Hong Kong smart cities
Hong Kong, photo: Nic Low on Unsplash

In the world of acceleration of all things technical Hong Kong’s approach to smart cities is steady and pragmatic. And that’s a good thing

It’s undeniable that there is a lot of activity in the smart cities space, and it’s occurring at breakneck speed. What I like about Hong Kong’s approach is it’s a more pragmatic one, and it’s a reminder in the global smart cities race that pragmatism can actually be a good thing. Being pragmatic doesn’t mean not having a vision, or any imagination –it simply means we –as Hong Kong is doing –need to temper possibility with practicality.

On Hong Kong’s former airport site–Kowloon East –a new smart city, or rather, precinct, is being created by the government. The aim of the pilot area is to explore the feasibility of developing a wider smart city.

It’s a much needed step forward for Hong Kong, which has been criticised for a lack of action in the smart city space compared to other Asian cities

In the 2017 global smart cities index, Hong Kong ranked 68th trailing by a large margin – its long-time rival Singapore and other Asian cities such as Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul. The index found Hong Kong performed poorly in several areas including transport and mobility, sustainability, innovative economy, digitisation, and experts’ perception.

“China alone is in the process of developing over 500 smart cities, with investments in the trillions. Japan’s ‘Society 5.0’ initiative is about retrofitting existing, but ageing, communities with a combination of e-Government, e-Health and e-Education. So too with… Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation 2050’” (Source: South China Morning Post).

Yes, Hong Kong is slow(er) in its pursuit of becoming a smart city. Yes, it is behind the eight ball in comparison to other Asian cities. Yes, it is playing catch up. Yes, Hong Kong knows it hasn’t achieved very much in the way of smart cities. Yet.

A key ingredient in a successful smart or liveable city is designing the city as an integrated system, with coordinated planning and collaboration – from governments and transport authorities to energy and educational institutions. Although Hong Kong isn’t doing this at the scale of its neighbours, there are signs it is taking this approach, and this “slowly does it”strategy could actually be setting an example for countries that are “rushing” into rolling out smart cities on large scales, and may not be getting the foundations right from the outset.

On a trip to Hong Kong earlier this year, I observed several positives to the approach it is taking – specifically the investments made into studies to benchmark Hong Kong against other cities, the eight proof of concept trials being undertaken in the Kowloon East precinct and the way they are integrating education and collaboration into the smart city approach.

Underpinning foundations of smart cities

Taking a step back a few years, the HK government invested in a number of studies to ascertain where it sat in terms of smart cities when compared with other cities, including Barcelona, Seoul and Singapore. Some recent examples include:

  • Developing Kowloon East into a Smart District: a review on HK’s global position in smart city development, referencing international rankings, best practices in other similar overseas cities, and identify the strengths and weaknesses in HK’s direction in SC development.
  • Study for Blueprint for Developing HK into a Smart City: a desktop review on overseas experiences in smart city initiatives (including but not limited to New York, London, Singapore, Barcelona, and Mainland China)
  • Development of a Common Spatial Data Infrastructure [CSDI] for Built Environment Applications: Review of several successful smart cities and/or CSDI related built environment application systems being implemented by international cities/governments/agencies

The culmination of several years investment in studies such as these, resulted in the December 2017 release, by the Hong Kong Government, of the Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong which defines what a smart city should be, and maps out development plans for the next five years. The blueprint aims to make city management more effective and improve people’s quality of living. It also seeks to enhance Hong Kong’s attractiveness and sustainability by making use of innovation and technology.

A key part in achieving many elements presented in this plan is the success of the pilot smart precinct of Kowloon East. Since the closing of the airport in 1998, the relocation of manufacturing industries to the mainland and the increase in demand for high grade office buildings has resulted in the rapid transformation of Kowloon East. The government saw this precinct as a key element in supporting their economic and smart city development plans.

Putting ideas into practice

In 2015, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced that Kowloon East would serve as a pilot area to explore the feasibility of developing a smart city. It was to include a blue-green infrastructure as well as enhanced mobility and walkability. Also, the district was to incorporate the “internet of things” – a system of connecting and communicating between physical objects such as devices, appliances or even buildings to collect and share information.

Fast forward several years and we are now seeing innovative ideas being piloted in KE, ideas that (hopefully for Hong Kong) demonstrate how smart city solutions can improve the quality of living and be conducive to the overall development of the country.

