Members of the Chamber’s Europe Committee found plenty of smart city inspiration, Belt and Road activity and interest in Hong Kong during their mission to Austria and the Czech Republic from 4 to 8 June. In Vienna, Prague and Brno, the delegation enjoyed a packed schedule of visits, meetings and receptions where they learned about the economic climate in the region and explored a range of business opportunities.
Vienna’s central role
The mission’s first stop was Vienna, where they found many parallels with Hong Kong.
“Austria functions as a hub in Central Europe; Hong Kong also functions as a hub for Mainland China,” said Wilfried Gunka, International Director of the Austrian Business Agency.
This means Austria is set to benefit as the Belt and Road Initiative brings investment and infrastructure to Eastern Europe. Even still, Chamber delegates were surprised at the high level of awareness of the initiative.
“In Austria, almost without exception, everywhere we went and everyone we spoke to, everybody seemed to know about the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Stephen Weatherseed, Chairman of the Europe Committee and leader of the mission.
In fact, a report, “Economic Policy Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative for CESEE and Austria,” was released during their visit. Ambassador Li Xiaosi of the Chinese Embassy in Austria presented the visitors with a copy hot off the press.
This report notes that the initiative will be particularly significant in the Western Balkan countries that “have the strongest need for infrastructure catch-up.” Julia Grubler, Economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies and coordinator of the report, spoke to the Chamber members about the opportunities for Austrian finance and trade presented by the initiative.
“From all of the meetings that we had, it was apparent that Austria is a good launch point for doing business in Central and Eastern Europe,” noted Eberhard Brodhage, Vice Chairman of the Europe Committee. He added that he had felt a “keen interest in developing further opportunities with Hong Kong” during the meetings in Vienna.
During the trip, the delegates learned about Austria’s robust economy, high economic and social stability, and positive investment climate.
Wilhelm Brauner, Europe Committee Member and a native of the country, explained that Austria has had mandatory education since the 18th century, and its focus on learning continues to pay dividends.
“Austria has a very high standard of both vocational and technical schools that provide a mass of skilled technicians and engineers,” he said. “Many Austrian small and mid-sized companies have the leading spot in their niche market.”
The country’s technological prowess was evidenced during a visit to the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT). Professor Wolfgang Knoll, Managing Director of AIT, explained the institute’s focus on turning academic research into concrete results.
“We have to translate scientific findings to technology to implementation and application,” he said.
Brauner said that he was impressed by the level of groundbreaking technologies that the institute is developing, and also the fact that it is not overly dependent on government funding.
Jennifer Chan, Vice Chairman of the Europe Committee, said the AIT visit was an eye-opener, particularly “the way they combine the various resources from different entities – commercial, educational and governmental – but more importantly, how entrepreneurial and international they are.”
The theme of the mission was “Smart Connections” and in Vienna, the visitors enjoyed seeing one of the world’s most successful smart cities in action. At the Spittelau waste incineration plant they saw how waste is recycled into heating and electricity. Chan also noticed the water refilling stations across the city.
“They are free of charge, and save so many plastic bottles,” she said. “We could see that the local people are very used to using them and almost everybody carries their own bottle.”
Brodhage noted that Vienna had taken steps in the smart city direction some time ago.
“Vienna is very high up in the league of the smartest cities in the world,” he said. “Ten years ago, Vienna anchored the smart city concept in law, and also anchored in law that the smart city evolution needs to deliver benefits to the citizens, and it must be participatory.”
This political will could also be seen in Prague, which is making great strides in the smart city area, Weatherseed explained.
“The city there is really driven by the Mayor, who pulled all parties together and said: ‘Right, I’ve been elected on a platform to make this city smart – we are going to do it,’” he said.
Helping to make this happen is Operator ICT, which is driving the city’s “Smart Prague 2030” project in areas including mobility, buildings, energy and waste management. The delegation learned how the city had managed to cut through government bureaucracy to implement its plan.
“They shared in a very open and honest way the successes and challenges in making that happen. We will be feeding that back to the Smart City Consortium and to ITB in Hong Kong,” Weatherseed said.
Chan also noted that the Prague city government’s approach could have some lessons for Hong Kong.
“The city has put a lot of effort into aligning the different stakeholders’ interest and priorities,” she said. “Like in Hong Kong, finance is not the major issue, but how to mobilize the different stakeholders.”
The need for infrastructure development in Czech Republic was clearly demonstrated when the delegation got stuck in a traffic jam en route to Prague. Generally speaking, however, the economy is thriving.
“The Czech economy is growing at a rate of about 4% a year, which is double the average rate of the E.U.,” Weatherseed said. “And the unemployment rate is down below 3%.”
One of the companies driving the Czech economy is Avast, a global leader in the cybersecurity field, particularly for mobile and smart home devices. This visit was one of the highlights for Chan.
“I had not expected that Prague would be home to a tech company that competes with the top league in Silicon Valley,” she said. “We were well received by the CTO Ondrej Vlcek, who is so passionate about what the company is doing, how they shape the company’s culture, how they see the future, and how proud the staff are and yet so down to earth! It was an extremely inspirational visit.”
Stop-off in Brno
On their way to Prague, the mission stopped in the Czech city of Brno, where they visited the JIC (South Moravian Innovation Centre), which is developing an open innovation ecosystem to support entrepreneurs, start-ups and mature technology companies alike. Also in Brno, they visited the AdMaS Centre (Advanced Materials, Structures and Technologies), part of the faculty of civil engineering at Brno University of Technology.
Brodhage noted the city’s “very strong and vibrant academic community.” It is known as the “Manchester of Central Europe” thanks to its industrial past, but is now a hotbed of technology development as well as a centre of academic excellence.
The visitors were delighted that the Chinese Ambassadors to both countries made time to meet with the HKGCC delegation.
Ambassador Li discussed the positive relationship between Austria and Mainland China, particularly regarding the Belt and Road and 16+1 initiatives. These are creating huge opportunities for Austrian companies, he said.
In Prague, the delegates met with Ambassador Ma Keqing of the Chinese Embassy in the Czech Republic. She explained that ties between the two countries had strengthened greatly since the landmark visit of President Xi Jinping in 2016. She added that the Belt and Road was well known in the Czech Republic, including Hong Kong’s strategic role in providing arbitration, legal, financial and professional services.
“We had a really encouraging meeting with the Ambassador to the Czech Republic,” Brodhage said. “She spoke in a very complimentary way of how the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce delegation actually helped improved the business relations between the Czech Republic and China.”
At a cocktail reception in Vienna – hosted by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Berlin and supported by the Vienna Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the visitors were welcomed by Betty Ho, Director of the Berlin Office.
“The delegation is a good example of the growing ties between Hong Kong and Austria,” Ho said, adding that Hong Kong’s new transport links to the Mainland would enhance trade and logistics.
The event took place in the beautiful Palais Daun Kinsky, and was the highlight of the mission for Weatherseed. “Everybody there seemed to genuinely be very interested and engaged either in an existing business or links through to Hong Kong, or interested in what was going on in Hong Kong.”
The delegates had further networking opportunities in Prague at the Czech-Hong Kong Business Forum, a “very well-organized event,” Weatherseed said, hosted by the Czech Chamber of Commerce. Rudolf Klepacek, Head of the Implementation, Monitoring and Reporting Department at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, told the visitors that the Czech Republic is open for business. “We are looking for opportunities in R&D, technology transfer and know-how transfer in collaboration with Hong Kong,” he said.
Overall, the delegates reported that it was a very successful mission, from the enjoyment of the cities’ beautiful architecture and local food and wine to the highly productive meetings with businesspeople and officials in both countries.