Before being appointed vice-president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the former government chief information officer of Hong Kong, Daniel Lai, played an instrumental role in setting up this service.
In a city with an astonishing mobile penetration of 236 per cent (that’s at least two mobile phones per person, most of which are smartphones) – forward-thinking Lai and his government colleagues considered free wi-fi an essential public service.
“The average computer literacy of the average citizen is very high, so the government felt it was necessary to connect the population,” Lai explains. “By having both cellular mobile and wi-fi, we can connect everyone within the city.”
The fibre infrastructure which underpins the wi-fi offering was a vitally important first step in the government’s Digital 21 strategy, the blueprint for turning Hong Kong into a “digital city” – which was initiated in 1998.
“Once the infrastructure was in place we could introduce more digital and electronic services through the internet and through mobile,” Lai says. “More recently, it’s been about mobility and connectivity, which meant providing government public services in any form, on any media, any devices. Information and communications technology is for everyone, not only for the more privileged sections of society.”
It’s about mobility and connectivity … information and communications technology is for everyone, not only for the more privileged sections of society.– Daniel Lai
Although the fundamental motivation for the Digital 21 strategy was “digital inclusion”, the result has also had a substantial impact on the capacity of business not just to operate but to thrive in Hong Kong. The same connectivity that keeps the elderly connected to doctors and care workers can be used to source information, deliver training and provide commercial and government services.
Founder and principal of UK consultancy Global Cities, David Adam, says it is critical for governments both to deliver technological infrastructure and explain the positive relationship between people and technology. He sees this as a crucial step in the creation of an engaging, business-friendly city.
“It is up to government to set out what the total vision means for every citizen,” Adam says. “We have to remember that technology is our tool and that we are trying to make lives better through technology. The challenge for the public sector and for political leaders is that while there have been exponential leaps in technology, there also needs to be exponential leaps in political vision.”
Adam says the role of technology – and in particular the pace of technological change – is often misunderstood in terms of “disruption” and jobs disappearing.
It’s up to government, he believes, to ensure that change does not represent disadvantage.
“Government needs to tell a long-term story about economic security, and offer a plan of how we will get over some of these challenges,” Adam says. “That will help to make citizens feel more accepting of change.”
Connectivity starts the conversation
National general manager for government at Telstra, Jack Dan, emphasises that technology is also having a deep impact not only on what government communicates with its citizens, but also how that message is communicated.
“When we talk about the way that government explains or puts forward its message to the people, one of the most interesting changes in recent years is the fact that people expect a dialogue nowadays,” Dan says.
“So the general public is no longer the recipient of a message put forward by an organisation, be it from the public or private sector, it is very much a participant in the conversation. And that expectation is partly driven by the fact that digital technology is making available so much information.”
With meaningful digital transformation at its core, it’s up to governments to offer services enabling the stability, cultural activity and diversity which makes cities the sorts of places where smart, innovative people want to live.
Having worked with some of the world’s most celebrated cities, Adam shares his knowledge with the IN:SIGHT audience through with this video.
“The cultural environment is important, openness and good governance are next,” says Adam. “And once you can convince businesses they want to move to your city, the investment brings knowledge workers, infrastructure, innovation and invention – but it all begins with stability, culture, connectivity and buzz.”