Eight proof of concept [PoC] trials are currently being conducted across the KE precinct. The trials were selected following a public engagement process to understand the community’s needs and expectations. The eight trials are:

  1. Persona and Preference-based Way-finding for Pedestrians(Completed) – The walkable KE app suggest personalised thematic routes according to the needs and preferences of the users. It also provides a platform for the public to leave feedback on the Points of Interest. In future, this app will be integrated with the KE mobile app, to provide pedestrian positioning and navigation services with the use of indoor/outdoor navigation system
  2. Smart Crowd Management System(completed) – tested in HK Streetathon, and designed for both public and operation staff, this system improves efficiency of crowd management using CCTV and advanced video analytics to automatically detect crowd flow and identify abnormal conditions
  3. Energy Efficiency Data Management System– will see the installation of energy meters at hundreds of individual flats in the precinct. The system allows users to track real-time energy consumption, which can incentivise behavioural change and provide objective data on the effectiveness of energy saving measures
  4. Kerbside Loading/Unloading Bay Monitoring System alleviating traffic congestion caused by frequent roadside activities, through installation (and monitoring) ofon-street sensors and surveillance cameras to monitor the usage and availability of kerbside loading/unloading bays
  5. Smart Recycling Bin System using sensors for detecting the fill level of bins and estimate the fill-up time through artificial intelligence. This will optimize waste collection, alleviate the workload of frontline staff and enhance the cityscape
  6. Multi-purpose Lamp Post a multipurpose street lamp equipped with various data transmission and data collection technologies –which are important to the operation and development of a smart city
  7. Real-time Road Works Information – using global positioning system and other electronic devices to collect real-time road works information, so people can better plan their journeys
  8. Illegal Parking Monitoring System easing traffic congestion by using technology to detect illegal parking across the city

While it’s clear HK is drawing upon experiences elsewhere across the globe (see Melbourne’s latest smart city initiatives, such as parking information available via an open data platform), the eight PoC trials are a positive sign and are just the beginning for the city. However, in taking this “baby step” approach, many hurdles remain to be overcome if these ideas seen in KE are to be implemented more widely.

Assuming there is success for these pilots, how can they be extended more widely into the “real” Hong Kong? Do they extend just one or two, or do they wait until they get all eight, right? The reality in Australia is that smart city initiatives are largely confined to the City of Melbourne area or City of Sydney area, as opposed to an entire city or state. So, this is certainly a challenge for Hong Kong in its race to catch up in the smart city race.

Also, how will they be made relevant to the ordinary Hong Kong citizen? Another challenge in the transformation of Hong Kong into a smart city is how to get buy-in from the people. When you think of the ordinary people living in HK, maybe not the tech savvy, not those interested in smart cities – do they care? Is it relevant? Will it impact them atall? What’s in it for the average citizen of HK?

One key strategy to achieve this buy in, is by creating a smart workforce – through the education sector. This aspect of smart cities is a key piece of the smart cities jigsaw puzzle and one which isn’t thought about or talked about enough in terms of its importance, prominence or impact long term on smart cities.

Education, the missing jigsaw piece

A successful smart city requires a smart workforce, highly skilled in science and technology. In the context of developing a resident workforce that has the capability to take a country where it needs to go, it’s vital to be developing those skills.

In many countries around the world, when it comes to education – students aren’t coming out of school or university with the necessary technology skills that are needed to be heading towards a smart city/smart business environment. Until mums and dads understand the importance of an education for their children that will equip them for this new space, we won’t see any real change.

In Hong Kong, there are changes occurring in schools and universities that bring smart city thinking into education.

At school level, STEM education has been identified as being integral to achieving the skilled workforce needed to sustain and grow a smart city and are tailoring the curriculum accordingly.

While at university level, most universities (at overarching level, faculty/department) are involved in smart city related research or activities including Great Smart City (HKUST), Research Institute for Sustainable Urban Development (PolyU) Smart City division , CityU 2020 Strategic Plan on One Health, Digital Society and Smart City, CUHK dining recommendations system and HKU smart city course and events such as ‘Planning strategies for developing Hong Kong as a smart city’.

It’s widely accepted that tomorrow’s cities need to be smart. They need to be designed with people at their heart, they must be “greener, cleaner, more liveable, sustainable, resilient and competitive,” as the Hong Kong government advocates in its Smart City Blueprint.

It’s undeniable that there is a lot of activity in the smart cities space, and it’s occurring at breakneck speed. What I like about Hong Kong’s approach is it’s a more pragmatic one, and it’s a reminder in the global smart cities race that pragmatism can actually be a good thing. Being pragmatic doesn’t mean not having a vision, or any imagination –it simply means we –as Hong Kong is doing –need to temper possibility with practicality.

David Singleton AM is chairman of Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia and chairman of Swinburne University’s Smart Cities Research Institute Advisory Board.

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  1. A much appreciated insight into pragmatic steps forward, thank you David! With the incentives and stretch goals before us, ‘step by step’ is the daily reality for progress. Particularly like your emphasis on the (urgent) need to build capacity amongst the current and future workforce to move forward – leadership rhetoric about smart cities and precedents is a fabulous motivator, with knowledge and skills being critical pre-requisites for action.