2016-08-08 10:32

Business Leader: HK's well-being key to its success

By Sophie He

Civic Exchange chief Maura Wong tells Sophie He that good planning, clean air and having more space to walk will make the city tick with sustainability.

Maura Wong hopes ambitious young people in Hong Kong will cling on to their ideals and study what they want, as she had studied something that did not lead to an immediate career. But, down the road, it came back and became a big asset to her work. (Roy Liu / China Daily)

Hong Kong-based independent think tank Civic Exchange - born 16 years ago with a mission to advance civic education and engage the community to shape public policy - believes in a two-pronged approach to attain its goals, says its Chief Executive Officer Maura Wong.

In helping to promote people's understanding of important issues, one method is to put these issues on the map, such as highlighting ship emissions as a major contributor to Hong Kong's toxic air of sulfur dioxide at a time when it wasn't really talked about or properly understood.

Due to Civic Exchange's work, the government introduced legislation last year, making it mandatory for ocean-going vessels coming to Hong Kong or berthing on its shores, to switch to clean fuel which is defined as less than 0.5 percent of sulfur.

This made Hong Kong the first jurisdiction in Asia to regulate ship emissions, Wong tells China Daily in an interview.

The other way is re-framing things with the "well-being" project Civic Exchange has, says Wong, who has been in her new job at Civic Exchange for just four months. The think tank is trying to tell society and the government that GDP and money are not necessarily the most important or useful metrics to define society's success - it believes that, "well-being" is a more important way of measuring success, she explains.

"Our work covers three areas - research, policy analysis and public engagement. The important theme underlining all these has to be evidence-based. We're an independent, non-partisan think tank, so our philosophy, our approach toward tapping research topics is evidence-based."

Wong recalls that during the research on ship emissions in Hong Kong, researchers at Civic Exchange had to conduct primary work to measure and collect data from shipping companies for the actual emission data.

Usually, the organization, which undertakes research in air quality, nature conservation and urban environment, will publish a report based on its findings first. But, she stresses that depending on its length, the report could be quite extensive, sometimes quite academic, in which case it would produce a policy paper on top of it that could be more accessible to the average person.

"We would publish the report on our own platforms. We will also hold press conferences, and we will have an internal seminar on the last Tuesday of every month, with the topics to be discussed varying from month to month."

GDP can't define success

Taking its "well-being report" as an example, the work started four years ago, according to Wong, explaining that the reason Civic Exchange decided to do it is that it feels society should no longer use GDP to define success.

The organization's first report, entitled "Asian Urban-Well-being Indicators Comparative Report: Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai", which was released on June 12, covered surveys of 1,500 people in each of the three cities.

The respondents in each city were asked the same questions - about their perceptions of their city as a place to live in, their overall life satisfaction, their overall satisfaction with each domain, and how much they care about each domain.

In terms of life satisfaction, Shanghai came in first with a score of 7.4 out of 10, followed by Singapore with 7.1 and Hong Kong on 5.8.

Alarmingly, two-thirds of those polled in Hong Kong said they did not think Hong Kong is a good place to bring up children, while 42 percent said they would leave the city if they could.

The report drew a strong public response and heated discussions. "We feel that the discussions are spreading, and that's our purpose," says Wong.

Civic Exchange needs to spread its findings, stimulate people to talk about it, as part of its work to engage society, and hopes its research will make the government listen. It also hopes to have discussions with the government with a view to modifying their policies one day, based on the research done.

Looking to the future, Wong says her aim is to continue the important work Civic Exchange has started.

Civic Exchange has a new project - analyzing the amount of open space that Hong Kong people really have, using data from government archives. It has organized and analyzed the data in order to properly measure whether Hong Kong people really have as much open space as the government says they do have.

"We're also researching on how the open space is being distributed among the rich and poor districts through primary research and policy analysis," Wong says.

Business interview with Ms. Maura Wong, Chief Executive Officer of Civic Exchange on July 5, 2016. (Roy Liu / China Daily)

Creating a 'walkable' city 

Very soon, there'll be another seminar focusing on the "walkability" issues in Hong Kong.

Civic Exchange is promoting the importance of making a city "walkable". It will organize a five-day international conference in October this year, called "Walk 21 Hong Kong", aimed at raising awareness of why it's important to take back some of the city's streets and give a fair share of them to the districts.

Wong points out that a lot of city planning is on how to avoid traffic congestion and allow people to walk in their neighborhood, and provide a nice, pleasant, clean and healthy environment for people to walk in.

"In Hong Kong, we have a lot of roadside pollution. Now, pedestrians are pulled away from streets, the streets have become less vital, less interesting. We think it's important to return the streets to pedestrians as studies have shown that a walkable neighborhood is good for retail sales - it's of low carbon, good for clean air, good for both young and old people."

'To me, this is really an opportunity from heaven'

Civic Exchange Chief Executive Officer Maura Wong had been involved in private equity investment work on the Chinese mainland for more than two decades.

She started off in Goldman Sachs' principal investment area when the group made its first investments in China in the early 1990s.

"In the past six to seven years, I had been focusing on private equity investment work in the environmental sector, and invested in the renewable energy sector on the Chinese mainland," she says.

She had also invested in water and waste-water management, as well as the energy-efficiency sector, which deeply aroused her interest and she's passionate about the environment space.

"So, when the opportunity at Civic Exchange came along, I just thought it was something I couldn't refuse, partially because I had studied public policy in college in the United States."

Wong got her bachelor's degree in international and public affairs from Princeton University. In April this year, she was appointed Civic Exchange's chief executive.

"To me, this is really an opportunity from heaven. I can use my skills and my interest to make the best use of the job," she says.

Wong loves everything about her job, as every time she goes out to talk to people about what Civic Exchange is doing here, they get fascinated. Very often, they would volunteer to help, and this is really encouraging to her.

"This sort of thing is something you won't get working in investments."

Having a platform like Civic Exchange brings together really talented people, and the organization is trying to facilitate and allow everybody to do something good and meaningful, Wong says, adding that Hong Kong had gone through some difficulties recently. But, she believes many people want to be constructive and positive, and Civic Exchange can play a small part in the process.

Wong is proud that those who work at Civic Exchange are all self-motivated, as its research is closely associated with the people's livelihood and current affairs. "So, at the end of the day, they're motivated because they can see the impact of their work, and being able to listen to people talking about our work. They have fulfillment - it's very much like performing in a theater where you get direct feedback from people. At Civic Exchange, they also get very direct feedback from society."

Wong encourages ambitious young people in Hong Kong to cling on to their ideals and study what they want because "you never know when it'll come as handy".

She says she had studied something that did not lead to an immediate career. But, down the road, it came back and she's glad she had that training in college.

"But, perhaps, more in tune with what we're trying to do here, we encourage young people to care about society. We think it's very important for young people to be evidence-based, well-informed. Young people can spend some time making sure they'll get enough information before jumping to conclusions."

Contact the writer at sophiehe@chinadailyhk.com

Source: http://www.chinadailyasia.com/leaders/2016-08/08/content_15474930.html