Ramping up efforts to lead the next wave

A view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak.
A view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak.PHOTO: AFP

Hong Kong was a pioneer in urban modernity well before the concept of "smart city" was invented.

It is an ultra-modern, vertical and electric city that still owes part of its reputation to its past audacity. It broke the codes, openly displaying its frenetic ambition to be a global city and began attracting the youth of the world to the Pearl River.

Since then, other key cities have overtaken it. Hong Kong now ranks 14th in the Global Innovation Index, having fallen a further three places.

This finally led to a burst of political mobilisation, with the Hong Kong government redoubling its efforts and placing innovation at the top of its development strategy.

A big "smart city" plan, based on the findings of a public consultation, is being prepared and will be revealed in the summer.

In the 1990s, when Hong Kong envisioned equipping 800m of very steep, narrow little streets with escalators and moving pavements, this initiative was favourably received all over the world.

The introduction of the Octopus card dates back to 1997. The little magnetic card enabled holders to access public transport, from trams to buses and trains.

  • 34,000 

    Number of Wi-Fi hot spots that Hong Kong will provide by 2019 to satisfy its mobile phone users.

Its uses have proliferated since then, and it now dominates the micro-payments network, covering purchases at 7-Eleven outlets, cafes and fast-food chains. It also enables access to carparks, public swimming pools and even the race course.

"In keeping with our principle of an open economy, the government has recently allowed 13 'e-wallet' operators (electronic payments using mobile phones) to offer their services to the people of Hong Kong," said Under-Secretary for Innovation and Technology David Chung.

He noted that a new transpacific submarine cable, which can handle some 120 terabytes of data per second, will link Los Angeles and Hong Kong next year.

Hong Kong aims to be a regional telecommunications hub and to become the "blockchain" capital, providing important technology in the financial services or fintech sector.

By 2019, it should be able to provide 34,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to satisfy mobile phone users. Most operators already provide 4G and are preparing for the move to 5G.

The area's hilly terrain and subtropical climate are additional constraints on the management of this city, which is among the most densely populated on the planet.

With 7.3 million people, this anthill of a city has long prioritised vertical architecture - of its 50,000 buildings, almost 350 are over 150m high - and public transport, used by over 90 per cent of the population.

Hong Kong has thus become a model of efficiency in this respect.

"To be suitable for Hong Kong, many technological innovations have to be pushed to the limit. That is why we are an excellent breeding ground for start-ups," said Mr Charles Ng, the deputy director of Invest Hong Kong. The bureau promotes the city to foreign investors.

Mr Ng believes that no other major city in the world has embarked simultaneously on as many major "smart" projects.

In particular, he highlights the new airport terminal, which aims to be the most ecologically friendly in the world; the huge Kowloon Cultural District, made up of several museums and theatres that have been in gestation for 20 years and are finally starting to emerge; and the project for the creation of a second city centre called CBD2, due to be delivered in 2025. CBD2 should double the present capacity of Central.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline 'Ramping up efforts to lead the next wave'. Print Edition | Subscribe