Professor Wong Kam-fai, director of the Centre of Innovation and Technology at Chinese University of Hong Kong is on the show this week, to tell us how the development of innovation and development can be fast-tracked in Hong Kong, so the city can fulfill the role of an international I&T hub in the region. 

Professor Wong says Hong Kong has been playing catch up in the commercialization of technology transfer due to our small market size – with only 7.5 million people here, and also the narrow focus on real estate and finance. Under the 14th Five Year Plan, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development will offer Hong Kong a bigger role to play with its 80 million population and big market. 

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Professor Wong Kam-fai

Chan: Good evening. I'm Eugene Chan with Straight Talk. Our guest tonight is Professor Wong Kam-fai, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, and the director of the Centre of Innovation and Technology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was awarded the Medal of Honour by the Hong Kong SAR government in 2011 for his contribution in IT development in Hong Kong. We have invited Professor Wong tonight to tell us if Hong Kong can fulfill the leadership role in innovation and technology for the region. Welcome, KF.

Wong: Hello. 

Chan: KF, the term Innovation and Technology has been mentioned a lot recently by both President Xi when he came to Hong Kong and also by our Chief Executive John Lee. So what exactly is innovation and technology as compared to the common term we use IT?

Wong: Well, I think people are still somehow using the old term. At the beginning, when our first government and Mr Tung, it was actually they wanted to promote innovation and technology, because we have a very big commercial environment. At that time, we were looking for digitization, and therefore information and communication technology is very important. So we have been saying about how to promote that. But recently, especially after the National 13th Five Year Plan, where our country was actually planning to promote innovation and technology, which is much broader than information and technology. For example, it will include medical and health technology, ESG technology, and others.

Chan: So what you're saying is that it's sort of encompassing a much wider spectrum. 

Wong: Oh sure. 

Chan: And since you mentioned the 13th Five Year Plan, I read in the national 14th Five Year Plan, Hong Kong has been kind of being delegated to be as an international information and technology hub. But you seem to also mention, our Chief Executive, our first Chief Executive, Mr Tung, I'd say that he has made a large investment of $5 billion into this I&T and also has an expert to make recommendations to how Hong Kong will develop in this sector. But many people will say in the last 25 years, Hong Kong hasn't progressed very much. Do you agree?

Wong: Well, that is not true, it's progressing. I mean, look at the amount of money that we poured in. If you remember, one of the last speeches made by Carrie Lam. Okay, so she said that in her government, we have actually invested $150 billion, which is about 30 times of the original. And also, she actually hoped at the beginning of her government, saying that she wanted the R&D investments as a proportion of GDP should be raised from 2017 of 0.73% to 1.5%. And then we did not actually achieve 1.5%. But we did make it to 0.99%, something very close to 1. So I think these are the things that we have been doing a lot. And so we did actually make some progress. But I think the layman is actually looking at the output part of it, in the direct impact how much money that you make. So and then one of the problems that we're facing now, I think that although we have the term of I&T, but how do we count I&T in GDP, that there's something lacking as well, I mean, if people are looking at strategic management theory, then there is something that we talk a lot about what we call technology paradox. The idea of the technology paradox means that although technology has been helping commercialization, advancement of society, but you can't see it, it's always it's a supporting thing. And when we count GDP, we only count sales.

Chan: So KF, thank you for telling us that actually, there have been continuing investment in the last 25 years. 

Wong: Of course. 

Chan: But as you said, I think the viewers and many Hong Kong people would have liked to see more output or more direct impact. Also, I look at the world digital competitiveness ranking 2021. Hong Kong was actually ranked number two in overall ranking. And first in the technology factor. And you know, Hong Kong, we have many universities, many of them are actually in the top 100. So in a way, we have the money, we have the ranking, we have the people. So there's no reason why Hong Kong should not take up this leadership role in this region. Do you? Do you agree with that? 

