Smarter Digital City 2.0: Now is the best time for Hong Kong’s Smart City aspirations

Cities around the APAC region — and the world — are vying to become Smart Cities. Hong Kong is no different. However, many Hong Kongers see the city as slow to the call and facing a myriad of challenges. Leonie Valentine, managing director of sales and operations at Google Hong Kong, thinks differently. In this interview, Valentine sits down with the Think with Google APAC editorial team to share her thoughts on the city’s strengths, what challenges are holding it back, and the short window of opportunity for Hong Kong to accelerate its digitization to become a Smarter Digital City.


You’ve worked at some of the biggest “smart” companies across the region, ranging from telecommunications to oil and gas and now technology. From your vantage point, what is a Smart City?

Valentine: It is important to remember that technologies don’t make cities “smart”; people do. Cities formed because people desired to live, work, and trade with each other. So, for the concept to work, it needs to start with the community and the applications that citizens want in their everyday lives.

Every city has a unique Smart City journey. What do you think Hong Kong’s Smart City journey will look like, and what will be its unique value proposition compared to other Smart Cities?

Valentine: Hong Kong is in a great position to accelerate its digital transformation. For one, not many cities have the necessary infrastructure to drive massive digital transformation in a short period of time.

Where you find true creativity is when you get outside the “box” and start connecting the “boxes,” allowing you to apply what you learn from one industry to another. To enable out-of-the-box thinking, the education system in Hong Kong needs to radically change. It needs to encourage creativity, design thinking, and failure tolerance.

Secondly, Hong Kong’s logistics capabilities are world-renowned. We are an automated port city that facilitates efficient import and export. This provides a great starting point for a lot of businesses and startups.

Thirdly, the technology uptake by both the 35–44 and 55–64 year-olds is improving dramatically. From the Smarter Digital City Whitepaper, I am encouraged to see an increase in citizens aged 55 and above taking up new technology and becoming more digitally connected. This offers an exciting opportunity for marketers and developers to create unique content and solutions for this growing segment.

Lastly, it is relatively easy to become a digitally engaged citizen as the barriers to entry are low. Hong Kong’s internet access and smart devices are both affordable and ubiquitous. But Hong Kong residents have yet to truly integrate digital into their daily lives; they remain tied to traditional methods of paying for goods and services (i.e. cash and cards) and are slow to adopt online services such as e-commerce and online banking.

You once said that Hong Kong “is a city fueled by creativity and innovation.” After seven years in Hong Kong, do you still feel the same?

Valentine: Yes, to a certain extent. Where you find true creativity is when you get outside the “box” and start connecting the “boxes,” allowing you to apply what you learn from one industry to another. To enable out-of-the-box thinking, the education system in Hong Kong needs to radically change. It needs to encourage creativity, design thinking, and failure tolerance.

A big problem is the increasing digital divide between the haves and have-nots in Hong Kong, especially where schools are concerned. If you are in a neighborhood with a school of a lower band, the teachers might not have the right equipment or skills to drive digital education.

Google is helping address this divide in various ways. For example, we supported Kids4Kids in Hong Kong this year by bringing in computers, forming mobile classes, and teaching underprivileged kids coding. I believe there’s much more that can be done with assistance from the government and from our corporate partners.

What challenges or hurdles would you say are holding Hong Kong back?

Valentine: Part of the problem is an institutionalized mindset where many in Hong Kong feel that they do not have to innovate and keep pace with change. We are comfortable with the status quo. That is because Hong Kong has been relatively prosperous for some time now, especially compared to its neighbors.

This mindset extends from corporations to parents. We need to rethink the way we educate the next generation, operate a business, and live with the smart use of technology. The Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons research showed that parents did not actively encourage their children to be entrepreneurs or pursue professions outside of medicine, law, or finance.

[We need to be] digitally engaged, curious, and creative with the uses of technology. If we genuinely want Hong Kong to be a place for future generations to live and prosper, we need to really embrace this concept of a Smart City.

Hong Kong is trying to change this mindset; we’ve seen a lot of startups and entrepreneurial programs launch over the last few years. Business schools and universities are doing a good job at preparing graduates for success in business, and a lot of the young who return from their overseas studies are becoming entrepreneurs, inspired by what is possible elsewhere in the world. What I would like to see over time is more opportunities for local residents to be a part of this change, especially those who do not have the means to be educated overseas.

What’s the individual’s role in all of this?

Valentine: Be digitally engaged, curious, and creative with the uses of technology. If we genuinely want Hong Kong to be a place for future generations to live and prosper, we need to really embrace this concept of a Smart City. But if we really want to be a smarter city, we have a great opportunity to use the infrastructure, digital tools, and technologies here to create apps our residents want — and we have to do it quickly. Lalamove and GoGoVan are fantastic examples of how Hong Kongers looked at existing problems differently to create an amazing tool that can apply to everyone.

Hong Kong also needs to nurture the drive and desire to collaborate. Creativity and innovation are very closely linked with a collaboration mindset, and collaborative leadership is one of the real in-demand skills for the 21st century.

What takeaways should delegates be looking out for at the Google for Hong Kong event?

Valentine: How the economy, ecosystems, and education — what we call the “3 Es” — are all essential to a Smart City.

Yes, we all need to be better educated, but we also need to attract and develop more talent, especially in areas like analytics; we need primary and secondary schools to drive coding, design, and conceptual thinking for the workforce demands of the future; and we need to develop training programs that help citizens embrace change.

The Hong Kong government has an opportunity to lead by example. It can start by digitizing its most commonly used services, promoting adoption of these new digital services to citizens and business owners, and then using its success as a showcase for how to build Smart City e-services for 2020 and beyond.

Regarding the economy, we need to drive small businesses to be more digitally engaged. At the top end of the business spectrum, companies are doing quite well in technology adoption, digital research, and realizing the benefits of initiatives like the Greater Bay Area. But we need to do more to share their learnings with local conglomerates and small and medium-sized businesses so that we can accelerate digital transformation across the entire business landscape.

Hong Kong also needs to create a healthy ecosystem. We need to maintain our free and open internet while pushing for greater data sharing. The Hong Kong government has an opportunity to lead by example. It can start by digitizing its most commonly used services, promoting adoption of these new digital services to citizens and business owners, and then using its success as a showcase for how to build Smart City e-services for 2020 and beyond.

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