Sustainable development is now accepted by many as the only viable alternative to the Washington consensus - a blend of market fundamentalism fiercely promoted by the US Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the developing world.
In this alternative, it is recognised that the market cannot function beyond the constraints of the natural environment, and prosperity cannot be sustained without due regard for social equity and the well-being of future generations.
The question is, can Hong Kong become a role model for this next big wave?
A world city must have a global view. Being an active member of the World Trade Organisation, Hong Kong 's view of economic relations and trade is global enough. But trade is only part of the ideal - expressed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August - which can be summed up as ''People, Planet and Prosperity''.
Sustainable development stands for social cohesion and harmony - the attributes of society which seem to have eluded the SAR for the past few years. It involves a wide range of issues, from pollution and conservation to poverty, social equity, energy policy and economic growth.
The challenge is to find a way to combine these different and wide-ranging efforts.
In a policy address submission presented by the Conservancy Association to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, we urged the government to put sustainable development at the forefront of its policy. We believe the key lies in ''Agenda 21'', an integrated plan inspired by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Now that the Johannesburg conference has provided another impetus for discussing sustainable development, it is high time to engage all sectors to formulate a strategy through a local ''Agenda 21'' plan for Hong Kong .
As Hong Kong is starting late, there is no shortage of experience from other jurisdictions. Typically, ''Agenda 21'' plans include the following features: a participatory process with local citizens; a consensus on the vision of a sustainable future; plans to address economic, social and ecological needs together; the establishment of a roundtable, stakeholder group, forum or equivalent multi-sectional community group to oversee the process; an action plan with concrete long-term targets; the establishment of indicators to monitor progress; and a monitoring and reporting framework.
Partnership is the key word in the process: green groups, the government, the business sector and the local community will all have to play a part. And the key to such partnership is commitment.
In a co-operative relationship across sectors, there may be a natural inclination to expect resource-rich sectors (government and business) to provide funding to the poorer sections (green groups and the community).
While this should remain important, it should not be the only - or major - role for government and business, especially in the present economic climate.
In addition to funding, therefore, the government should agree to devote resources to effect community-building, as well as to improving public governance by making substantial institutional changes.
For the business sector, there is already a growing realisation that corporate citizenship is more than corporate giving.
One of the first steps should be a campaign to encourage the business sector to report to the public not just on its financial performance, but also on how its activities affect the environment and the community.
This way, the public - investors included - can begin to reward socially responsible companies and encourage those performing less well to change.
With a commitment to partnership, we believe many of the solutions to our problems will not be difficult to find, even though they may be unglamorous local measures.
An example from Johannesburg is the 4,000 hectare Rietvlei Nature Reserve, a wetland rehabilitation experiment combined with an ecotourism project, which served an additional function of providing employment to the underprivileged and vulnerable groups. On our part, the Conservancy Association is, among other things, developing a pilot sustainable development project in Long Valley in co-operation with local farmers. Local innovation, multi-stakeholder dialogue and an open mind are what we need to create small successes, step by step.
Within Hong Kong , the community is facing many challenges, not least the growing gap between rich and poor. The local ''Agenda 21'' process could be used to turn these challenges into opportunities and to rally the community to address our shared concerns.
What we seek from the government is not to provide all the resources or solutions, but to be a partner to provide the inspiration for the Hong Kong community to move towards the goal of a world-class model of sustainable development.
This cannot be achieved without a change of mindset: a global view of world trends, a historical perspective of our place in China and a local commitment to social equity.
With the rapid urbanisation process taking place in the mainland, it is almost certain that dozens more cities along the coast will become as big as, or larger than, Hong Kong in the next few decades. Whatever lessons Hong Kong can offer - in particular its success or failure in sustainable development, may have a profound impact on China.
Can Hong Kong catch this next big wave and leave another mark on Chinese history?
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association.
(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2003-1-2 )