What can HK learn from NYC in building a smart city? (Part 1)

Hong Kong and New York City (NYC) share a lot of commonalities. Both cities are full of energy, have a high density of population, and high property prices. While NYC was awarded as the best smart city last year, Hong Kong is still planning its smart city journey.  What are the experiences and lessons at NYC that are relevant to us?

This question is best answered by former Hong Kong resident Minerva Tentoco, also NYC’s first CTO. Tentoco lived in Hong Kong when she was CTO at UBS Asia Pacific. After leaving a highly paid job in Hong Kong, she moved to NYC in 2014 as the city’s first CTO and led its smart city initiatives.

Although she has returned to the private sector as senior advisor of Future\Perfect Ventures, a woman-run tech venture capital firm, Tentoco built a foundation for the city’s smart city initiatives to excel. In this two-part series of “What can HK learn from NYC in building a smart city?” we will be covering Tentoco’s experiences and views in driving different smart city initiatives in NYC.

Smart and equitable city

“The role of the CTO is to coordinate [different parties] towards a common goal,” Tentoco told Computerworld Hong Kong. This goal is not only about building a smart city, but a “smart and equitable city,” meaning technology for the public good and technology for all.

“Economic inequality is going to cause a lot of problems,” she said. “Equality is just good economics, it really is.”

She added that inequality is a global trend and the gap is widening. One simple example is Oxfam’s announcement earlier this year at the World Economic Forum, stating that the top eight wealthiest men own the same wealth as 3.6 billion people—the poorest 50% of the whole planet.

At NYC, the smart city initiatives are planned around driving equality. Tentoco said that unlike Hong Kong, one major inequality in NYC is access to technology. She said 22% of New Yorkers do not have access to broadband and that percentage increases to 36% for those living below the poverty line.

“I was quite spoiled in Hong Kong, as it’s comfortable to get Internet access. In New York, it is much more expensive,” she said. 

City-wide connectivity

Thus NYC started the Broadband for All program.

“We see the Internet as the essential way to live, the same way as water and electricity a hundred years ago,” said Tentoco. “Internet access is just the same [as utilities] in the modern day.”

One of the projects under Broadband for All is LinkNYC, a communications network that aims to bring superfast and free public Wi-Fi to the city. If this concept sounds familiar that is because we have a similar program locally called Wi-Fi.HK.

Different from Wi-Fi.HK, LinkNYC aims to provide Wi-Fi through replacing the city’s existing 7,500 payphone booths with a LinkNYC kiosk (see image underneath). Launched in January 2016, LinkNYC is still at its beta phase and has replaced more than 600 payphone booths.

Each kiosk is enabled with Wi-Fi access point; a tablet to make free phone calls anywhere in the US and to access city services and map; a 911 button for emergency; a power-only USB port to charge mobile devices; and two high definition displays for location-based advertising.  According to Tentoco, these kiosks not only pay for themselves, but also share 50% of the advertising revenue with the city government.

The LinkNYC kiosks are developed, built and maintained by CityBridge, a private consortium developed for the LinkNYC project. As a new franchisee of the existing payphone infrastructure in 2014, CityBridge’s 12-year contract included system upgrade during the period.

“We took advantage of the opportunity to develop a new franchise arrangement focused on providing Wi-Fi, when the contract with the previous franchisee was about to expire,” she said.

Perfecting public-private partnership

“Hotspot is just one part of LinkNYC,” Tentoco added. “We were named the smart city because of the idea to create a whole new kind of partnership.”