Moving Mountains: Innovating the Public Sector in Hong Kong and Beyond

Moving Mountains: Innovating the Public Sector in Hong Kong and Beyond

Bringing innovation to the public sector is perhaps inherently difficult, but it is not impossible. More governments have set an example – applying Design Thinking to transform their public services and innovate for inclusive, responsive solutions in more ways than you think. What can Hong Kong learn from them? What opportunities lie ahead?

Hong Kong has never been short of innovation. From building the world’s first freshwater reservoir to be carved out of the sea to engineering one of Asia’s most extensive footbridge systems in Central District – the public sector has experimented with innovative methods to develop resilient infrastructures that resolve the city’s unique geographical challenges and support economic development.

In the last decade, Design Thinking emerged from a practical application for product development into a valuable methodology for innovation in public sectors around the globe. Essentially, it is a problem-solving process concerned with solving complex problems in a human-centric way. By understanding the human needs involved, re-framing problems, brainstorming ideas, and prototyping and testing, Design Thinking enables governments to develop innovative solutions at a lower risk and cost and get better buy-in from citizens and stakeholders.

Globally, governments are adopting Design Thinking in different ways, at different levels in government, and with different focus areas and scopes of work. For example, in the UK, cross-departmental teams such as Policy Lab UK were set up by the government to brings human-centred design approaches to policy-making.

More recently, we’ve seen the Hong Kong Government embarking on a similar journey. Since 2017 when the government recognised Design Thinking as a problem-solving capability for Hong Kong in its Policy Address (Part III: Diversified Economy, Section 88), different departments have embraced this methodology in its strategies to deliver public goods and meet the needs of the public more effectively.

Policy Lab , as part of the Civil Service Reform in the UK, is bringing people-centred design approaches to policy-making. They’ve been developing policies in a more user-centred way using Design Thinking, data and digital tools.

Walking the Design Thinking Journey with Citizen to Innovate Public Infrastructure

Taking an example from the public infrastructure development in the North District in Hong Kong: in 2017, the Drainage Services Department was tasked to plan for an upgrade and expansion of the Shek Wu Hui Sewage Treatment Works to improve the capacity for sewage flow. An important focus of the initiative was to ensure the treatment plant continues to be a good neighbour in the surrounding community. To achieve this goal, the department turned the planning process into a Design Thinking process that encouraged Citizen-Government co-creation and fast prototyping.

Partnering with Good Lab, the department launched the Community Design Lab@Shek Wu Hui Effluent Polishing Plant & Peripheral Areas project with a series of cross-sector Design Thinking sessions. Residents, green groups, educators, department officials, and other stakeholders came together to identify underserved pain points, generate creative ideas, and prototype possibilities of transforming the utility plant into a community-oriented facility.

We turned ideas into prototypes and trial tours, and then presented them to the public. By doing so, we hope to rekindled the connection between the facility, residents, and the natural landscapes in the area.
Residents, department officials, and other stakeholders came together to identify underserved pain points, brainstorm ideas, and explore the possibilities for the public space.

These sessions gave birth to a public space 3D design model and have also rekindled the connection between the facility, residents, and the natural landscapes in the area. A district-based educational programme featuring trial tours on themes of “Sustainable Living in Sheung Shui” and “Impact of Water in Local History” was developed with citizens to reinforce community identity.

This new approach is relatively nascent in Hong Kong’s public sector. Still, the project opened a new frontier in Design-Thinking-driven public infrastructure planning and problem-solving.

How Other Asia Countries Harness Design Thinking to Transform Public Services

Meanwhile, governments in other Asian countries have been using Design Thinking to champion innovation beyond hardware designs, cracking complex social issues and designing better public services to improve citizens’ lives.


Singapore is one such Asian country that has played a leading role in this movement. Singapore has historically harnessed the collective strength of the community and adopted Design Thinking to design human-centric public services that effect long-term desired outcomes. The effectiveness of this approach was particularly evident in times of crisis. 

At the start of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health’s Office for Healthcare Transformation launched a competition on its open innovation platform: Design4Impact. It hopes to seek sustainable and community-owned solutions to some of the country’s most formidable healthcare challenges amplified by Covid-19.

One winning solution developed by university students was to recreate the social media experience for isolated seniors with chronic diseases, minus the technology. The idea came from empathising with the isolated yet digitally-estranged seniors affected by the safety measures during the pandemic.

Deploying the Design Thinking approach, the students developed a solution – to convert “void decks” (open space on the ground floor of housing blocks) into community space with health progress boards to track senior residents’ health habits. “We wanted to bring the online social media experience that we youths heavily rely on to get by, for them to better manage their health and harness the self-sustaining power of community,” the team shared. While the solution still requires more prototyping, it illustrates how Design Thinking can be leveraged to develop agility and resilience in society to tackle complex challenges.

