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Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:03
CE’s encouraging vision for R&D, innovation and tech
By Naubahar Sharif
Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:03 By Naubahar Sharif

On Wednesday Carrie Lam delivered her maiden Policy Address. The address was, however, pre-empted by the publication of her “work report” a day earlier, listing and indicating progress on 70 work items (some having been completed) during her first 100 days in office.

Some observers had expected Lam in her Policy Address simply to elaborate further on the work report’s approach to innovation and technology, while others felt that the latest address would merely continue Lam’s predecessor’s innovation and technology policies. As it happened, however, the Policy Address was another kettle of fish and both predictions turned out to be quite wrong.

To characterize it succinctly, Lam’s Policy Address has set an altogether higher bar for innovation and technology policy and practice in Hong Kong. If her blueprint comes to fruition during her term,  Lam will have violently shaken the innovation and technology development landscape in Hong Kong like only one leader in Hong Kong’s history — Tung Chee-hwa — ever has.

While there is much in her Policy Address to chew over regarding innovation and technology (which itself is significant compared with most of her predecessors’ Policy Addresses), I will focus on three key areas that, I feel, define this year’s address as a paradigm shift in terms of the SAR government’s approach toward local innovation and technological development.

First, Lam’s goal of doubling the portion of GDP spent on research and development from the current 0.76 percent to 1.5 percent within 5 years would herald the fastest increase in R&D spending in a 5-year period that Hong Kong has ever seen. Notwithstanding that even this level of R&D spending will still leave us below that of our regional peer economies and major sister cities on the Chinese mainland, it would mark the largest expansion ever of Hong Kong’s R&D capacity within such a short period of time. To put this in perspective, Hong Kong required a full two decades — 1995-2015 — to double its R&D expenditures as a percentage of its GDP, a feat that Lam aspires to achieve in one-fourth of that time.

Lam’s address contained many an innovative idea that deserves our support. Let’s hope she remains steadfast in bringing her vision to fruition

Second, some critics might argue that Hong Kong has always produced innovative people, but in ways and in areas that R&D statistics — such as R&D ratio — did not capture. Hong Kong has never been known for generating new technology but has always been able to utilize and take good advantage of already existing technology.

While this may be true, we must credit Lam for embarking on an ambitious program that targets Hong Kong’s youth, seeking to impress upon them the importance of innovation, creativity, and technological development. This is the second key area I wish to stress, one where previous efforts have fallen short. There is no reason Hong Kong cannot simultaneously nurture talent that is expert in both the creation and utilization of innovation and technology.

In this regard, through Lam’s efforts to further galvanize Hong Kong’s already strong tertiary education system (setting aside HK$10 billion for university research funding), Hong Kong’s universities will continue to lead China’s tertiary education landscape.

By making HK$3 billion available to provide studentships for local students admitted to local postgraduate programs, Lam is directly addressing a key weakness in Hong Kong’s innovation ecosystem whereby insufficient numbers of local students are willing and/or able to engage in advanced training in our local universities. Finally, the HK$500 million “Technology Talent Scheme” promises to add further impetus to promoting and rewarding Hong Kong’s young people who engage in R&D.

Third, to consider an aspect that is just as important as the first two I have mentioned, Lam has taken the initiative to announce that she will personally lead a high-level inter-departmental Steering Committee on Innovation and Technology charged with examining and steering innovation and technology development measures in Hong Kong.

Supranational organizations such as the World Bank and the OECD have repeatedly argued that it is easier to recommend an idea on paper than to bring it into practice. Our innovation and technology policy needs the firm and unequivocal backing of top leadership, with the head of the economy — the chief executive — leading the way and keeping it on course. Such backing is essential to innovation policy success as it gives credibility to a unified vision that requires cross-departmental cooperation, facilitating the removal of key bureaucratic hurdles.

By its very nature, innovation policy concerns parts of government that typically work independently. Bringing them together is no trivial exercise, and without overall supervision from the individual occupying the economy’s highest office, as we have repeatedly seen in the Hong Kong SAR over successive administrations (excepting the first), measures that are well-intentioned and seemingly positive ultimately fail or lose wind. The agility and flexibility that governmental departments and agencies must demonstrate to successfully implement innovation policy measures can be most effectively derived only when the leader of the economy is driving those initiatives forward.

Lam’s address contained many an innovative idea that deserves our support. Let’s hope she remains steadfast in bringing her vision to fruition. 

The author is an associate professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has previously consulted for the Innovation and Technology Commission.


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