As mayor of the dying steel town of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy is credited with driving an innovative collaboration with big business that saw billions of dollars plowed into new parks, riverside spaces and mixed-use developments. Transformational change is the challenge facing Hong Kong too, as the city seeks the best path to a digitally connected future. And Hong Kong’s leaders must be ready to make unpopular choices guided by a clear vision of what they want to achieve, Murphy said.
At the end of the day, the question is simple, he said: “Do you want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history.”
To get on the right side, Hong Kong’s leaders need to “reach out for the future... kick the door down,” said Murphy, now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “They need to know where they want to go, what they want [the city] to look like.”
The starting point, for Murphy, is the people: a smart city must first and foremost be designed for the benefit of its people – all its people. Inclusion and the digital divide are part of the global smart city debate. Central to that question is investment into education, training and healthcare, as well as the built and natural environment.
Reach out for the future... kick the door down
Take the Central waterfront: “Everyone’s picture postcard,” as Murphy put it. “You have the most spectacular waterfront in the world.”
Key to effectively making these public spaces work for a sustainable, inclusive smart city requires strong yet agile leadership from a government that is unafraid of close collaboration with businesses and other stakeholders – and that means allowing non-state actors room to innovate, said Murphy.
A willingness to take radical decisions that break from the rulebook and challenge the status quo and vested interests is also needed. Florida’s decision to raise hurdles to solar energy’s disruption of the incumbent power infrastructure offers a good example of missed opportunities, Murphy said.
One area that Hong Kong needs to be wary of is the over-dependence on the finance industry. The smart city of the future will, by definition, be built on talented individuals, and so the competition to nurture, attract and keep the brightest and the best is where cities should be focused.
The biggest employers in about 60 percent of US cities are now either universities or hospitals – often with flourishing R&D centers backed by business. Big companies such as GE and McDonald’s are deserting suburban campuses in America and returning to the cities… and the concentrations of talent.
Smart cities require more than an efficient transport system, Murphy said. People want to live in cities that are easy to move around, that offer lifestyle options, art, culture and shared public spaces. “Not just paths of concrete.”