“Void deck”, which original purpose is to promote ventilation and prevent flooding, could now be turned into a space where regular community health check can take place.


In Korea, government departments have also stepped up on the innovation front. Adopting the open innovation framework “Living Labs”, departments are encouraged to explore and resolve their headline issues with input from relevant internal and external stakeholders, including citizens, through a co-creative Design Thinking process.

In Gwangju, citizens are taking the lead to identify problems and work collaboratively with the local government and public institutions to solve them through the “Local Problem-solving Platform”. A case in point is Sweet Co-living, a project that aims to establish a new community revitalisation model to improve residents’ quality of life in Gwangju. The city has long been beset by slum development, long-term vacancy in permanent rental apartments, and housing shortages for young people. The project brought together residents, government officials and housing professionals to co-create a community revitalisation model that coordinates the provision of unoccupied rental apartments, residential spaces and activity bases for young people. 

Opportunities to Create Greater Innovation in Hong Kong’s Public Sector

To solve today’s public policy challenges – an ageing population, housing problems, etc. – there is a crucial need to increase the level of innovation in Hong Kong’s public sector. The above international cases testify to the success of innovation efforts using the Design Thinking approach in areas beyond public infrastructure design. However, a transition like this entails a disruptive change in how the government operates. We identify three helpful starting points for civil servants looking to explore more possibilities of public innovation:

1. Innovation Pilot

Innovation is not a one-shot thing but a process of never-ending efforts to iterate for better results. What makes Design Thinking work in innovation is the spirit of trial and error in a structured way.

Starting small and investing in prototypes and experiments with a well-defined goal enables the government to deal with uncertainties, remove risk through testing cycles and iterations, and maximise the benefits of limited public resources. In addition, cultivating a culture within the government to embrace these manageable risks and uncertainties would help innovate more. This can be done by empowering champions in departments and bureaus to lead changes.

2. Capacity Building in Teams and Society

The Hong Kong Government has made progress by bringing in external expertise to set up new projects and developing training programmes to inject Design Thinking into teams. However, to drive a systemic change in the culture of public institutions, governments must invest in not only the capacity and capabilities of civil servants as the catalysts of innovation but also that of society as a whole.

In Singapore, the School of X was established by the DesignSingapore Council to build human-centred design capabilities in the country. Not only would this form fitter solutions for local issues, it would also help the government get public buy-in for small prototypes and experiments more easily because the society understands how innovation and Design Thinking works.

The School of X empowers citizens to adopt Design Thinking and create solutions to cope with social problems that they are facing.

3. Think and Work Beyond Silos

For years, most public institutions got used to designing and implementing their activities in silos. However, In dealing with wicked policy areas with cross-bureau/departmental responsibilities, uncertain solutions, and constantly evolving problems, the government should break away from the silo mindset and make it an administration-wide target to promote collaboration ── whether it be investing internally in interdepartmental teams or reaching out externally to the civil society to get the real feel of the situation on ground and look for alternative input to solutions.

Collaborating with civil society requires a continuous public engagement mechanism – a set of processes/techniques/instruments to enable involvement of the public at different stages of policy making. Rather than taking a traditional consultation approach, where community input is usually sought at the end of the decision-making process with limited scope for public participation, this mechanism allows the government to tap into existing community networks, and crowdsource feedback and innovative solutions at the more formative stage. While it is a step outside traditional routines and often involves discomfort and uncertainty, it allows the government to uncover bugs and concerns that are previously missed and develop public services or policy that actually answers a need.

Feedback from the community networks helps public policy-makers refine their solutions and address the hidden issues.

It is a different approach to be sure but not an entirely unfamiliar one. In the Community Design Lab@Shek Wu Hui Effluent Polishing Plant & Peripheral Areas project, the government has discovered and harvested the power of Design Thinking and public engagement in the planning of its project. Other examples include Community Design Lab@Yuen Long and Toilet Tells, a programme intended to look at public toilets from a new perspective through 4 stages of public Design Thinking workshops. 

Now, the question is how we can replicate the success in more areas of the public sector. Small-scale public participation sessions can be a way forward. Through these engagements, we can create room for meaningful, and productive dialogues between citizens and the government, and together realise a shared vision of a resilient, sustainable, and human-centred society.

If you are interested in more examples of applying Design Thinking in innovating public services, watch the full episode of the “Public Innovation – Bridging the Gaps Between the People, Private and Public Sectors” session at the Social Enterprise Summit 2021 here.

Moderated by Warren Luk (CEO, Good Lab, HK)

Speakers: Ms Sunkyung HAN (Founder and CEO, C., South Korea), Ms Emily ONG (Deputy Executive Director, DesignSingapore Council, Singapore), Ada WONG (Chairperson, Make A Difference Institute, HK)