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No shortage of tech inventors and innovators in the city, but it is hard to commercialise their products

Ronald Pong watched with dismay as some Hong Kong cabbies carried out undercover sting operations recently to expose Uber drivers who did not have permits to pick up passengers.

The taxi drivers’ frustration with competition from the popular ride-hailing platform has festered for years, but the angry confrontation was also a sign of what was holding Hong Kong back in the global race to embrace technology.

An entrenched preference for sticking to established norms and the reluctance to embrace new ideas prevented the city from becoming “smarter”, said Pong, an information security management and computer forensics specialist who chairs the IT governance committee of the Smart City Consortium, a body helping the government.

“As the adoption of smart mobility is growing, car-sharing and ride-hailing apps like Uber are popular all over the world,” he said. “But the authorities have not addressed the issue since Uber began operating in the city in 2014, enhancing the social acceptance of technology.”

Experts said that while Hong Kong had no shortage of tech inventors and innovators, it was hard to commercialise their products and it was no surprise that the city fell back in global rankings for smart city development.

Hong Kong slipped a spot from last year to rank 20th in the Smart City Index 2024 released by Swiss business school the Institute for Management Development in April.

Zurich, Oslo and Canberra took the top three spots among 142 cities ranked based on how well they used technology to improve the quality of life for residents.

Singapore, in fifth place, was Asia’s smartest city, while Shanghai came in 19th.

The annual index is based on feedback from 120 people in each city who were asked about the impact of technology in 15 areas of life, including affordable housing, healthcare and employment, and their level of comfort with tech issues such as face recognition and electronic payments.

Hong Kong did well in internet speed and reliability, online purchasing of tickets to shows and museums and online access to job opportunities.

But it scored lowest for car-sharing and bicycle-hiring services. Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei all fared better.

Hong Kong also rated poorly for online reporting of city maintenance problems.

Lawmaker Duncan Chiu, who represents the innovation and technology sector, said Hong Kong performed well in terms of digital infrastructure and 5G connectivity even in rural areas, but had to address shortcomings in implementing innovative ideas and technology.

“Hong Kong has a strong research capability with support from government funding, but private investors are crucial for commercialising research outcomes,” he said. He said the economic downturn following the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in a lag in the local investment market and decreased foreign investment too.

But he added: “Innovation is one thing, but whether it provides the application scenarios for residents or the government is another story.”

He said Hong Kong’s innovators had to demonstrate more ways technology could be applied by both the private and public sectors, and ordinary residents.

“This will attract investment and enable commercialisation,” he said.

Turning gold medals into products

Two weeks after the latest smart city index was announced, Hong Kong performed well at the 49th International Exhibition of Inventions held from April 17 to 21 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The city’s delegation of nearly 700 representatives from 40 organisations, ranging from schools to universities, research and development centres, research laboratories, technology companies and government departments, won a record number of more than 350 prizes, including six Special Awards, 28 Gold Medals with Congratulations of Jury and 114 Gold Medals.

The government’s research and development (R&D) arm, the Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI) won 23 awards.

The gold medal winners included a document processor powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that can recognise images and different printed or handwritten languages, including Chinese and English.

Arvin Tang Wai-kai, ASTRI’s director of multimedia systems and analytics, said the system would help organisations that process large volumes of complex documents, such as banks, insurance companies and the Inland Revenue Department.

He said one of its advantages was the ability to recognise handwritten Chinese characters, as there were not many existing systems like it in the market.

“We believe that the easiest market entry for our system would be the Chinese community,” Tang said.

“We hope it can be licensed to individuals or companies interested in packaging it for sale.”

Another gold-medal winner was an image fusion technology using sensors that can improve the quality of photographs shot in poor light, glaring or foggy conditions. It combines normal photography with images captured by infrared cameras.

ASTRI’s advanced electronic components and systems senior engineer Allen Wang Zhihan said the system had the potential to be used with driverless vehicles moving in darkness or fog, and rescue missions.

This application has also yet to be commercialised.

However, the Immigration Department collaborated with ASTRI for the first time this year, to use AI to identify security vulnerabilities while improving patrol tasks performed by AI-equipped robots.

Hong Kong customs also worked with ASTRI to develop a new clearance process using advanced camera and facial recognition to capture moving targets speedily.

Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said local start-ups had what it takes in terms of R&D and relied mainly on fundraising to keep going.

The challenge now was for the government to speed up attracting overseas enterprises to enrich the ecosystem for the long run.

Last October, the Office for Attracting Strategic Enterprises signed deals with more than 30 foreign and mainland Chinese companies that pledged to invest about HK$30 billion (US$3.84 billion) in the city. They specialise in biotech, fintech, advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence and data sciences.

Fong noted that these high-potential multinational enterprises would provide 10,000 jobs over the coming years, but added that the process was still “not fast enough”.

“Having those companies in place and providing job offers promptly is crucial to transforming R&D results into products,” Fong said. “With their network overseas and business perspectives, it will be easier for commercialisation as they don’t focus on the Hong Kong market alone.”

