Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why big data must be shared to realise Hong Kong’s smart city vision

CommentInsight & Opinion
2018-01-24

Christine Loh says data transparency across government departments and access to information from private companies providing public services are needed to create a smart, sustainable city

Experts have warned that Hong Kong could slip behind in the use of big data. The challenge requires data sharing across government departments, so they can compare information and assess correlations for Hong Kong to function better across the board. Being a smart, sustainable city is all about maximising efficiency by saving as well as sharing resources.

Managing a city in the age of the internet of things requires governments to have the relevant data in the first place. In some cases, authorities have the data because essential services, such as electricity, water and transport, are provided by the public sector.

There are cases where all or some of those services are in private hands. Unless there are arrangements whereby private operators are required to provide the data to the authorities, accessing it is not easy.

In Hong Kong, electricity data belongs to private companies as power generation and supply are in private hands. While the electricity companies provide excellent services at a reasonable cost to users, they are not obliged to share all their data with the government. Now that energy saving has become a major part of the city’s climate-change efforts and creating a smart city is another policy objective, not having the data is an obvious hindrance.

The new schemes of control reached last year for the two electricity companies are more data transparent than before but there is room for improvement. Data for individual buildings would enable the government to draft sharper policies and help occupants be more energy efficient.

This contrasts with freshwater supply, which is provided by the Water Supplies Department, where the government has the full range of data to consider what it can do to save water. While it uses technology to identify leaks and get public water pipes fixed quickly, the department only stepped up dealing with private water pipe leaks after a highly critical Ombudsman report in 2015.

Another problem is the inability to raise water tariffs. The government is fully aware Hong Kong’s cheap water encourages wastage but fears legislators will object to any increase. So, the challenge in this case has not been the lack of data for analysis but the lack of will to deal with problems.

Mobility data presents other challenges. While the government is the largest shareholder of the MTR Corporation and can presumably access the data it needs, this is not the case for all other trips. Buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries are all operated by private companies. Small providers, such as minibus owners, may only collect minimal data.

Private companies providing public services say they can’t share data because of privacy issues or because it is commercially privileged information. In the case of water supplies, no one has complained about the government knowing how much water users consume or indeed waste. It is hard for the energy companies to make a case on privacy grounds. As regards whether releasing the data would lead to unfair competition between the two electricity providers, there could be arrangements whereby the full data could be given to the government on a confidential basis, which the government could then release publicly in a form that avoids unfair competition.

Transport data is mostly anonymous, although new services such as Uber don’t want anyone to access their personal ride histories. Even here, the companies can provide data without showing details about riders.

Data is king and it is a major policy issue for the government to work out with the private sector.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability

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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living

 

Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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How China’s belt and road can pave the way to global sustainability

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-05-09

Yixiu Wu says Beijing should ensure its belt and road projects address environmental concerns, so as to shape development across three continents and leave behind a green legacy

On May 14 and 15, 28 heads of state and government leaders will convene in Beijing for the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. At a time when much of the world is recoiling into protectionism, the Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s unprecedented entry onto the global stage. A new chapter of the China story is unfolding.

The success of the initiative, which spans 65 countries, will depend on whether long-term concerns are prioritised. In the face of climate change, a transition away from fossil fuel consumption and towards environmental sustainability is imperative.

The launch of the belt and road follows three decades of rapid economic growth in China, which has been fuelled by infrastructure development and intensive energy consumption. As a result of this legacy, China’s investments in the initiative have attracted scepticism. Observers questioned whether the belt and road is merely a vessel for China to reproduce its old development model, which, despite ushering in unprecedented growth, has led to widespread environmental degradation. Such questions are valid, considering that, between 2005 and 2016, 40 per cent of China’s outbound investment was directed towards energy projects and 18 per cent to infrastructure. Moreover, environmental negligence is one of the most frequently cited complaints about Chinese companies overseas.

The Earth has reached a crisis point. Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm, forests are shrinking, and water supplies are running dry. There is no room any more for a development model that promotes growth at the expense of the environment.

Moreover, the belt and road countries are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and most precious carbon sink. They also use much of the world’s resources: a study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 38 key belt and road nations emit more than 55 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases and consume 66 per cent of global water resources.

