Building a smart city for Hong Kong - in which way engineering is taking part?
By Hong Kong Economic Times

The idea of the smart city has picked up steam in recent years. With the dual impetus of the continuous development of society and urbanisation, cities will need to house more and more people in the future. The world's urban population is expected to surpass 6 billion by 2045, and the United Nations projects that 68% of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase to be concentrated in Asia and Africa.

Adopting technologies such as radio frequency identification, the internet of things, cloud computing and next generation telecommunications, the smart city is regarded as an effective way to solve urban problems and realise sustainable development. These technologies not only help to better allocate resources, but also to manage the city in more sophisticated and creative ways, which will ultimately lead to less waste, less pollution, fewer traffic jams and a safer society.

Benefiting from cutting-edge technologies, the development of a smart city promotes the advancement of a wide range of areas including healthcare, transport, logistics, finance, education, energy and environmental protection, making it of vital importance in terms of raising a city's competitiveness.

Back in 2008, IBM proposed the concept of a smart city with the aim of figuring out ways to improve cities' functions, promote a talent-based economy and improve the living quality of the masses. Today, there are over 1,000 smart city projects that are completed or under construction worldwide, according to global audit and advisory firm Deloitte. Countries neighbouring Hong Kong, such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan, have already long followed this trend and are taking the lead in the region, by leveraging technologies such as the artificial intelligence and 5G networks. Total investment in smart city technology is expected to grow to US$158 billion in 2022, according to a report by the International Data Corporation.

The HKSAR Government has announced its ambition to develop the metropolis into a smart city since 2014. At the end of 2017, the concept of smart city finally became more substantialised with the release of the Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint, which draws an outline for development over the next five years. With an allocation of HK$500 million, the plan aims to enhance the effectiveness of city management, improve people's quality of living and Hong Kong's attractiveness and sustainability by making use of innovation and technology. The strategies and initiatives mainly fall into six areas including smart mobility, smart living, smart environment, smart people, smart government and smart economy. The idea was reiterated by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during the new Policy Address in October. An additional HK$50 billion was also set aside early last year to especially support information and technology development for the financial year in a number of areas including smart cities.

Current status
To cope with the government blueprint, great efforts have been rolled out by both the public and the private sectors. As an Asian world-class city, Hong Kong is in tune with global trends in its network infrastructure, and information and communications technology application. Hong Kong's internet economy is experiencing rapid growth, with a contribution of 5.9% to its overall gross domestic product (GDP), according to a research report on smart cities by the Central Policy Unit in 2015, citing a 2011 report by Google and the Boston Consulting Group of the US. The report said rapid development in e-commerce, online consumption and mobile communications have been seen in Hong Kong, and the city has become one of the world's leading digital cities, thanks to the exports from the PRC. In 2013, the city was named by Forbes as one of the world's top tech capitals to watch out for after Silicon Valley and New York. In the same year, urban and climate strategist Boyd Cohen ranked Hong Kong fourth among the ten smartest Asia Pacific cities, with Cohen stating in his remarks that Hong Kong scored the highest in the ranking for smart mobility because of the prevalence of public transport and the ubiquitous use of electronic payments.

Speaking at the smart city press conference, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang stated that the government will provide an eID (electronic identity) to citizens, install 400 smart lampposts equipped with sensors, data networks and related digital facilities, revamp its cloud infrastructure platform, as well as build a new government big data analytics platform to enhance operation efficiency and e-government services.

In another forum on smart cities in June, David W K Chung, Under Secretary for Innovation and Technology, revealed that Hong Kong had more than 270 smart city projects, in areas such as sustainable development, green technology, machine learning and healthcare. More than HK$450 million in subsidies were provided by the government to these projects.

In November 2018, the Google Cloud Platform launched its service in Hong Kong, making Hong Kong the sixth region to be covered by this platform in the Asia Pacific, after Mambai, Sydney, Singapore, Taiwan and Tokyo. Consisting of three separate data centre zones, the platform allows developers and web administrators to allocate storage space and applications to different geographic zones to protect against service disruptions, while providing more flexibility for enterprises in managing and storing huge data from applications.

Though Hong Kong appears well-positioned to be a future digital leader, the IT usage of the city's business owners is still low and many of them does not even have a web presence, said Leonie Valentine, Managing Director of Sales and Operations at Google Hong Kong.

Commissioned by Google, the independent market research company Ipsos carried out in-depth interviews as well as multiple polls, including some targeting businessmen and one focusing on more than 1,500 consumers from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The report revealed that only 30% of local residents and corporations regarded Hong Kong as a smart city, ranking it third behind Tokyo and Singapore. In another report by Intel, Hong Kong was left out of its top 20 global smart cities, while Singapore took the first place in all four indices, including mobility, health, safety and productivity.

