HONG KONG - Are the city’s designers ready for the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution? Or are they already meeting it halfway? Chitralekha Basu talks to brand leaders, academics and industry watchers to find out.
A good design could help improve the quality of life in a city, taking it to the next level of building a sophisticated, metropolitan culture. Hong Kong is beginning to appreciate this. It’s evident in the niche but steady customer base supporting eateries like Grassroots Pantry and Mana!, who serve organic food-based artisanal cuisine while promoting the values of sustainable living. It also shows in the popularity of more mass-market products like the mBots (mini robots controlled through coding), developed by the Shenzhen-based educational tools specialist Makeblock that thousands of children in over 600 Hong Kong schools are using. School curriculums are being redesigned to accommodate computer coding and artificial intelligence-assisted learning.
The successful resolution of form and functionality in a design is often the result of a joint effort between people from diverse fields. Design-oriented education programs “should not be confined to nurturing artists, designers or architects,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her maiden Policy Address in October, advocating interdisciplinary collaboration.
Such cross-pollination of ideas and sharing of resources is not uncommon in Hong Kong. For example, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparels (HKRITA) teamed up with the Hong Kong Sports Institute to develop training and competition outfits for the rowing team sent to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. “The costume now weighs less than 100 grams,” says Yan Chan, the director of HKRITA.
Even as the buzz about a coming Fourth Industrial Revolution does the rounds, one wonders if Hong Kong with its amazing plethora of design brains is ready to take advantage of the growth opportunities the turnaround is likely to create.
Chan of HKRITA — an institute which has produced items such as GPS tracking-enabled jackets for elderly people and 3-D brassieres for prosthetic support — agrees that marketing these products on an industrial scale is not easy.
“Only big brands could do it, by first promoting the newly developed customized product and receiving bulk orders as a result,” says Chan. “We create a prototype which the 3-D printer copies and in the long run the costs are much cheaper,” she adds, outlining the possibilities of an industry-institute tie-up.
The multinational clothing brand H&M is supporting HKRITA’s project for upcycling used materials. “The investment is directly from the H&M Foundation. This benefits the whole textile industry,” says Chan. “Then the intellectual property, the research and development and the brain informing the technology are all from right here in Hong Kong.”
Service design is hot
Eric Yim, chairman of Hong Kong Design Council, who started DesignXcel — an annual coming together of the design schools across the city to showcase their work to prospective buyers — says the field of opportunities for the city’s design graduates is growing.
Then, he hastens to add, every design professional from the city cannot expect to find a job “necessarily on the same street where one lives”. “There is the Chinese mainland to tap, and the ASEAN countries, the second-largest market for Hong Kong,” he suggests.
Yim would like the new design professionals in the city to try and expand their horizons, not just spatially but also in terms of looking beyond the disciplines they might have trained in.
“Ninety percent of Hong Kong industries comprise the service industry,” says Yim. “There are a lot of opportunities for designers in service designing. In the hospitality industry, service design is applied long before the client actually steps into the property. It’s about the experience one can deliver before, during and after the service.”
As an example he cites Common Ground, a coffee shop in Central. Tucked away in a shaded nook as one walks up the steps of Shing Wong Street, the cafe is about making value additions to the experience of coffee drinking in a classy, understated way. Common Ground is the brainchild of brothers Caleb and Joshua Ng, who gave up a career with Merrill Lynch in California to start a food consultancy in Hong Kong. “They make the coffee in front of the customers and talk to them personally, about the journey of a coffee bean,” says Yim. The brothers’ background of studying economics at the University of California, Los Angeles seems to have helped. “They know how to position themselves as coffee ambassadors,” says Yim.
Such attempts at giving what’s essentially a business transaction the top-spin of community bonding may not be that new. The model could be traced back to the traditional tea-house culture in China. By the time the Fourth Industrial Revolution makes mass-customization affordable, each consumer will be looking to buy personalized goods which would, ideally, reflect who he is. By subtly linking up coffee history with a traditional Chinese ritual, the brothers Ng have already taken a few steps down that road.