The good news is that, within and outside China, models of sustainable development appear promising. Domestically, China has begun to decouple its economic progress from fossil fuel consumption and is now home to the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy industry. China’s coal consumption has fallen for three years running, a key factor in the flattening of global greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the imperative for multilateral sustainability initiatives is indisputable, as exemplified by the Paris agreement on climate change.

Shaping belt and road projects with the environment in mind makes economic sense. A focus on sustainable development will help achieve economic and political stability for China and its belt and road partners. It will improve energy efficiency and limit regional conflicts over natural resources.

The question now is how to ensure that long-term imperatives are not overlooked in favour of short-term profit. Doing so requires rules and processes, backed by high-level political resolve. It also depends on the inclusion of diverse stakeholders to assess the environmental implications of belt and road initiatives. It is crucial that China make publicly available information about the overseas belt and road projects, subjecting them to scrutiny from local and international communities.

The belt and road has the potential to shape sustainable development across three continents. The initiative is ambitious and complex. It calls for collaboration from key international actors, such as the UN, the EU and the multilateral development banks.

If wisdom and resolve prevail, three decades from now, the Belt and Road Initiative will exemplify the benefits that a rising China can bring to the world. It is now more important than ever that the next chapter of the China story be centred on a commitment to sustainable development. This emphasis is key not only to preserving China’s legacy, but also to ensuring global prosperity for decades to come.

Yixiu Wu is a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. Her work focuses on China’s global environmental footprint and One Belt, One Road polices


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Beyond summits: what the evolution of China’s cities can tell us about the state of the economy

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-04-06

Curtis Chin says the feel-good boost generated by summits like the G20 in Hangzhou does not capture the real changes in the economy. More can be learned by tracking cities’ development after the meetings have moved on
Seven months ago, the world’s attention turned to Hangzhou ( 杭州 ) as leaders representing the Group of 20 largest economies met that September, at what was Barack Obama’s final appearance at a G20 summit as US president. The Hangzhou meeting was also the first-ever G20 summit hosted by China.

How long ago and far away that seems as a new US president has moved quickly to dismantle Obama’s initiatives and executive orders, to transform his own campaign promises into reality.

For followers of the US-China relationship, the focus now turns from Hangzhou to Mar-a-Lago, the landmark Palm Beach, Florida estate and club that is the site of the first summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ).

At the G20 Hangzhou summit, Obama sought to solidify his foreign policy for the Asia-Pacific region. A seeming breakthrough had come when he and the Chinese president signed on to the Paris climate agreement – a diplomatic milestone for the world’s two heaviest polluters.

Obama also sought to increase international and domestic support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, discuss international law and maritime security in the South China Sea, and seek action on terrorist activity, violence and humanitarian crises across the Middle East.

Those days are past, but the evolution of Hangzhou and other Chinese cities deserves continued attention.

Not as well known to many as Beijing, Shanghai or even Guangzhou, the once small city of Hangzhou has been transformed into a metropolis of seven million people and is also the heart of China’s Silicon Valley. Home to e-commerce giant Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, Hangzhou continues to lure tech start-ups and serve as a home base for entrepreneurs, including those who made their initial wealth through Alibaba as it grew.

Like many other Chinese cities, Hangzhou’s growth was fuelled early on in part by manufacturing, development and construction. These are also key drivers of China’s continuing pollution challenge. The consequences of that growth were at least temporarily addressed in the lead-up to the G20 summit.

Roads were renovated and buildings given facelifts. Thousands of trees were planted. Residents were given the week off to reduce the number of cars on the road. Factories were closed, and migrant workers were sent home – all efforts to reduce air pollution and bring “G20 blue skies”.

Artificial fixes and facelifts aside, Hangzhou has performed well vis-à-vis other Chinese cities economically. In 2015, the Milken Institute – a non-partisan economic think tank where I serve as the inaugural Asia fellow – ranked China’s large, mid-sized, and small cities based on economic performance in its inaugural Best Performing Cities China report.

Key inputs in the economics ranking included job and wage growth, foreign direct investment growth, and a measure of high value-added industry employment, among others.