With a population of 7.3 million and a GDP per capita of over US$43,500 per year, Hong Kong, as was mentioned above, is expected to be at the forefront of the digital revolution and rise of the smart city. However, Hong Kong is still miles behind other digital cities around the world in terms of digital transformation. Though 81% of its population is connected to the internet, Hong Kong only ranked fourth among 11 Asian markets in digital transformation and third among its regional peers in smart city attributes, according to a 2016 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. More work needs to be done if the city wants to take the lead among its peers.

The importance of engineers
"The building of a smart city requires commitment from the government, but at the same time, the engineering industry plays an important role in it. This is why the Financial Secretary Paul M P Chan proposed allocating HK$1 billion for a Construction Innovation and Technology Fund in the Budget Speech to help the industry embrace innovative technology, including the small and medium enterprises (SMEs)", Secretary for Development Michael W L Wong told attendees in the Opening Ceremony of the HKIE's "Smart Tomorrow, Engineers' Motto" Programme on 7 April 2018, as quoted by Wen Wei Po. The Construction Innovation and Technology Fund has been officially opened for application since October 2018, and provides subsidies for both the acquisition of hardware equipment and skill training.

Globally, Hong Kong takes the leading position in infrastructure and building techniques, but the potential is still huge in terms of applying innovative technology. Engineers should use their professional skills to show how building and construction projects can be managed in a more sustainable way in the digital world. In a recent blog, Secretary Chan said thousands of qualified construction companies or advisory firms, especially SMEs, could submit applications for related subsidies, including for buying and adopting building information modelling (BIM), modular-integrated construction (MiC), prefabricated building parts, automated machinery and other devices or technologies. The subsidy can be as high as 75%, if the new product is invented locally. To lead the trend, Secretary Chan said the government would require its departments to use more prefabricated building parts and make it mandatory for public projects of over HK$30 million to adopt BIM. One recent example is the Disciplined Services Quarters for the Fire Services Department at Pak Shing Kok, Tseung Kwan O, which adopts MiC and the concept of "factory assembly followed by on-site installation". By doing so, most of the labour-intensive and time-consuming processes could be accomplished in an off-site prefabrication yard with a view to enhance productivity by minimising the duration of work and demand for construction workers. Meanwhile, MiC can also help enhance safety and quality control and is more environmental-friendly.

Another case in point is the adoption of BIM, a key technology in the construction of smart city. The ultimate goal of BIM is to improve the quality of building management by effective three-dimensional data generated throughout the project's life cycle. It can also provide simulations for planning, designing, coordinating and integration, with an aim to achieve smooth implementation when the actual construction starts. The advancement of BIM will continue to make contributions in building a smart city and civil engineers will be able to lead the way.

Smart cities are more than just concrete, steel or hardware facilities. The concept of a smart city is incomplete without the integration of smart software. While construction engineers can help manage the actual buildings and transport systems, software engineers can help make the blueprint become a reality as some existing facilities might just need that final touch to become "smart". Even just applying sensors to everyday items will make the process of software development more sophisticated. For example, if a one-for-all remote control is designed for all the appliances in a home, developers will need to build different application programme interfaces to communicate with the different machines. This is just a single need for one house, let alone that this function might need to be expanded to buildings for thousands of people and cities full of skyscrapers and complex transport systems.

Like it or not, modern engineers are being tasked with solving ever more complex and societal challenges, including climate change and urbanisation. The implementation of smart city also requires the participation of engineering professionals. To convey this message to the public and nurture future engineering talent, in April 2018, the HKIE has launched a programme themed "Smart Tomorrow, Engineers' Motto" to showcase a series of smart inventions, demonstrating to the public how engineers can contribute to the development of a smart city. The programme also provided a valuable opportunity for the public to learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and arouse their interest in engineering.

Benefit for citizens
The ultimate goal of building a smart city is to achieve sustainable development and improve the living standard of citizens. A local example related to people's daily lives is the Hong Kong government's setting up of a geographical information system to identify hotspots where health resources can be used more efficiently. The system has shown great advantage in monitoring and dealing with dengue fever disease.

Looking globally, and taking Brazil as an example, after the landslide tragedy in 2010, the city of Rio De Janeiro has been heavily investing in information and communication technology to better manage the city and safeguard its citizens under the umbrella of its Smart City Plan. Among the smart services offered are monitoring and operation by the city's operations centre, Centro de Operações Preifetura do Rio de Janeiro (COR), which enhances integration among over 50 government agencies and collects real-time data on areas ranging from transport and weather, to electricity through sensors, satellites, video systems and a global positioning system. The data collection is beneficial for traffic management, since the computerised control of traffic lights can help manage the traffic flow near areas where there is a car accident or heavy traffic. Effective navigation service can also be provided for ambulances if needed. In addition to solving traffic issues, the city can use data collected from sensors to check if garbage has been removed in a timely manner, and to send extreme weather alerts through social media platforms and mobile phone messages.

