GBA can play pivotal role in advancing national innovation

Can China innovate? This was the question posed a decade ago, and the conventional wisdom was that China was good at making things, but it was better at copying and making small improvements than it was at “innovating”.

The capacity to innovate was seen through the lens of whether Chinese companies could reach high market valuations. Now that a not-insignificant batch of Chinese companies have done so, the question has changed: How does China innovate, and what plans does it have to keep pushing forward?

An important part of the answer has to do with people. The transformation that the Chinese have experienced over the past three decades required them to adapt.

This experiential-transformational experience is an asset. Chinese producers must think outside the box, and consumers are extremely demanding. The Chinese entrepreneurs live on the edge; outperforming their Western counterparts in sheer hard work, as noted by tech venture investor Kai-fu Lee.

There is also a policy ecosystem in China that enables fast adoption that its people take on like a duck to water. Just witness the speed with which the Chinese adopted mobile payments in every aspect of their daily lives.

China has a force of 1 billion people who are digitally savvy, an entrepreneurial class that works feverishly to keep up, and a hyper-aware government that must provide the investments and regulatory environment for innovation to flourish.

It is this combination that has made China an awesome tech-cum-innovation global force.

China’s innovation policy includes a vision for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. The idea arose back in 2008 when Chinese planners first outlined a draft development plan to bring Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao closer together, as the Pearl River Delta counties and the two special administrative regions each had unique capabilities. 

Since then, many connections have deepened, the most visible being a transport infrastructure that enables speedy and convenient travel within the region. Several of Hong Kong’s highly ranked universities have also opened campuses across the boundary — a sign that the GBA can be a higher-education hub.

The draft plan morphed into a blueprint in 2019; and the nation’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) spells out details of the GBA becoming a thriving mega urban region, led by higher-value innovation.

Policymakers must break through the mind barrier that “privacy” is preventing them from regulating what information needs to be released and in what form for Hong Kong to achieve declared policy goals, such as to become a smart and green city

To play its part in this vision, Hong Kong needs to adjust how it sees innovation and technology (I&T). Policymakers and businesses have tended to look at I&T from the perspective of the internet and the associated big data and artificial intelligence. 

They have yet to rethink what they need to do to require the private sector to release data and information to enable Hong Kong to truly be a part of the digital revolution that is taking place on the Chinese mainland.

Policymakers must break through the mind barrier that “privacy” is preventing them from regulating what information needs to be released and in what form for Hong Kong to achieve declared policy goals, such as to become a smart and green city.

First, every government department should have a chief data officer who can comb through treasure troves of data and have them compiled in ways that people can access and use. What is not being collected but is material to better policymaking and/or for the public must be collected and released.

Sorting out data takes time, patience and effort, but the government can afford to hire large groups of people to do so since much of the success of its policies going forward depends on whether the data is available and useably compiled.

Second, policymakers from different parts of the government need to truly work together; they must achieve multiple outcomes concurrently. This requires leaving behind the current silo mindset and administrative structures and adopting a new multidisciplinary-cum-cooperative attitude.

This is easier said than done as bureaucracies everywhere tend to ossify into comfort zones with vested interests against change. With a new administration having just taken power, Hong Kong can start anew — and it will find there is public support for change.

Third, policymakers and administrators must work closely with the private sector and the community. Government officials were concerned about allegations of collusion and “black box” politics. This problem can be resolved through good communication and transparency.

Fourth, the public sector has resources to throw at I&T. Departments need to work hand-in-glove to achieve value for money and successful outcomes.

For example, the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau should ensure its priorities cover green and climate tech, which can assist the country reach its carbon-peak goal in 2030 and neutrality goal in 2060, as well as Hong Kong’s own carbon-neutrality goal in 2050.

The Environment and Ecology Bureau, as well as the Transport and Logistics Bureau, need to become more data- and tech-savvy to ensure they have the depth of data to make better policies, as well as provide data to the public for private-sector innovation, such as in energy management in buildings.

The Financial Services and Treasury Bureau has an interest in other bureaus playing their part on data and pursuing I&T because the global financial industry’s transition to directing money to zero-carbon investments depends on the availability and integrity of data.

With Hong Kong doing a good job in these areas, it will be able to integrate with industries on the mainland to help solve national challenges, as well as be a potent international player, thereby assuring its leadership role in the GBA and beyond.

The author is chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a board member of CDP Worldwide, London.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.