In 2015, Hangzhou ranked 25th among China’s first- and second-tier cities. A year later, the city had moved up to 20th in the 2016 report, behind best performing city Guiyang ( 貴陽 ) in the Guizhou (貴州) province. Hangzhou significantly improved its categorical ranking on one-year job growth (from 30th to 10th), but did worse in five-year overall job growth (11th to 16th).

Chinese students work on the Ares, a humanoid robot designed by them with funding from a Shanghai investment company, displayed during the World Robot Conference in Beijing in October 2016. China is increasing funding for technology-intensive industries, including aviation, robotics and biomedical technology. Photo: AP

As China’s leaders work to shift the nation’s economy from a focus on labour-intensive, low-cost manufacturing goods towards innovation-based products and high-quality, hi-tech manufacturing and services-driven growth, Hangzhou may well serve as a test case of what can and cannot be achieved long after artificial G20 summit-driven investments and changes fade from view.

Internally, China is increasing funding for technology-intensive industries, including aviation, robotics and biomedical technology. The government also continues to shift low-cost manufacturing inland and redevelop coastal cities as hubs for more innovation-based ­industries.

Regional growth clusters are envisioned, including a “Jing-Jin-Ji” (京津冀) megalopolis region, which would integrate Beijing, Tianjin ( 天津 ) and the Hebei ( 河北 ) area into one super region, and a Yangtze River economic belt that would encompass the giant metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Chongqing (重慶) and Chengdu (成都).

A map of China and Central Asia is displayed at an exhibition in Los Angeles last year on Dunhuang’s cave temples. A red line on the map marks out the ancient Silk Road. Today, China seeks to foster a new Silk Road on land and at sea, to better connect to new and established markets. Photo: AFP

Externally, China is seeking to improve economic access, integration, capital and knowledge flows, as well as information sharing to other economic regions. The most notable effort is the “One Belt, One Road” initiative that seeks to foster a new Silk Road on land and at sea to better connect China to new and established markets.

The impact on the economic performance of China’s cities and economic regions – and on everyday Chinese citizens’ lives – of such ambitious internal and external initiatives is unclear. Future results will provide further input on how government and city leaders can best transform and leverage cities for economic growth. This may well include the need for implementation of policies that increase access to capital and knowledge, and free up the power of the private sector, as with Alibaba in Hangzhou, to drive future growth.

This July, the world’s attention will move on to Hamburg as Germany serves as host of the 12th meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20. There, as in Hangzhou last year, there will be much discussion and talk. What will then follow is the reality check of whether actions result and whether beneficial policies are implemented and ­enforced.

Much attention is understandably given to multilateral meetings and bilateral summits, as in the Xi-Trump summit at Mar-a-Lago.

Even more important in our increasingly urbanised world will be to continue to look at and learn from what is happening on the ground in cities and surrounding areas even after the summiteers have left.

Curtis S. Chin is a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.


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Who can save the world from being trampled by Trump?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-02-03
Kevin Rafferty says the US president’s apocalyptic policies pose a grave risk, not only for the future of America as a nation, but the fragile planet itself
Commentators and pundits, American and foreign, have sadly misunderstood US President Donald Trump. They expected him to calm down and become presidential, at least when he became the unlikely ­Republican candidate, or when he beat Hillary Clinton – or, at the very least, when he went through the solemn pomp and panoply of the inauguration and he took possession of the Oval Office.

It is now clear that Trump must be taken both literally and seriously, however outrageous his demands, however personal, dark and unrealistic his world view. He will not let it stand in his way that he was the choice of only 27 per cent of eligible voters or that he lost to Clinton by 2.8 popular million votes.

He believes that if he promised or threatened it on the campaign trail, victory gives him the mandate to do it. And he has set to work like a Force 13 hurricane, caring little about anyone standing in his way.

For America itself, there will be a price to pay as Trump’s hyperactivity in producing executive orders, firing people and hectoring bosses to bring factories back raises heavy protectionist costs. But the rest of the world has greater reason to beware. Being “Trumpled”, that is, trampled by Trump, is a real danger not only for other countries but for the fragile planet itself.

In his inaugural address, Trump thumped out his determination to “Make America Great Again”. With little grace or eloquence, he let out an angry patriotic roar vowing to recreate brilliant shining America, improve education, bring back industry, create jobs, get rid of crime and restore power to the people, not the corrupt elite of Washington.

