Universities can fuel innovation

Updated: 2015-10-27 07:33

By Peter Liang(HK Edition)

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Emphasizing the importance of the proposed innovation and technology bureau, Naubahar Sharif, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), has repeated the warning that Hong Kong lags far behind other competing economies in terms of innovation.

In a commentary published in the South China Morning Post, Sharif noted that Hong Kong's under-developed "innovation ecosystem" compares poorly with many other economies - including South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan - in diversity and range. To catch up, Shariff argued, government intervention is not only necessary, it is essential.

The professor has a point. The apparent success of innovation in each of the economies mentioned in the article owes much to massive government intervention in the form of direct subsidies, land grants and tax concessions.

To be sure, the proposed centralized body to coordinate efforts of all sectors in promoting innovation is a sound idea. But the Hong Kong government is not in a position to match the incentives offered by competitors to their own entrepreneurs. The responsibility, therefore, must be shared by the universities, particularly the one where Sharif teaches, which are heavily subsidized by the government.

Silicon Valley in California is held up as the model that nearly every aspiring technology hub is trying to emulate. It is well-known that the seeds of the prosperous high-tech industry in Silicon Valley were planted years ago by several local universities. These trained and educated some of the world's most talented scientists and engineers, encouraging them to have an enterprising spirit.

These universities have continued to produce top-rated professionals with bright ideas to enrich and expand the legendary Silicon Valley's "innovation ecosystem." It is a system that was not created by government subsidies and grants, but rather by many talented and motivated people trained in first-class institutions.

The role of the government there is limited to one that emphasizes maintaining a legal and administrative framework to ensure a level playing field for all and adequate protection of intellectual property rights. The belief shared by many entrepreneurs not only in Silicon Valley, but also in Hong Kong, is that if an enterprise cannot survive free-market competition at the initial stages without government subsidies, it is destined to fail in the longer term.

By all accounts, the Hong Kong government has done a credible job of protecting the rights of investors and innovators in a free-market environment that operates efficiently and is well-regulated. It is up to HKUST and other universities to train people with the talent and courage to take advantage of this "innovation ecosystem".

(HK Edition 10/27/2015 page5)