There’s a lot of hype about building smart cities today. It’s discussed so much in technology circles that some might wonder if their city is dumb if doesn’t have Wi-Fi in public street lights and autonomous cars whizzing down the streets. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam grappled with this last week at the American Chamber of Commerce’s Smart City Summit 2018. She was not alone in her sentiments about Hong Kong’s smart city status, which were echoed throughout the day: The city is behind but rapidly making progress.
Early in the forum, Carrie Lam sat down for a conversation with Sophia, the robot from Hong Kong’s own Hanson Robotics. In 2017, Saudi Arabia granted Sophia citizenship, making her the first robot to ever receive citizenship in any country. Sophia made it clear in her conversation that she considers herself a Hongkonger, though. Flattery will get you everywhere.
Though Sophia’s answers to Lam’s questions were not very illuminating, the exchange did serve to highlight the path Lam and others want to pave for Hong Kong. Artificial intelligence has a pivotal role to play in building smart cities. Much of what people do online these days is guided by smart data-crunching to give consumers optimal suggestions. Citizens will come to expect this level of intelligence in their everyday lives as Internet of Things technology becomes more ubiquitous in public.
A city like Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy and dense population has a lot to gain from certain IoT upgrades. Proposals at the forum were wide-ranging, and it wasn’t lost on participants that Hong Kong has a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps in some ways, the population density has hindered progress.
E-commerce, for example, is a relatively low proportion of overall retail sales in the city. In 2016, it was about 3 percent for Hong Kong but 10 percent in North America and a whopping 17 percent in Mainland China, according to Euromonitor International. Given all the advancements made in Mainland China, Hong Kong looks even further behind by comparison.
This doesn’t diminish Hong Kong’s importance, of course. It’s an important hub for China in other ways. For residents of Hong Kong, though, a lot more can be done to make life easier.
One of the easiest things for Hong Kong to achieve is making public Wi-Fi more accessible. Some cities have started turning street lights into Wi-Fi access points. Hong Kong already has Wi-Fi networks that are accessible in much of the city such as the one from local telecom service provider CSL, but more can be done to make these networks easier to use.
Other suggested upgrades require more government involvement. Electronic health records need improvement but require a sensitive touch because of privacy concerns. Tech giants like Apple, which recently made a push to give consumers greater access to their own digital health records, have long been trying to get a piece of this market.
Wearables makers like Fitbit also have a lot to gain from the digitization of health records. If a wearable is able to combine device data with other user medical data, wearables could suddenly become much more useful.
More collaboration between ride-sharing companies and governments could also be a way to provide a more seamless transportation experience. For residents of a congested city, it might make more sense to jump from an Uber to the metro or a bus and then even to a ride-share bike. Having information centralized in one place would make it easier to plan and pay for such trips. It could also cut down on the need for parking in a city with the most expensive parking spots in the world.
Utilities are another area that have gotten stale and are in need of an upgrade. Rick Truscott, Chief Operations Officer at CLP Power Hong Kong, told the forum audience it’s good in his industry to be boring, by which he meant predictable and reliable.
Utilities certainly have to be reliable, which is why they’re highly regulated. They could still undergo major innovations in data availability and pricing, though. Truscott suggested consumers should have more access to their own energy consumption levels and be able to easily compare it to similar residences. Companies also want access to this data, but more up-to-date information on energy consumption could also increase the reliability of electricity by cutting down on outages.
Then there’s the FinTech, which we’ve discussed on this blog before. Fortunately for Hong Kong, the city does have one advantage in this area over Mainland China, which is its access to the rest of the world.
Regardless of what gains Hong Kong makes on the policy front, the city is already getting smarter. Since it remains an important financial hub for Asia and a gateway in and out of China, the city’s startups ecosystem in the city has been growing. As Carrie Lam said, Hong Kong already has three unicorns, although she was counting the now-Shenzhen-based DJI among them. That access to Mainland China is feature, not a bug, though. If Hong Kong becomes the smart city that forum participants imagine it can be, then it’ll be an even bigger draw than it is today.
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