The PRC is among the top in the world in terms of municipal waste generation due to a lack of waste disposal technology, according to a report by Deloitte. The country was also ranked the second worst in the world in terms of air quality, with most of its areas exceeding the safe particulate matter level of 2.5, citing data from Yale University. With an aim to achieve quality and sustainable development, the PRC has launched a smart city development plan since 2010, and the China Smart City Industry Alliance was established under the aegis of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology three years later. By July 2017, nearly 250 cities had signed up to build smart city buildings, according to the online market research consultancy Qianzhan.

Apart from operation centres, more and more mobile applications are integrating into the development of a smart city, including mobile banking, e-commerce, mobile payment, web development and online learning.

Challenges ahead
Environmental issues are sometimes neglected during the smart city building process, as it is seemingly not problematic to take care of environmental protection after economic development. As mentioned in the case of Rio De Janeiro, while the COR makes the city occupy a leading position in smart city development in Brazil, the main goal when the plan was initiated was simply to ensure that natural disasters such as flood and losses of human lives would be prevented during the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Long term sustainability was not considered at first.

Surveillance is another issue that cannot be avoided in the process of moving towards smart cities. The government of the PRC outlined a plan in 2015 to attain 100% video surveillance coverage in key public areas and 100% video and graphic resource sharing across the internet in key industries and fields related to the public by 2020, according to the People's Daily. Indeed, through the numerous data it collects, video surveillance technology can provide a convenient way for industries to ensure safety control, while assisting city management departments to improve their accuracy and effectiveness in the policy-making process, and poises an unprecedented opportunity for social and public security governance. Yet, it also creates a security dilemma to find the right balance between using the data collected to better living quality and ensuring personal privacy.

The last mile connectivity to individuals is also important in fully realising the concept of the smart city. For example, with the wide acceptance of wearable devices, care for the silver-haired can be effectively improved, which is especially important for an ageing city like Hong Kong. If Bluetooth receiving devices can be deployed in street lamps across the city, these receivers can help locate missing senior citizens based on data sent from wearable device that they carry. The cost of Bluetooth technology is relatively cheap compared to WiFi, and it has a distinct advantage in asset or personnel tracking.

Moreover, Deloitte has concluded that a number of challenges are faced by smart cities today, including data isolation, unclear strategic goals, undesirable operation models, funding gaps, inadequate regulation, lack of overall planning, and deficiencies in information security and IT systems.

Future plan
Building a smart city requires synergetic cooperation among all parties. While it is important for engineers to contribute through the use of their professional skills, it is also of great importance for them to maintain close ties with other industries and the local government. It is not only important for the industry to know what governments are looking at but also critical for engineers to keep up with the trends of other industries. At the same time, engineers, who stand at the frontline of smart city projects, can provide constructive suggestions and feedback on where the future of the smart city should be heading to, how challenges can be tackled and how balance can be found.

Smart cities rely on technology but go beyond technology - their main assets should be citizens and people-to-people relationships. Just as Nicos Komninos said in his book "The Age of Intelligent Cities: Smart Environments and Innovations-for-all Strategies", the prosperity of a smart city depends on new ideas, products, theories and strategies created by scholars, scientists, artists, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Komninos is a Professor of Urban Development and Innovation Policy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.

In addition, as pointed out by Hong Kong-based think tank Tianda Institute, the government needs to further engage citizens in the development of a smart city, as Hong Kong's citizens have not fully realised the necessity of the transformation into a smart city and the benefits it can bring. The report said the government should do more to promote the concept and make it a consensus among citizens. For example, a committee or framework focusing on smart city development and led by the Chief Executive or Chief Secretary for Administration can be created, which will be conducive to coordination with other cities in the Greater Bay Area, promoting information exchange as well as cooperation on air pollution and water resource protection. Referencing European countries, Pauline M W Ng, Director of Tianda Institute and former Secretary General of the Legislative Council Secretariat, said that the adoption of data sharing is likely to be accepted by the majority of citizens as long as individual identity cannot be recognised based on such data. "The government can gradually assess the range of data sharing, but they cannot refuse to implement (this framework) simply due to privacy concerns", she said, as quoted by Sing Tao Daily.

Openness is what makes Hong Kong a long standing global financial centre. Therefore, it is important for all industries and government agencies to work together in developing a smart city and unleashing the potential of its talent pool. As engineering becomes more interdisciplinary and the boundaries of disciplines soften, engineers, whether focusing on the hardware or software, need to keep themselves updated and re-skill themselves to tap into those opportunities and find roles and ways in which they can further develop Hong Kong.


The vision of the Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint is to enhance innovation and technology, in order to transtorm Hong Kong into a world-class smart city


Hong Kong's advantages in public transport and use of electronic payments contribute to a high level of smart mobility


The HKIE launched the “Smart Tomorrow, Engineers’ Motto” Programme in April 2018 to promote smart city development in Hong Kong


A number of challenges are faced by smart cities, including envirnmental issues in the building process


A number of challenges are faced by smart cities, including envirnmental issues in the building process

Home | Back About Hong Kong Engineer | Latest Issue | Past Issues
Notices to Members | Job Centre | Subscriptions | Contact Us
Terms & Conditions
Privacy Policy