Bespoke in the digital era
The idea of bespoke has changed in the post-mass-production era. To breathe fresh life into Hong Kong’s small bespoke tailoring establishments, which had begun losing customers to branded clothing, HKRITA evolved a standardized measurement system. “We call it paper patterning system,” says Chan. “It’s an aggregate that helps translate physical measurements into the paper pattern without having to measure up the wearer. You’re allowed one fitting and it usually works.”
“This is a way of combining handed-down knowledge with high technology and translating these into the end products which cost less than bespoke,” she adds.
The ways of marketing bespoke merchandise are changing too. Anna Garner, who sells individually commissioned bespoke items of household decor, handcrafted by some of the finest artists and designers from Europe, through her online portal — the Garnered, recently opened a pop-up retail store for just a month in Hong Kong’s Landmark. The idea was to humanize online shopping, to renew the appeal of touching before buying.
“We sell online, which is usually such a fast convenient way to shop, but in many cases, our products are made to order and therefore require a lead time of up to six weeks,” says Garner. “So despite being in a fast-paced online environment, we offer our customers a ‘slow’ pace and encourage the enjoyment in that slowing down. In fact, people stepping in during our workshops at the Landmark pop-up commented on how meditative it was.”
She is looking to livestream interactive sessions between designers and interested customers in the future. “The possibilities of new digital marketing are infinite, and I find this contrast with the more traditional crafts and methods we are working hugely dynamic and exciting,” Garner adds.
Learning from the mainland
Some of the defining features of the Fourth Industrial Revolution include a fusion of technologies that overlap the categories of physical, biological and digital, creating designs that are a product of avant-garde thinking and the application of emerging technology breakthroughs.
Fai Au, the founder and principal of O Studio Architects, says Hong Kong is way behind the mainland, where using robotic technology in construction is not all that rare. “There are very strict regulations to abide by. If you want to bring in new material to Hong Kong, it has to meet the fire safety standards,” says Fai.
Fellow architect Chan Lai-kiu, however, points out that the paucity of space and high-density architectural constructions in Hong Kong make such stringent regulations a necessity.
She hastens to add that this is probably an opportune moment for Hong Kong to catch up with the technical strides made on the mainland and indeed elsewhere. “I see the current government as quite progressive, adventurous and open to new technology and new trends. So we are in a good time to try out these experiments,” Chan says.
The growing demand for robots for industrial use on the mainland raises the somewhat discomfiting specter of a time when there will be room at the top tier, only for innovators and policymakers. Human beings will no longer qualify for the blue-collar — and even a substantial section of white-collar — jobs.
Could this result in creating more social inequities than we are saddled with already?
Yim says the need of the hour is to inform and educate young people that there won’t be any jobs in the middle tier by the time they are ready to enter the job market. In fact, we should start giving them a clear picture of the changing circumstances from Primary One right now, he suggests.
Lee Ho-yin, who heads Architectural Conservation Programs at the University of Hong Kong, says that the Fourth Industrial Revolution might in fact be harnessed to achieve greater societal harmony.
“The development in effective e-commerce, online shopping and e-payment enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will free small retailing businesses from renting shops, connecting them to non-labor-intensive autonomous delivery systems, like AI-controlled drone delivery, and enable them to adapt to change in market demand more quickly through mass data,” he says, citing the successful mainland business models of Alibaba and Taobao as examples.
The growth of home-based small retailing businesses, says Lee, will help bring down the astronomical rents of spaces in shopping malls and office towers. “This means more urban land can be freed up for public housing and affordable home offices as well as leisure and recreational uses, which will improve the quality of living and the design quality of the built environment.”
And this is good news for conservation, he adds. “Reduced demand for costly redevelopment in the urban areas will make refurbishing old buildings more cost-effective than demolishing them and redeveloping the site. If all of these happen, I can only foresee a society with more fair income distribution and social stability.”
If Hong Kong is all set to become Asia’s design mecca, will it also touch the lives of every person living in or passing through the city?