Wong: Well, it's more than that. I mean, we always look at these, what we call the R&D, or the innovation and technology ecosystem, like a river where we have upstream, midstream, and downstream, where upstream we do basic research. That's the role of the university. And then we have the midstream, where we have what we call a technology transfer. So we take the technology or the research inventions from the university, and then think about how we turn it into solutions, tackling practical problems. And next is commercialization, which is the downstream part. So we are doing very well, as you said, as you mentioned that we have very good universities, especially we're very good in research. And that's the upstream part that we're doing very strongly. And what we have been trying to catch up a little bit is the commercialization of technology transfer part. One of the reasons is actually market size. We have only something like 7.5 million people here in Hong Kong, and then we are very narrowly focused on, for example, real estate, finance, which is very narrow when you think about it. And therefore this is a great opportunity. Now, when we are actually under the 14th Five Year Plan of the nation, they said that, well, let's develop the Greater Bay Area. And that creates an 80 million population, or 80 million market, which is about eight or nine times the size of Hong Kong. 

Chan: Right, KF. Since you mentioned, all these I mean, the 14th Five Year Plan now we are ready to go further, you know, with a new government. You see, Mr John Lee is very supportive of the I&T as you mentioned in the manifesto, which I'm going to mention in a minute. I've seen that last week, there's a new alliance called the Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Alliance that was set up. Not only Mr Lee was there, but many other dignitaries were there. And you are the vice-chairman, and also the secretary-general. So, what is the objective of forming another alliance? Because we have many societies in different sectors over Hong Kong? Or over the last 20 odd years? What exactly are you planning to do? And how different will this be compared to what we had and how will you help the whole I&T technology to move even further ahead?

Wong: I have experience in starting the Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Joint Council, which as you mentioned is yet another one, I started that in 1996. And what we hoped to do at that time was actually to assemble or to gather all the expertise from upstream, midstream and downstream expertise, you know, into this association in this network, as such that we can help the government in advancing Information and Technology at that time. And it proved that it was right. But as we mentioned, as we discussed, things have been changing. We are now moving from information and technology to I&T, innovation and technology. That's a different ballgame. We need different sets of people. And from my past experience, therefore, I initiated this establishment of the New Alliance. And what we want to do is to provide a platform where we again, gather all the different expertise and to help the government…

Chan: Okay, definitely.

Wong: …to help the government in advancing innovation and technology.

Chan: KF, would you say this alliance will be sort of a key to overcoming the challenges because, like, as I said in Mr. John Lee's manifesto, he said, developing Hong Kong as an I&T center to facilitate economic transformation is one of the six core policies he has. And also we have to build an ecosystem. So will your alliance be one of the key factors in promoting a much wider, a more encompassing ecosystem for Hong Kong?

Wong: Oh that's definitely our mission. That's definitely what we want to do. And I think with the experience of our team of experts, particularly for example, like our associates… our alliance is actually led by Professor Dennis Lo, who is an expert in medical and health technology, and others as well. So I'm very confident that we can do something about that. But again, you mentioned there are many such types of association. I think the more the merrier. I mean, what the government really wants is to have support from the society from the professional sectors. And when we said about I&T, it's a broad area, as you said, you need different types of expertise. And in our, in our alliance, we have our own expertise, but maybe there are other application or other business development, that the government may want other type of help, then they can go to other associations,

Chan: KF, since you are saying this is a very… a key to promote more I&T in Hong Kong, would it also be an aim for Hong Kong to attract the top researchers globally to come to Hong Kong and even make our R&D team stronger. Would that be also one of your missions?

Wong: Well, obviously, because one of the things that we are placed in…  five of our universities, I actually placed top 10 in the QS university ranking list. One element is actually our internationalization ability. So look at all the professors in our universities. Firstly, they are educated abroad with a lot of international experience. And when we said that their education from abroad when they come back to Hong Kong, not only that brings back, you know, sort of technologies, but also networks.

Chan: Okay. Right, KF, let's take a break. And we will be right back. 

