We live in the era of speed and we tend to rush everything that is technology related. But when it comes to creating a smart city, Hong Kong is taking the pragmatic approach, and some say this is the right one. A lot of authorities are developing smart cities fast. Hong Kong is taking a slower route, more pragmatic, which might end up being the right one. Of course, being pragmatic doesn’t mean that you don’t need creativity or a vision, but tempering your imagination with practicality.

Hong Kong has been criticized for not adopting this type of infrastructure as fast as other major cities in Asia. In 2017 the city ranked 68th in the global smart cities index, much further down the list than Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul. The ranking took into consideration transport and mobility, sustainability, innovative economy, digitisation, and experts’ perception, fields in which Hong Kong has performed poorly.

Japan has Society 5.0, Singapore has Smart Nation and China is in the process of developing 500 smart cities. For sure, Hong Kong has missed the start for the status of smart city, in comparison to its neighbors, but it is trying to catch up.

A key ingredient is developing a footprint that integrates all services from the beginning, from transportation to education. Even though Hong Kong isn’t taking the same approach as its neighbors, the slower development might serve as an example for other countries who are trying to implement these technologies.

You can already see proof of development in Kowloon East, with the way the educational system is coordinated with the smart city approach.

Laying the foundation for the smart cities

The Hong Kong government invested in studies to evaluate the current infrastructure in comparison with other cities, such as Barcelona, Seoul and Singapore and how to implement newer technologies. Here are some of the studies that must be mentioned.

Developing Kowloon East into a Smart District: Referencing different countries to Hong King’s position when it comes to smart city development, the study identifies the strengths and the weaknesses in city’s approach to implementing smart technologies.

Study for Blueprint for developing HK into a Smart City: A review of the struggles other cities have met when developing smart environments.

Development of a Common Spatial Data Infrastructure [CSDI] for Built Environment Applications: A study of successful projects which were implemented by other governments.

After several years of studies, the Hong Kong Government released on December 2017, a Smart City Blueprint for the city which maps out the development plans for the next five years, while defining what a smart city should be. The blueprint is a guide to help management be more effective and improve citizens’ lifestyle. Also, it aims at increasing Hong Kong’s sustainability and attraction with the help if innovative technology.

Kowloon East was a pilot for this project. After shutting down the airport in 1998 and moving manufacturers and office buildings to the mainland, the precinct had a rapid transformation. Now Kowloon East is an example of great development for a smart city.

From idea to reality

In 2015, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced that Kowloon East would be the first place where a smart city would be developed, thus serving as a pilot for a national project. The precinct would offer enhanced mobility and walkability, blue-green infrastructure and it would incorporate the internet of things, the system which gives the opportunity to connect with institutions and share information.

Some years later, after the ideas were applied to Kowloon East, the pilot shows that smart solutions can improve the quality of life and also serve as an improving point for the country. Eight proof of concept [PoC] trials are followed and researched in the Kowloon East precinct. They follow the way the project meets community’s needs and expectations. Here are the eight trials:

Persona and Preference-based Way-finding for Pedestrians (Completed) – The walkable KE app gives each user a personalized route that takes into consideration the person’s preferences. One can also give feedback for the Points of Interest. In the future, this app will be integrated with the KE mobile app.

Smart Crowd Management System – The system is designed for personal and institutional use as it detects crowed flow and identifies abnormal conditions.

Energy Efficiency Data Management System – Energy meters will be installed for flats, so users can track real-time energy consumption. The objective is to change the behavior of people towards a more saving-conscious one.

Kerbside Loading/Unloading Bay Monitoring System – signals roadside activities in order to decongest the traffic. It also shows available loading/unloading bays, as it monitors their usage.

Smart Recycling Bin System – Sensors will detect the level of fullness and through artificial intelligence will estimate when it will be full. Therefore, waste collection will be improved, as will the cityscape.

Multi-purpose Lamp Post – Street lamps with data transmission and data collection technologies will be installed.

Real-time Road Works Information – Real time road works will be notified to users. The system is great for travel planning.

Illegal Parking Monitoring System – Detecting illegal parking across the city will decongest the traffic.

Even though Kowloon East seeks inspiration in other experiences from around the worlds, like the Melbourne’s smart city initiatives, one cannot deny that the eight PoC trials are the right way to start a sustainable development. But the slow approach is not proven to be as successful as the KE trial.

Yes, the pilot was successful, but if they can reach the same level of success when the project will be implemented, nobody knows. Will they extend only some of the PoC or all eight of them at once? In Australia only the Melbourne and Sydney are considered smart cities, not the entire state. The approach to extending the project will be challenge for Hong Kong authorities, for sure.

Another perspective that should be taken into consideration is how citizens will embrace the smart cities. For some people, not tech savvy, these changes might not be as relevant as for the young middle class, who uses technology in day to day life.

The key to attracting people using this technology is creating a smart workforce. It is not talked about enough: education is a key element in creating smart cities.

Education is important

An educated workforce is essential to the development of a smart city. So for a country to change the infrastructure this way, it must invest in developing technological skills of the population. In some countries, students are learning how to use technology to their advantage, and until parents understand this need, we won’t feel the need to change.

But Hong Kong foresaw this challenge and the educational system brought smart city thinking into schools, for people of all ages. At primary school and high school level, children learn how to become part and flourish in a smart city. Meanwhile, in universities, students can research smart cities, which is a great way to prepare them to improve the smart city system.

Everybody agrees that tomorrow’s cities need to be smart, “greener, cleaner, more liveable, sustainable, resilient and competitive,” as the Hong Kong government states in the Smart City Blueprint. There are cities that begun to implement changes, there are cities which are still waiting for a smart city plan, but the change is imminent. Hong Kong didn’t force the change, but rather took a more pragmatic approach, took its time to research the matter and implement more technologies at once, in order to meet all the needs to its citizens.