He went to work immediately. His now notorious refugee and immigration ban even on people vetted and given visas was only the culmination of the first week of his hurricane. Trump claimed that all he wanted to do was keep the US safe from the “bad dudes” out there. But terrorists from the countries banned were responsible for zero American deaths between 1975 and 2015, whereas terrorists from Saudi Arabia killed 2,369 Americans, and those from the United Arab Emirates killed 314. Both these countries were missing from Trump’s list.

For a sense of perspective, jihadists have killed 94 people in the US since 9/11, but 301,797 Americans have been shot dead by other Americans in the past decade, 21 of them by toddlers. Between 2005 and 2014, nine Americans were killed by Islamic jihadists – who in most cases were US citizens, not immigrants.

Trump started with an order to undermine Obamacare; he went on to authorise building the infamous wall with Mexico, and perhaps impose duties of 20 per cent on Mexican goods to pay for it; to remove roadblocks from the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and promise to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico; he expressed his personal support for torture to extract information; he promised new trade deals and pressured US firms to bring jobs back; he pledged a stronger military to crush America’s enemies; and sacked four key state department management officials with 150 years of combined experience in “house cleaning”. Dissenting bureaucrats were told to obey or quit.

In between, he attacked the media for not seeing the hundreds of thousands of invisible people really occupying the empty spaces on the National Mall at his inauguration, and for not counting up to five million fraudulent voters who had denied him victory in the popular vote.

Americans have only themselves to blame: they voted Trump into power. Foreigners are not so lucky: they clearly get no say in Trump’s world.

If Trump carries out the foreign policies he promised, the already fragile global geopolitical, economic, trade and environment system will be devastated. Economic progress made by many developing nations will be threatened as America turns inwards and protectionist.

There are bigger dangers to the Earth itself. Trump’s professed policies risk subjecting the world to a slow suffocating death as he disregards international climate change treaties [10] and encourages a new carbon economy. Or it could suffer a fiery death in war as Trump destroys old alliances and picks fights that could escalate dangerously. This, of course, is all too apocalyptic. But Trump’s policies are apocalyptic.

That’s why editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” 30 seconds closer to midnight, now just 2½ minutes away.

Trump’s way of changing the world is equally dangerous. He continues to behave like a real estate mogul, cajoling, hectoring, bullying and shaming rivals or clients to grovel to get his way.

Sadly, it is hard to see any world leader with the stature and courage to challenge Trump in the name of the fragile Earth. World Bank and International Monetary Fund leaders, quick to give their opinions on Brexit, threats from disease and other crises, have been silent, perhaps for fear of upsetting their largest shareholder, the US.

There is talk of Trump getting together with his best buddy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to carve up the 21st-century world as Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill divided the post-second-world-war world at Yalta.

Who gets to control Europe, China, Japan and the rest of Asia, Africa and Oceania may be up for grabs, unless China is brought into a triumvirate to control the world.

This would require an unlikely deal by the dealmaker, not least because of his strident claims that China stole US jobs and sapped the strength of its industry, and his condemnation of Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea.

Both President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and Premier Li Keqiang ( 李克) have spoken up for the global commons but, to be a true world leader, Beijing would have to throw off centuries of history of the Middle Kingdom used to seeing neighbours as vassal states paying tribute. It would require China to join forces with other leaders in Asia and Europe in asserting the overriding needs of the Earth.

German chancellor Angela Merkel understands the need for global wisdom, but she and other European leaders are threatened by populist parties, encouraged by Trump and sometimes by Putin, who would happily break up the European Union.

Japan has been a great beneficiary of the peace and economic progress since the second world war. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sights are set on a deal with Trump and rewriting history, rather than seeking allies who could make common cause in keeping the world – including the US itself, which would suffer from protectionism – open and safe against Trump’s threats. Abe and UK Prime Minister Theresa May should understand that being America’s mistress can only end in disaster when Trump makes the rules.

The important point is that Trump is wrong: the fragile Earth of the 21st century needs leaders with global, not greedy nationalistic, solutions for our common problems.

Kevin Rafferty worked for the World Bank and reported from Washington DC under six US presidents