In Hong Kong, a sure sound of poverty comes from the metal clang of caged homes. The Society for Community Organization estimates that 1.3 million of the 7 million people in Hong Kong live below the poverty line, many of whom settle in cage and cubicle dwellings.
Most cages are no bigger than the size of a standard North American bathtub. Cubicle dwellings are seldom any more spacious. A 450-square-foot apartment could be partitioned and shared by 22 men. Residents in these cramped spaces include low-income workers, refugees, and people with mental illness, and they often share their scarce living area with cockroaches, lizards, and other creatures that decide to move in.
Among those without a home, Oxfam Hong Kong reported this year that over 70 percent of poor, private tenant households not under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme have not received any offer of public rental housing after four years on the waiting list.
Poverty and the effects of income inequality are recognized issues by the government, but those working in the social innovation sector believe more can be done to create a bigger impact.
Kevin Au, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and member of the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund (SIEDF) Task Force, one of six task forces set up by the government in November of 2012 to address poverty, penned an article demanding funding to encourage social innovation rather than allocating money directly to the poor or nonprofits.
“The public does not fully understand the spillover effects of social innovation and thus is skeptical of its benefits,” writes Au. He explains that social innovation has not progressed much in Hong Kong because the public is worried that private individuals are not capable of creating “trickle-down” benefits to greater society, as they have witnessed many using their freedom to solely profit personally. As a result, social innovators fear receiving government support, causing the sector to remain nascent.
The government has allocated HK$500 million for the SIEDF to develop an ecosystem for addressing Hong Kong’s social problems, but at this time that money is yet to be spent. It’s estimated that 20 percent will be spent in its first year of implementation.
As of late, Au sees that more people understand the concept of innovation to address deep-rooted problems, but he hopes to witness broken barriers and additional progress to social innovation, such as more ideas, talent, knowledge, and capital mobilized. “Given the potential benefits, it’s worth taking a risk by spending a limited amount of public money to spur social innovation,” he said.
“I broadly agree with his views but implementation will be slow and we need to be patient,” said the co-founder of Asia Community Ventures, Ming Wong, responding to Au’s article.
Following 18 months of research, Wong, who spent over 20 years in investment banking before becoming a financial consultant for impact investing, co-authored the report EngageHK to map Hong Kong’s social ecosystem.
The report, not unlike Au’s views, reveals significant hindrances to the progress of social innovation. Namely, there is a lack of cross-sector collaboration, funding, awareness, legal and policy framework, and shared goals. The authors report that Hong Kong lacks a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration, and there is no real leader in pushing any agenda forward.
Meanwhile, although collaboration does not resonate well in the culture, competition does, and it seems to be a selling point for supporting social innovation in Hong Kong. For instance, Au writes that social enterprises have become a “potential strength for Hong Kong” and wishes to “take the competitiveness of Hong Kong to another dimension”. The authors of EngageHK emphasize the “need to move quickly forward” otherwise “Hong Kong will risk losing its competitiveness, falling behind other global cities.”
Despite experts calling to forge ahead, there are a number of ongoing initiatives that paint a not-so-bleak picture. Last Friday, the Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation (JCDISI) of the The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which is one of the city’s several social innovation hubs in academia, kicked off a 10-day Social Innovation Festival.
“As a powerhouse of research with impact, PolyU positions itself in the community to promote positive social change and help those whose quality of life could be improved. I hope you will be as excited as I am about this Social Innovation Festival – a unique ten days for conversation, exchange of knowledge and celebration,” said Timothy W. Tong, the university’s president.
Through workshops, exhibitions, concerts, and movie screenings, to name a few, the free festival gives visitors a chance to familiarize with social innovation activities and projects.
“It is important for Hong Kong to nurture creative young talents who can be inspired to develop innovational solutions to tackle the challenges the city faces, and I am confident the Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation will provide inspiration and prove to be a great asset in this regard,” said T. Brian Stevenson, Chairman of The Hong Kong Jockey Club. JCDISI was set up thanks to a HK$249 million donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust.
While some advocate to dump the prizes or at least the bad ones, there is still a lack of funding for early-stage social enterprises and many remain reliant on competitions to build up raw ideas. The Asia Social Innovation Award is one of these competitions. Based in Hong Kong, the competition is currently seeking social enterprise solutions from all across Asia that address common issues in the region, specifically aging population, poverty, and improving parent-child relationships.
Whether to enhance competitiveness, avoid falling behind, or address pressing issues, notably poverty, social innovation initiatives in Hong Kong are alive and well. If not completely to Au or Wong’s liking, the surface has at minimum been scratched, albeit slowly. As Wong urges, patience will be required.
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