Chan: Welcome back. With us tonight is Professor Wong Kam-fai, who has been updating us on the development of innovation and technology in Hong Kong. So KF, in the first part you mentioned that there had been a lot resources by the government into the sector over the last 25 years, like 50 times, and is continuing putting resource into it. But of course, we will like to see more output, especially in the commercialization. We have good universities, we are trying to attract top researchers to come to Hong Kong. One term that we often hear is called “unicorns”, so do you see Hong Kong having the ability to cultivate more and more sort of “unicorns” with I&T?

Wong: I hope so, I hope so. I think Mr. John Lee is actually looking for KPIs. I think this is a good thing. I mean what the KPIs will become will actually appear in the Policy Address sometime in August, and I see these KPIs coming in, and I hope one of the KPIs is actually a number of “unicorns”. I think this is something that we are… I think we have… what we see also is that we talk a lot about the upstream park, what we were talking about, the inventions, the new technology. But not to forget, I mean Hong Kong is also the third global financial center in the world, and therefore one of the things that we can provide is what I call technology financing. So what would happen is that for those big companies who actually want to grow, you know, then they would actually come back to Hong Kong get listed. I mean you can see many examples. A lot of Chinese mainland-based American international companies coming back to Hong Kong, to get listed in here.

Chan: KF, we talked about commercialization. Does Hong Kong have enough manufacturing industry to support that?

Wong: Well, I think we should look at it in a much bigger perspective, the Greater Bay Area. And I think what the government, the new government, plans to do, for example, the choice of our new bureau head, the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau, Professor Sun Dong. He has a lot of experience in innovation and technology, as well as experience with mainland affairs. And I hope that he will actually help the government and help us to open up the market in the mainland, and then our technology, our inventions in Hong Kong, will go in, okay? For the technology transfer part, for the mass production part. And thereafter, once the product, once the commercialization part started to get some achievement and they want to expand, then they will come back again to our financial center in Hong Kong. So the upstream part and what we call the lower downstream part. 

Chan: So KF, you are saying that we are looking forward to some encouraging results to come in in the next few years. 

Wong: We have to.

Chan: Yes.

Wong: No choice.

Because Hong Kong has always just been an international financial center, we need more industries to make Hong Kong continue to prosper, isn’t it? 

Chan: We talked about this national five-year plan, which Hong Kong people are now getting more and more accustomed to. Why do you think Hong Kong is given this job or role to becoming an international innovation and technology hub, instead of, say, Guangzhou and Shenzhen? Because we… the layperson will feel that the IT there is much more advanced than Hong Kong in everyday life. So what do you say to that? Why are we…

Wong: We are just different roles. As you mentioned about the whole ecosystem, just think about the upstream role. I mean look at it, 5 universities, top 10… top 100, so 5 universities top 100. Go anywhere in the world, you do not have a small city like this, which has 5 big universities. And the reasons that they were that high-ranked is because our research ability, that is for one; and the second thing is because of our internationalization ability. You mentioned about in the mainland, especially in Shenzhen, in Guangdong, in Dongguan area, they are very good in manufacturing. But the high-tech innovation part, we are very good at it. As I mentioned about the financing part, we are very good at it. So again, we should look at the globally, the whole ecosystem, how all these cities, including Hong Kong, Dongguan, Guangzhou, can actually collaborate with each other to build up the whole economy of the Greater Bay Area.

Chan: So what you are saying is this role of being an innovation and technology hub will sort of fit in the other roles of our international financial center, the transportation, aviation, and trade center.

Wong: Oh yes, surely, surely.

So it’s called interlinking, and actually collaborating with our mainland counterparts.

It’s not us who said that. I mean look at the recent visit of President Xi. President Xi is very confident of our technology ability and he went straight to the Science Park, and talked to these people, and are certain that the national government is actually very confident in our innovation and technology ability.

Chan: I also read that the Ministry of Science and Technology in the mainland is opening up 15 new projects for Hong Kong and Macao. 

Wong: Sure.

Chan: And supporting more scientific researchers. Can you quickly elaborate on that? I mean is actually… mainland is actually putting, what they say, putting energy in this area?

