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To be a ‘smart city’ Hong Kong is cultivating smart people

Hong Kong’s definition of “smart city” includes smart people: 60% of senior secondary students study one or more STEM-related elective subjects in 2019/20, every student has to study mathematics, and the city has four of the world’s top universities. H.C. Lu reports.

HONG KONG WAS CRITICIZED by some newspapers last year for scoring relatively low on a “smart cities” index. It came in 41st place out of 118 places surveyed. Top performers in the survey by far were Singapore and Switzerland.

But the reports we saw omitted a key piece of information: all the data came from a study run by researchers in Singapore and Switzerland. That doesn’t make it automatically untrustworthy, but readers should at least have been told. Furthermore, talking to specialists on the topic, many say that there are so many warring definitions of the term “smart city” that comparisons tend to be meaningless. Every city follows a unique path.


Many agree that the single most visible measure of urban “digital maturity” worldwide is the widespread replacement of cash with digital forms of payment. Both mainland China and Hong Kong are definitely ahead of most cities in that regard.

While many people around the world are just now coming to terms with contactless payment cards, Hong Kong has been using its influential Octopus card for a quarter of a century, not just for paying bus fares, but as a door access card, as staff or student identification, to receive government cash handouts and so on.

Hong Kong launched its world-leading card in the previous millennium. The physical card is now disappearing: An image of the card on your phone now does the job.

Singapore didn’t get its Octopus-like Flashcard in 2009, and the population of Switzerland is notorious for its preference for cash transactions – yes, they still use actual coins and banknotes, something that many Hong Kongers now rarely see. So while the Swiss and the Singaporeans can declare themselves ahead of the world, other opinions may also be valid.


In fact, there are several smart city areas in which Hong Kong is clearly doing well, which we will examine below.

But first, consider the words of Andrew Lam Siu-lo, legislator and one of the best-known town planners in the city. He thinks Hong Kong has just begun exploring the potential in this area.

Andrew Lam: Room for improvement in smart city program.

“Let’s think about the possibility of how we can expand the application of smart technology on our daily life,” he said in an interview on Friday Kongversation, a current affairs programme produced by Friday Culture. “I don’t really think that we are short of ideas. It is just a matter of whether we are prepared to get the system ready to be accessible for everybody.”

He gave an example of an idea that could be taken forward. Crossing the border could be simplified, he said. “Given the speed of the high-speed train, we [arrive] in Guangzhou in half an hour. But we spend more time going through different customs and immigration procedures,” said Mr. Lam. “You allow that access to whatever technology which I am sure is already immediately available. You can hop on a car, in a train, get in and get out freely without going through the customs or immigration we have today,” he said.

Lam believes there’s plenty of room for growth, even with the Octopus system, which could be used in many other ways.


Hong Kong has a good education system, and plans to increasing funding, especially for STEM studies, have been well received. Smart people have to be a key element of a Smart City, planners say. IQ levels in Hong Kong are at high levels, along with other East Asian communities, including Singapore, mainland China and Taiwan.

The government’s Smart City blue print includes education as a key factor

Under the Hong Kong government’s Smart City Blueprint 2.0 unveiled in 2020, a wide array of new initiatives has been implemented and it has listed “Smart Government” as one of the major areas and make use of innovative technology to enhance public services. 

  • These initiatives include development of the Traffic Data Analytics System – which uses Big Data technology to analyze various types of real-time traffic and transport data to have accurate assessment of traffic conditions, enabling the Transport Department to handle sudden incidents and disseminating information to citizens.
  • The Hong Kong public has been access to numerous government databases for business purposes: if you have an idea for a business using that data, you can freely collect that data and launch your project.
  • Another notable initiative is the establishment of a mobile app, named “iAM Smart”, to enable citizens to access to the government and public online services such as car license renewal and filling tax returns, and pay taxes and utility bills. Citizens can conduct authentication, digital signing and submit electronic forms via the app. The platform has signed up more than 1.1 million users early this year and over 160 online services are accessible through the platform.
  • The LeaveHomeSafe app is another ubiquitous ICT development. Programmers trod carefully to create an app that provided users with information they needed about where pandemic-infected people had been without compromising privacy. It succeeded, judging by the number of people who downloaded it: 7.75 million by March of 2022. (The fact that that is more than the number of adults in Hong Kong can be explained by many people in the city having more than one phone.)
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of digital payment technology as consumers have spent more with cashless and digital payment options than ever before. As of last year, the city’s Faster Payment System surpassed 720,000 transactions a day, with more than 9.25 million registrations since its debut in 2018.  
  • Also, electronic payment service providers AlipayHK, Octopus, Tap & Go and WeChat Pay HK have attracted over 4.7 million new users last year after the government’s earlier offering of consumption vouchers to revive the Covid-19-battered economy.
The growth in electronic payments continues to be fast, with Alipay added to the mix. Photo by Blake Wisz/ Unsplash


There’s one other aspect we should mention. In academic discussions of smart city issues, one topic comes up again and again: surveillance. If huge amounts of data are being shared about everything a city’s residents do, by definition there will have to be a fall in levels of privacy. This could be a big issue. But some analysts speculate that this may be more of a problem in the west than the east, where societies tend to be less hostile to their governments.  

Hong Kong’s experience in setting up the LeaveHomeSafe app, and its successful discussions with mainland China officials on respecting the greater desire for privacy in the city, bode well on the privacy front.

Image at the top by Joel Fulgencio/ Unsplash

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