Getting Ahead in Hong Kong: Speak up for a Smart City!

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Dumb cities cost you in time and aggravation.  Hong Kong has a long way to go to catch up to ‘smarter’ cities in the region – and you can help.

Photo credit: Esri China (Hong Kong)

Stuck in traffic. Waiting for a bus. Puzzling over maps. Precious minutes and hours are lost every day, never to be regained.

But a city in Finland thinks it could crack the code and get that time back. Kalasatama aims to create a time machine, a time maker.  And its target is an hour a day, delivered through the smart city.

Hong Kong could build that time machine – but first it has to get smart.


Hong Kong: “Builders” Stage

The international assessment programme “City Initiatives for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship” (CITIE) reviews the progress in adopting technological innovation in 40 cities around the world. The criteria measure progress towards creating a Smart City.

The assessment divides the progress of city development into 4 stages: “Front Runners”, “Challengers”, “Builders” and “Experimenters”. Among the Asian cities reviewed, Singapore is the only one ranked a “Front Runner”. As early in 2014, Singapore initiated a national policy of becoming a “Smart Nation”. The country has been vigorously implementing a top-down national policy to make the island nation a smart city. It plans to export the relevant experiences and technologies to others. International Data Corporation, a market research company, estimated that by 2025, the annual demand for Smart City technologies will reach US$1 trillion in Asia alone. Singapore believes its experience will help it to capture a large share of that market.

What about Hong Kong? In the same study, Hong Kong is ranked in the third stage of “Builders”, along with Tokyo and Sydney.

Although different assessments has different criteria, and there may be subjective elements in the assessments, the findings are worth using as a reference.

For example, among the nine assessment criteria, Hong Kong scored the lowest in “making full use of data to improve services and promote innovation.” This low score is not very surprising. In recent years, the Government and many public and private organisations have been working on information sharing with the public. However, they did their own work individually in the absence of an integrated platform. They also did not cater to the needs of those developing smart city apps, in particular mobile apps developers.

For example, the bus company’s “Estimated Time of Arrival” service is very useful to passengers. However, such service is only limited to buses, not all modes of transportation in Hong Kong. People also criticize the decision to only make the information available in a format other than API, a format more easily used by app developers. Instead, developers must process the data before use, a time consuming, laborious and manual process – the opposite of ‘smart’.

In our case, my colleagues trying to use such data have been doing the conversion for some time. Our Map in Learning Program, officially launched in June in which over 100 primary and secondary schools participated, sponsored students through free use of GIS software. For the students to use local government data in their study, our colleagues undertook the labour intensive and time consuming data conversion on their behalf. Without our help, the main of their efforts would have been wasted in data conversion – not developing innovative uses of that data.


Kalasatama = Loads of data

When we talk about open data and smart city development, Helsinki in Finland is an exemplary model. Boyd Cohen, a leading smart city expert, and Joe Pine, an MIT visiting scholar, have both studied the city and  believe there is much to be learned from the experience.

Open data is a key focus of the city’s development strategy, Helsinki currently opens over 1,200 datasets to the public and to civic organisations. The city encourages cooperation among different developers, and organises various activities each year, such as a Hackathon which gathers professionals and IT workers (game developers, programmers, interface/user experience designers) in the area of architectural design, engineering, construction, and geographic information systems, to study construction-related topics.

Helsinki is acclaimed for its experimental smart city district “Kalasatama”. Kalasatama, originally a harbour in an industrial area,  means “feast”. The district is now equipped with various environmental design elements and encourages innovation services. Its goal is “to let everyone earn one extra hour every day”, to save time for the convenience of the public.

The district also has a programme to provide small grants, ranging from about €1,000-8,000 (about HK$8,800 to HK$70,000), to promising startups.  For example, Auntie Solutions, one of the experimental services, aims to prevent serious mental health incidences through easy access tools that help to tackle the most common life crises. Auntie experiments with different service packages for gaining an understanding on user experience and the effectiveness of different digital channels. As such, start-ups can test the new services on real users and companies, and get user feedback to improve their operation.

Boyd Cohen believes that the successful construction of a smart city should be driven by the governments, such as the establishment of eGovernment and internet of things, in addition to support from the general public. In addition, the attitude of the government and the public should be adjusted: the public is no longer a mere audience or customer, but a participant in the smart city development to improve their living.


Participation is the key

The public must contribute if it wants to help build Hong Kong’s time machine and take back our minutes and hours lost to the inefficiency of the dumb city. Earlier this year, the Government announced that a smart city development consultation would be held in the second half of this year. The Smart City Consortium organised two discussion forums in early August to collect opinions from relevant stakeholders. The scope of discussion was very broad, covering internet of things (IoT), eID, ehealth, financial technology (FinTech) and environmental technology.

In addition to the two discussion forums, the SCC also collected public opinions via email. The organisation concluded its consultation on 10 September 2016. By consolidating the information and submitting to the Government, it aims to contribute to the perfection of a smart city blueprint to be released next year.

Everyone in Hong Kong has an interest in seeing a more efficient government and indeed, the improvement of their own life, in the smart city. If Hong Kong and her people can contribute to speak up for ‘smart’, then we can build our own time machine and become a Front Runner in the global smart city future.




[starbox desc=”Winnie Tang

Dr Winnie Tang is Founder and Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Smart City Consortium and is a pioneer in bringing Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to Hong Kong. Over the years, she has advocated the use of technology in sectors including environmental conservation, education and healthcare.