The Smartest Place I Know: Hong Kong

Words by Keith Brewis

Busy streets of Hong Kong with cars and people

“The desire to own a car was never further away"

I struggle with the ideal of a “smart” city because it suggests that every part is planned and intentional. That often detracts from human experience. Every vibrant city is actually an amazing organism in its own right. If a city becomes too smart, it will ultimately become sterile and undesirable. Part of a wonderful city is that a lot of the behaviour of the city and its inhabitants
is free-forming.

Hong Kong used to be like that. I lived there in the early 1990s, before it was returned to China in 1997, and it was a very vibrant, and sometimes overwhelming place. It had an extraordinary intensity and density of living and working, but people just got on with it. Then there were marvellous untouched pieces of ocean and countryside, real places of retreat. So you had this great duality where urbanism was true urbanism and nature was protected and very highly regarded.

How people moved around the city always fascinated me. The need or desire to own a private car was never further away. There was an amazing labyrinth of public transport options: the MTR system, buses, trams, minibuses, taxis, ferries, water taxis. Everything seemed to be set up for highly efficient transfers of people, so the movement of large numbers of people was intuitive, and very straightforward, without complex interchanges.

The minibuses were absolutely unique. They could transport 15-20 people, providing a kind of door-to-door service. There was an approximate route but it was adjusted depending on where the passengers wanted to go. You got on the bus and you spoke to the driver and he adjusted his route. He knew all the passengers on the bus, the order that people would get off, and he would drop you off precisely where you wanted. Data could obviously start to replace that, but the human interaction was great.

The other reason it was such a unique place was because of the relationship with food. The apartments are very small, and they’re regarded as places you sleep, not really set up as living spaces. The living space is the city, and it was more likely that you would eat street food or in a market. It was probably as cheap to eat out as it was to eat in, and that created this amazing communal eating. You didn’t eat alone in the place that you lived. You ate out with everyone else, with friends and strangers.

Since 1997, with the introduction of central government, an additional layer of bureaucracy has slowly grown. The fabric and the intensity of the city has stayed, but the rate of change at a micro level, and the activity that comes with it, has become less frenetic. This affects many western cities. Things that used to happen because people just got on and did them get blocked or slowed. The planning of the city is simply too considered in many ways and therefore it becomes bland.

“Hong Kong was a very vibrant, sometimes overwhelming place. It had an extraordinary density of living and working, but people just got on with it”

Does bureaucracy hold smart cities back? In many ways, I think it does. The governance almost holds back the blindingly obvious advancements that people want to make, and becomes a great source of frustration. Hong Kong was a very free-spirited, independent, Chinese place under a fairly loose-fit British legal system. Because of that, there was a great social order that wasn’t constrictive and allowed it to be extraordinarily progressive as an urban model.

The difficulty I have is calling it “smart”. It doesn’t feel like it’s smart, it just feels wonderful. It’s about vibrancy, but a vibrancy that is underpinned by a kind of collective conscience. Rather than a digital or a technical solution, it was more of a human solution.

Keith Brewis is managing partner for international operations at Grimshaw

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