The Land of Possibilities!

A while ago, I was asked to write an article for AM730 on social innovation, based on my experiences in the UK and how it translate to Hong Kong.  Special thanks for the GoodLab team for doing the translation — as the one that went to print had to be in Cantonese, which is here.  For those of you that want the English version, here it is below!

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While it was not a long time ago, over the Easter break, I went to the United Kingdom for a trip, first to take my lovely wife on a tour of the countryside England is so famous for, and also to meet up with the old friends that I had made over there when I spent 7 years over there as a social entrepreneur running a organisation called FoodCycle.

It was also this time that I was contacted to write an article for this column on social innovation so the quite natural topic came up as I was strolling through one of the amazing countryside trails outside of London -what can we learn from the UK? (it’s also the top question people ask me in talks!)

The topic of this article was always at the back of my mind as I visited the many sites around England, and slowly as we walked down the streets and cities of the different cities of England, it seemed like the English people were very open to ‘repurposing land’ for better uses, especially if it meant if it was better for the community.

There were many examples of this. Old train tracks that were turned into cycling and walking paths. Schools and churches turned into private housing. Derelict land, while waiting for zoning approval, turned into community gardens. Train stations turned into open markets that were full of independent artisan food makers. An ex- Post Office mail sorting facility got its last hurrah before it was turned into luxury lofts by having a food market inside. A old warehouse was converted into an immersive interactive theatre featuring actors who pretended to be zombies. Some of these were planned, some of it was given, and some of it was a publicity stunt… however, one thing was clear — when you give the mind space. It will think. It will be creative. Similarly, when you give people space, they will be creative as well.

Where does that leave us then, surely by now, you will think, well, that’s England, that would never happen in Hong Kong, where land values are sky high you’re your rights for property ownership is protected more than your vote.

However, I believe that things are already happening, right now, LightBe is in the midst of converting a civil servants living quarters to a 40 bedroom co-housing space for low income women. The JCCAC and PMQ both turned derelict buildings into art hubs. Those are just the flagship examples of what’s possible. Local sports clubs such as Ahmed from Shaheen Hockey Club is building their little hockey training centre in the heart of Yau Ma Tei on government Short Term Tenancy Land. Just around the corner on Ferry St there is a local community allotment for the community. Rooftop Republic is rethinking what Rooftops are greening rooftops and making them into hubs for the community. A quick browse on the Lands department website shows dozens of sites ready to be reclaimed by the community for use, not to mention the many abandoned schools and empty wet markets that can be repurposed to only what the limits of imagination are. Let’s not forget the Central Market in Central while we’re at it. There are hundreds of more sites to be converted into community space… they might be maybe not forever, but temporarily, they can be the vibrant community that can be the starting space of new entrepreneurs and artists, and also be a place where tourists flock to.

What I learned from my trip to England is that when people are given the space and responsibility to create, people will create things and take responsibility for them. If you ask what Hong Kong needs, it’s more affordable, accessible open spaces for people to create their own community. I believe that if we give people open space to create, they will not only create the most wonderful things, but also create things that the whole community can come together to enjoy and be a part of.

Still not sure where to start? At the GoodLab, we’ve got lots of open space to rent to test things out. If you want a space to try, send us an idea, and if we like it and think it’ll work, we’ll give you the space free to try out!

Kelvin Cheung July 7 2016

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