‘Need to get public on board too’

Hong Kong rolled out its smart city blueprint 2.0 in 2020, outlining more than 130 initiatives in six areas – mobility, living, environment, people, government and economy – and setting the target of improving livelihoods through innovation and tech.

A government funding scheme provides matching grants to support at least 100 research and development teams from eight universities in the city with the potential to become successful start-ups.

In May, the first batch of projects by 24 university research teams was accepted in the Research, Academic and Industry Sectors One-plus Scheme, a HK$10 billion matching fund rolled out in 2022 for potential start-ups.

The teams have to complete their projects within three years and then commercialise them within two years.

Confident that Hong Kong was on the right track, innovation minister Sun Dong stressed during the scheme’s launch that setting a clear direction was more important than speed in innovation and technology development.

“While Hong Kong enjoys clear advantages in the upstream sector, it is very often that the potential to transform the R&D outcomes cannot be fully unleashed due to various constraints,” a spokesman for the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau said.

The bureau hoped the scheme would encourage collaboration between the industry and the academic and research sectors to further promote the transformation of R&D outcomes and industry development, he added.

Those in the city’s private sector have also been working on smart innovations in recent years.

Jojo Xu Huafeng, 28, founded Libpet Tech in 2022 and with his team of 12 developed wheelchairs equipped with technology to let them go up and down stairs, and move smoothly over grass surfaces or beaches.

“We prioritised functionality in terms of technology, flexibility and comfort, while considering the appearance,” said Xu, the company’s chief executive.

His smart wheelchair, meant to improve the mobility of the disabled and elderly, uses AI to detect obstacles and has a phone application that automatically sends the user’s location to family members.

The wheelchair is expected to go on sale by the end of the year, with a price tag of US$8,000 and the company has appointed a South African agent with distributors in various countries.

Xu said the hardest part before commercialising was gaining public recognition after raising funds through competitions.

“The way we did it was to slowly reach out to care homes for the elderly and universities to try out the wheelchairs and get their feedback. We also needed certification from accreditation bodies in different countries, such as the United States and China.”

At Kai Tak’s Airside shopping centre, Hong Kong’s first automatic bicycle parking system was introduced last September with space for 48 bikes.

Users place their bikes on a designated track in the docking station, scan the QR code using their smartphone and the bikes are moved to an underground space. It costs HK$2 per hour, paid electronically too.

The system showed how technology could be used to help make the city more bicycle-friendly and encourage e-mobility, said Amanda Lee Lok-man, deputy general manager of developer Nan Fung’s marketing and communications department.

While such systems had been widely adopted in Japan, especially near train stations, this was the first in Hong Kong.

Christy Chow Kwan-nga, senior engineer of Arup, the consultancy appointed by Nan Fung to develop the system, said the system could be introduced in new development districts to integrate them better with cycling networks.

Parking underground avoids the issue of bicycles occupying pavements, releasing more street-level space for landscaping and recreational use.

‘A smart city needs smart people’

Pong from the Smart City Consortium acknowledged advances in R&D by universities and the private sector, but stressed that authorities needed to ramp up public education.

“A smart city needs smart people. But a lot of people in both the government and business sectors believe in avoiding hi-tech innovations to minimise risks and prefer sticking to existing methods if they are effective. Openness is definitely lacking,” he said.

“This situation has led to a peculiar scenario in Hong Kong where many people bring these technologies to the city and promote them to attract investors. But if both the government and businesses do not lead by example and only adopt a passive attitude, how can you expect residents to accept new things?”

Pong recalled receiving a notification in February from the Inland Revenue Department and promptly logged into its system using the iAm Smart platform which allows Hong Kong residents to use a single digital identity and authentication for online government and commercial transactions.

After talking with the staff on the system, he identified an error in his online tax return. He wanted to rectify the mistake electronically, but was told he had to report the issue in writing.

“This is my digital identity with my signature authentication. I don’t understand how it could not be handled smarter. I ended up buying a pack of A4 papers, envelopes and stamps just to use one each to send a letter as instructed,” he said.

Such frustration has resulted every time some embraced technology but others held back, with cashless payments being an example.

In Hong Kong, mobile payments rose from accounting for almost half of all e-payments in 2020 to more than three-fifths in 2022, according to official data, with younger people preferring the method. But some merchants still preferred cash.

UK-based research company Censuswide polled 51,000 consumers and businesses globally, including 1,500 in Hong Kong in January, and found that 68 per cent of shoppers in the city would leave the stores if they could not make e-payment.

“Progress is necessary for developing smart cities rather than remaining stagnant,” Pong said.

Lawmaker Johnny Ng Kit-chong said he hoped the government would improve the digital literacy of public servants, aiming not only to provide new direction for industrial development but also to effectively implement the vision of a smart city.

“The government needs to cultivate high-level, multidisciplinary digital talent among public servants, particularly focusing on enhancing convenience and efficiency for residents amid the emerging digital economy,” Ng said.

“Public servants need to at least be aware of smart initiatives even if their main duties are not related to information technology. Everyone needs to be on the same page.”


Autor(en)/Author(s): Oscar Liu

Quelle/Source: South China Morning Post, 20.06.2024

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