An aerial view of Hong Kong. Photo: iStock
An aerial view of Hong Kong. Photo: iStock

There is a resort town in southeastern France that has something in common with Hong Kong. It’s a tourist destination by the sea, visited and beloved by millions of merrymakers. But it had a problem. Its water-supply infrastructure was not as reliable as it should have been.

At an inflection point, technology came into play and helped it make things better.

The City of Antibes worked with a few technology partners to develop a system that monitored the water-distribution infrastructure through sensors, securely transmitted the mountains of data collected to a cloud platform and analyzed it using a digital innovation system that was embedded with technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning and predictive analysis. The results: breakdowns avoided, maintenance schedules optimized, and costs saved.

There is a lesson here for that lovely, vibrant city called Hong Kong to learn.

Cities worldwide are partnering with academia, global high-tech companies and local startups, utilities, transportation service providers and many other industries to revolutionize the way they deliver services, to make cities “greener, cleaner, more livable, sustainable, resilient and competitive,” as the Hong Kong government advocates in its Smart City Blueprint.

But, of course, it is easier said than done. What the government can consider at this point is to find value through innovation in three key areas: boost the ecosystem between the public and private sectors, fix the processes to break down silos, and use data to spur service efficiency.

Cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Boston, Copenhagen, Dubai, Helsinki, London, Melbourne, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich are leading the way today, according to global rankings. Other cities are being built from scratch with digital technologies embedded in their urban infrastructure.

Many are struggling to reinvent themselves, because of shrinking government budgets and limited skills due to looming retirement of many civil servants, siloed approaches to tackling problems at the departmental level with a focus on technology, and immaturity of business models. No matter what the starting point is, a lot remains to be done to realize fully the benefits of innovation and technology.

Hong Kong can be listed among the forerunners. In fact, in 2018, it ranks No 3 in the Global Financial Services Index and No 5 in the AT Kerney Global Cities Index; in 2017 it ranked No 9 in the Mori Foundation’s Global Power City Index.

Hong Kong’s decades of investment in modernization materialized in a world-leading urban transportation system that accommodates more than 12 million trips by public transport per day, the world’s busiest air-freight hub, with cargo throughput of 4.94 million tons in 2017, excellent health-care services, and one of the world’s leading financial-services hubs. However, more investment in innovation and technology could be made to ensure that Hong Kong will master all the challenges and opportunities of the next 30 years.

Hong Kong’s Smart City Blueprint tackles these heads-on. For example, it states that the city shall “consume fewer resources and make Hong Kong more environmental friendly, while maintaining its vibrancy, efficiency and livability” (Hong Kong ranks No 71 in the Mercer Quality of Living Ranking), and that it should enable business “to capitalize on Hong Kong’s renowned business-friendly environment to foster innovation, transform the city into a living lab and test bed for development” (Hong Kong ranks No 35 in the 2ThinkNow Innovation Cities Index).

For Hong Kong to realize the benefits of innovation and technology investment across the six key pillars of its Smart City BluePrint – Smart Mobility, Smart Living, Smart Environment, Smart People, Smart Government, Smart Economy – the government should go beyond point-to-point technology-centric solutions. It should drive value in three key areas.

Ecosystem innovation. The government cannot achieve the intended benefits alone. To improve the living environment, it should partner with local utilities, real-estate developers, retailers and private parking operators to build smart grids, smart lighting, smart parking, electric charging and smart waste-management solutions. And it must continue investing in collaboration with the greater bay area, such as with Shenzhen to develop the Innovation and Technology Park at Lok Ma Chau Loop for I&T enterprises, universities and research institutions.

Hong Kong should look at global best practices, such as the City of Antibes in the South of France, which  leveraged the power of collaborative partnerships with the Veolia water utility, SAP Labs leveraging the SAP Leonardo digital innovation system, and Sigfox IoT edge connectivity solutions to control its water-management system securely.

Process innovation. Incremental efficiency increases are not sufficient any more. Digital is transforming process flows. In interaction with their citizens, city governments, local utilities and transit authorities cannot rely any longer on siloed call centers, static websites and a couple of apps. They must offer an omni-channel experience that breaks down the barriers across public services silos.

For example, Hong Kong should leverage its excellence in financial services and the experience gained with its Octopus transit card to deliver on its promise of developing a next-generation “Faster Payment System (FPS) by 2018 which supports the use of mobile-phone numbers or email addresses for payments anytime and anywhere.” Such an integrated payment system should rely on a standard platform that will support use cases across multiple pillars, such as public transit, road tolling, parking, electric charging, utility billing and smart charging for solid waste.

Business-model innovation. Shortage of funding is spurring creativity to increase service personalization and efficiency. The power of the crowd will be particularly important in fields like mobility, because it could combine sensors on vehicles and infrastructure with location data collected from mobile phones to build a much richer picture of traffic, public transit and pedestrian movements to push notifications to passengers and logistic operators proactively to avoid congestion or reduce the risk of walking in polluted areas.

Equally important will be giving patients a greater say in managing their health, especially considering that the Hong Kong population aged 65 and over will account for 31% of the total by 2036.

It is important that the Hong Kong government goes beyond point-to-point technology-centric solutions. Investments in digital technologies, such as IoT, big data and analytics, mobile, cloud computing and more recently artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual reality will help cities reshape the value they deliver to their citizens and local businesses.

But Hong Kong’s technology investments must encompass intelligent applications that integrate innovative technologies like IoT and machine learning, and a next-generation data management and cloud platform that allow the open and secure sharing of data and integrate processes across the ecosystem.

Technology investment should be supported by an innovative culture and technology-savvy talent that goes beyond science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to include human-centric design competencies and approaches, such as design-thinking.

And the government should support its ecosystem of local universities, local branches of global companies and startups to invest in leading-edge technology areas, such as blockchain and homomorphic encryption that will combine data protection with personalized services for “happier, healthier, smarter and more prosperous people.”

Massimiliano Claps

Massimiliano (Max) Claps joined software company SAP's public-sector team in September 2017 to take the leadership role for the future cities, citizen engagement and postal business. He also oversees the work of the SAP Institute of Digital Government. Claps has been involved in public-sector IT for more than 16 years, previously as an analyst with IDC and Gartner, two global providers of market intelligence, advisory services, and events in the information-technology market. Before joining SAP he...