Wong: Of course. As a technical problem, it has been hindering sometimes our advancement, our collaboration with the mainland. For example, like whether the money can cross border. The idea of opening up 15 different types of projects, firstly it is allowing the Hong Kong researchers to engage in projects with larger scope. I mean take for example, like medical, for example, I am investigating a virus. Well, if you were to do research in Hong Kong and the kind of virus that you, the condition that you face for your study are mainly 7.5 million patients, potential patients. But when you look at in the mainland, you have 1.4 billion, and then you're looking at people from the far north, northeast, northwest, with different climates. These are different conditions, and there is no way that we can… it’s very hard for Hong Kong as it is, for staying in Hong Kong to investigate this sort of problem. By opening up then we can do that.

Chan: Professor, it is very encouraging to hear all the positive input from your side. But now Hong Kong is actually on the international chessboard. We often talk about in Straight Talk shows about all the geopolitical influences.

Wong: Yes, yes.

Chan: You have your Sino-US trade war, plus a Russian and Ukraine conflict, and recently there could be a visit by the US official to Taiwan, for example. How does all this going to affect the development of innovation and technology? Will there be any influence?

Wong: We have been… I think other people are a little bit pessimistic about what is happening. I mean there are a lot of opportunities around in there as well. Frankly when you look at it, what about the United States? Don’t they want to collaborate with China? They do. But openly they can’t say anything. Then Hong Kong will be a middle ground for that. When we talk about scientific innovation and technology, we talk about open collaboration, open innovation. What is open innovation? It is collaboration between different parties, including America and China. But obviously because of these conflicts or political issues, they announced that they will stop the collaborations, or they will refrain from collaborations. But that is not true in practice. A lot of things are driven by commercial people, when there are money, when there are opportunities, they will go for it.

Chan: KF, I am going to ask you specifically into the Greater Bay Area, which we often talk about, especially Shenzhen in the last part of the show. We know that to facilitate cooperation with Shenzhen, our government has intended to build a Hong Kong Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the Lok Ma Chau area. What are your views on that? Because Shenzhen and us, we are like brothers in a way, but in a way we are competing against each other.

Wong: True.

Chan: For many Hong Kong people, of course we see Greater Bay Area is the future, but we found that going up there has always been sort of a… it’s not an easy move because of many reasons. How can we, using this opportunity in I&T, while we are kind of competitors or partners as you want to say, how can we bring more business into Hong Kong in I&T? Is it possible? 

Wong: Of course. I mean we are looking at this problem from a very academic point of view. When we do business, it’s a different thing. Any business, it involves collaboration and competition, all the time. I mean if you look at it like what newspapers and academic people looking at the thing and said “wow Shenzhen is developing very fast, we are very slow, how can we actually compare with them? How can we compete?” That's nonsense. The world is like that, we are always competing, we are always collaborating. You have to look forward, you have to do it. But I also have to mention that it needs a business strategy when you think about it. The whole GBA with 9+2, other 8 cities, not only Shenzhen, they have a different stance. For example, like if a government thinks that it would become very difficult to actually work together with a competitor, like Shenzhen, why not consider a bit north, in Jiajiang, for example? These are more slow-going areas, perhaps that will give you a chance.

Chan: All right. KF, in the last 30 seconds of the show, I am going to ask you a direct question. Last week the DSE examination results were out, at least six out of eight students wanted to do medicine, but not I&T. But the good thing is seven out of them are staying in Hong Kong, however many of our students are going aboard to study. You being a university person, you know training is very important, are you worried that we don't have enough talents in I&T to support us? 

Wong: I am not. We talked about what is I&T. I&T is innovation and technology, which includes health and medical. When you look at these people, these 6 candidates, the thing that we bear in mind, the thing that always people think is “these must be doctors”, “they must be going for money”. That's not true. There is the non-clinical side of it. There are many people that actually ended up doing research on the medical part. And that's what we need.

Chan: All right, KF, that is all the time we have for tonight. And many thanks to Professor Wong for sharing with us how the development of innovation and technology can be fast-tracked in Hong Kong, so that we can fulfil the role of being an international innovation and technology hub for the region. Have a good week, stay healthy, and good night.