Beyond its devastating effects on healthcare systems and economies, the Covid-19 pandemic has also put a huge dent in ongoing efforts to tackle social problems and environmental sustainability.
For instance, Thailand’s ban on single-use plastic bags at the start of 2020 went to waste as stay-home measures resulted in Bangkok's plastic waste volume soaring by 62 per cent in April, while Hong Kong’s streets and parks became clogged with takeaway containers and disposable cutlery as households stayed in for meals.
To address these issues and other social problems, innovation and technology (I&T) solutions are urgently needed.
The Innovation and Technology Commission, supported by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, hopes innovators and entrepreneurs will heed its call to join the inaugural City I&T Grand Challenge (the Grand Challenge) to solve important challenges affecting Hong Kongers trying to navigate the new normal. The winners of each category will receive attractive cash prizes, certificates, or the chance to develop their ideas for adoption by government departments or public organisations.
Speaking at a media briefing which took place on Dec 18 last year, Ms Rebecca Pun, the commissioner for innovation and technology, said that while some business-plan competitions focus on team members and the product development capabilities of a company and its investment prospects, the Grand Challenge evaluates each proposal based on its originality, uniqueness and effectiveness, application of innovation and technology, as well as social benefits and impact.
At the same briefing, Mr Albert Wong, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, said everyone has the potential to be an innovator to shape the future. The Grand Challenge offers an invaluable opportunity for the public to apply creativity and develop smart solutions for the benefit of the community which cater to the new normal amid the ongoing pandemic.
Turning challenges into opportunity
The theme of the Grand Challenge is “Innovating for Hong Kong’s New Normal”, a reflection of how the pandemic has fundamentally transformed how people in Hong Kong live, work and learn. Despite these disruptions, there is plenty of opportunity to reassess conventional behaviours and practices, and live smarter during and after the pandemic.
The Grand Challenge welcomes primary and secondary school students of Hong Kong who are enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as Hong Kong and overseas tertiary students, technology enterprises, research and development (R&D) outfits, entrepreneurs, and even retirees with novel solutions.
Participants can choose one of two areas to develop solutions in. Those selecting environmental sustainability should create I&T solutions that seek to resolve Hong Kong’s disposable plastic tableware and household food waste issues. Those who are interested in social connectivity should propose I&T solutions for social interaction, especially for senior citizens and children, that would help them maintain social health under a new normal that mandates social distancing or distant remote business practices.
Submit ideas as a team of up to five or as an individual on the City I&T Grand Challenge website by April 24. Following a rigorous process that includes mentorship, winners will receive cash prizes, certificates or the highly coveted chance to develop their ideas for adoption by the public sector and the community, among other perks.
Winners of the University and Open categories will also be awarded R&D resources, professional training and proof-of-concept avenues, such as a government department or a public organisation, to optimise and implement their innovative solutions. A series of workshops, seminars and training activities will also be organised under the Grand Challenge for the community.
Sustainability and social connectivity issues to address
World Bank Group president David Malpass noted that the pandemic may be worsening the world’s waste burden because of the higher use and improper disposal of items such as masks and single-use containers.
Already, Hong Kong has limited landfill space, and only 30 per cent of waste generated in 2018 was recycled. Food waste makes up almost one-third of the waste disposed of at landfills. With increased takeaway orders and more people cooking at home, the problem of food waste generated at home must be prioritised.
The city has public recycling hubs for the collection of plastic tableware, supported by mobile apps that direct users to nearby hubs. Diners are also rewarded or given discounts when they use their own tableware and containers. Other existing solutions include smart bin systems at housing estates that monitor food waste mixed with impurities, global positioning system and artificial intelligence route scheduling, as well as data transmission for real-time monitoring and control over the quantity and quality of food waste collected.
Here, the Grand Challenge is seeking I&T solutions that encourage customers and businesses — such as the public, property management companies, restaurants and institutions like schools — to reduce or substitute the use of single-use plastic items through behavioural change, cut food waste, or increase the efficiency of the food waste-handling procedure — from collection, storage and processing (at residential and commercial premises), to transportation.
The Grand Challenge also hopes to address social issues affecting children and the elderly.
Globally, mental health hotlines have reportedly increased, as the pandemic has resulted in tense situations at home — with several family members working and learning from home — or people stuck in extended periods of social isolation, having been deprived of personal connections.
For instance, children struggle with online learning or peer communication, and those in underprivileged families may not have access to electronic devices, or have insufficient data support and inadequate technical assistance from their caregivers. I&T solutions should be targeted at helping such children maintain healthy social connections, apart from just online games or apps.
The elderly or vulnerable who live alone or in eldercare homes away from their families also need social and emotional support. Even with video calls or interactive devices such as robots or virtual-reality simulation products provided by homes or daycare facilities, there is much potential for even more inventive I&T solutions that would allow elderly persons and those with disabilities to have meaningful social interactions with their family members and caretakers.
In line with Hong Kong’s smart city ambitions
Hong Kong, which has long-term plans for innovation and building a smart city, is at the forefront of technology and R&D, with the grand goal of establishing an international I&T hub in the Greater Bay Area.
The Grand Challenge is in line with these ambitions, and infinite opportunities can be found from the pandemic experience, allowing innovators and entrepreneurs to stretch their creative muscles in developing I&T solutions.