3 million of our citizens' personal data in the biggest cybersecurity breach ever in Hong Kong. They simply said, “We’re sorry, but we have been doing it all along, and don’t worry, it’s still safe.”

A few days ago, PM Lee of Singapore posted on his Facebook page about an old mantra he saw when he visited Facebook’s headquarters in Silicon Valley last year — “Move fast and break things.” He went on to say: 

“By international standards, we have an excellent civil service. But we can and must do better at improvising, and not be trapped by the silos and established ways of working that have built up over the years. Things move fast, and we need to respond with openness, flexibility, and the ability to work informally and entrepreneurially.”

These are advice well worth noting by our incoming chief executive. Move fast and break things — and I don’t mean her political opponents. If she can start looking at our government and civil service that way, with the boldness to make changes where they are needed, it will go a long way beyond just making Hong Kong a smart city. Our government may finally be able to tackle some of the core conflicts our society face. 

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