When the Octopus card was introduced to Hong Kong 22 years ago, it quietly revolutionized transportation in the city. Surviving predictions that big banks would kill it through competition, the card is now ubiquitous, used for payments in grocery chains, convenience stores, parking garages, the Star Ferry, the city’s double-decker trams, and even the occasional taxi. It is also a concept emulated by London and other cities.
It certainly made the city “smarter” and easier to navigate, both quicker and with a lot less spare change in your pocket. But what steps can a city such as Hong Kong take now to ensure it remains relevant in another two decades’ time? The collective minds on the panel “A Connected Community: Future-Proofing the City” took on that thorny issue during the Urban Land Institute’s 2019 conference in Hong Kong.
Fortunately, the father of the Octopus system, Paul Chan, was on hand to provide his answer. Having spent 40 years at the city’s subway operator, the MTR Corp., Chan continues to advise transportation networks with his advisory firm, Smart Ticketing Consultants Co.
Chan points to the way that mobile payments are so widespread and well used in China as the way forward. He pointed out with a laugh that he was unable to pay for a 75-yuan lunch with a 100-yuan note in Shenzhen recently because the restaurant had no change. Pay by mobile or pay 100 yuan, the counter staff said. Faster telecommunications networks will aid that advance, with Chan estimating that we are now at “4.5G” in terms of infrastructure and use.
“The coming future will be more open-system, involving big data, artificial intelligence—these will be the trends,” Chan said. Credit-card companies—Octopus, AliPay, and so on—will have to open to each other, he feels.
Chan has been consulting on fare-collection systems in China. The railways and buses are keen to use artificial intelligence and facial-recognition software to identify passengers as they pass through the gate into the transport system.
“Why have the Octopus? Why have mobile?” he asks. “Just walk through the gate and you’re paying for it, with your credit card paying every month.”
He concedes that this kind of imagining, while practically possible, raises issues regarding data privacy, security, and individual rights. “It will be a very challenging future, but I hope we’ll have more innovation in it,” he says.
The reality, like the concept, of the “smart city” is always changing. There have already been three generations of thought, according to Alex Katsanos, who helps cities design master plans.
The first vision of a smart city around a decade ago was that it should incorporate “all the gadgets that we have to improve people’s lives,” Katsanos, the head of business advisory for Hong Kong and Macau at Arcadis, explained. “Throw in all the sensors.”
There are new sections of some cities where that happened that are still not occupied. The demand wasn’t there. Around five years ago, the thinking shifted that there should be a business case for building a city in a certain way, to appeal to specific demographics, whether it’s students, families, elderly people—you name it.
“That kind of works,” Katsanos said. He feels Toronto and Singapore are both doing that successfully, and even progressing to “third-generation” thinking.
The current third concept of “smart” treats people, constituencies, and demographic groups almost as biological entities. They are all “cells” dwelling within a smart-city organism, things we can adapt to and learn from.
Toronto, for instance, has crowdsourced all the pictures taken of its waterfront that are in the public domain and used them to generate a Geographic Information System interactive map of the area. “We are learning as people’s changing habits feed into smart cities, and how they interact with us.”
This line of thinking appeals to Francis Ngai, the founder and CEO of the social-innovation incubator Social Ventures Hong Kong. He said that too much emphasis has been placed on the “what” and “how” elements of building smart cities, and not enough emphasis on the “why.”
He would like to see smart cities become more inclusive of, for instance, disabled people. Social Ventures has also developed co-living apartments for needy families, intended to house them for three years. The bulk of families leave within two, having gotten better jobs and found better places to live.
Ngai has set up a coworking factory in Kwai Chung that is designed to bring small-scale manufacturing back to a city that lost such industries in the 1980s and 1990s, after China opened up. This would allow people making goods for sale in Hong Kong to make them locally. It could also allow women to work in a way where they can set their own hours. He estimates that 50 percent of women in the city are unemployed, having gotten off the career track to have children and then found it hard to get back on.
Hong Kong has lost some of its spirit of innovation, the panelists agreed. That seems to have come with having produced a developed economy. It is highly likely that Mainland China, with its supercharged rate of growth, will develop many more smart-city innovations than Hong Kong.
But Hong Kong can then implement them the right way, Piers Brunner, the CEO for Greater China at the commercial brokerage Knight Frank, pointed out.
“Being an adopter of technology is not bad,” Brunner said. However, he feels that property developers in the city can get lazy because they find it easy to lease out commercial space or sell apartments, given the tiny supply and strong demand.
A few buildings in Hong Kong have already installed smart management systems to monitor their operations. “It’s the bane of my existence that they’re not being used properly,” he lamented.
Katsanos wholeheartedly agreed. “Developers don’t see an incentive to move to a revolutionary space. They can already lease out what they’ve got. The tenants and demand are there.” He feels that governmental entities, and the designers of sites such as science parks or whole neighborhoods, are better suited to push the full-scale implementation of smart systems.
Ngai reminded those in attendance that technology is just a tool. When evaluating what’s smart and what’s not, he would like to see measures other than mere efficiency and profit come into play. “Happiness index” results and satisfaction need to be assessed, too.
Technological devices are highly useful, but are also making our lives more disconnected, he feels. The truly smart city would deploy devices and technology in a way that builds better, happier neighborhoods of physical property and people, that brings people together rather than casting them apart.