HKUST: Giving Used Books a Second Life

Bookcrossing has grown into a global phenomenon in the past decade, but the idea still hasn’t taken off in Hong Kong. A team of HKUST alumni are determined to build a local reading culture by releasing second-hand books into the wild, with the help of an app they designed.

Book circulation was stagnant with the traditional way of bookcrossing. Thousands of books ended up sitting on our shelves.

Danny CHEUNG (BSc Chem 2002) and Damon FAN (BBA Mark & MGTO 2003) established a bookcrossing club in Tsuen Wan in 2020 for book lovers to share used books, but responses were lukewarm. “We received thousands of books in the form of donations but only a few hundreds were picked up. But as we only had one location, it was difficult for us to give out these books efficiently. We were taking in too many books with too few ways to find takers for them! Simply put, the operation was not sustainable,” they say.

An automated bookcrossing kiosk

Determined to boost circulation, the duo co-founded Onepile with the idea of digitalizing the bookcrossing process, transforming the traditional book exchange practice into a sustainable social enterprise.

“I contacted a fellow HKUST graduate working in the software industry to write a web-based app which would allow donors and users to input and view information of the books online. The web-based app, combined with a customized book-vending machine, would then become an automated bookcrossing kiosk,” says Danny.

Users need to sign up for the app before they can donate or reserve a book. Donors can quickly upload information of their books simply by scanning their ISBN number in the back. All books are displayed on the app for users to reserve. After a reservation is made, a QR code will be sent to the user for picking up the book from the machine.

“If a book is not picked up within 48 hours, it will be released back to the pool to expedite circulation,” says Damon. The kiosk also provides quick UV sanitizing on books—fitting the needs of a hygiene-cautious crowd who loves to read.

Scalable opportunity

The innovation has led Onepile to become one of the awardees of the Chan Dang Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2022—a new award launched at HKUST that encourages university members to turn business creative ideas into sustainable venture for promoting social good, with six project teams and startups each being awarded a grant.

More than 5,000 books were donated and picked up via the digital bookcrossing machine – the turnover is stella!

With confidence, Danny contacted the newly renovated Central Market, who quickly showed interest to deploy the kiosk at their premise.

“We’re happy to see the city’s very first digital bookcrossing kiosk landed in this prime location on the Hong Kong Island,” says Danny. “Turnover is stellar; the kiosk’s booking schedule is often full, and we have seen more than 5,000 books being donated and picked up since the kiosk was launched in February 2022. We were able to receive press, and now we also have enquiries from real estate developers, schools, shopping malls, and government departments.”

Their initial success has prompted more deployment of the book crossing kiosk across the city: a housing compound in Tsuen Wan, a primary school in Tin Shui Wai, HKUST The Base, and other planned locations underway.

“What Onepile is doing, while delivering on ESG Goals (Environmental, Social, and Governance”), is also a great example of STEM education and applications,” says Jessie LEE (BSc Chem 2002), one of the team members who comes from the STEM education sector. “We are organizing talks and coding classes in schools for the young. Our bookcrossing kiosk is an excellent example to teach students what IoT (Internet of Things) is about.”

A primary school eventually bought a bookcrossing machine from Onepile, and their students, with teachers’ help, has customized the proprietary program for the school environment.

While the bookcrossing service is free for general users, the team hopes the programming classes conducted in schools and the programming toolkit they are selling would contribute as a source of income for the Onepile project to sustain.

A green action

Onepile currently has 5,000 strong members, and the team expects the number to balloon to over 50,000 as deployment locations continue to grow.

The next challenge, for Danny, is to secure sufficient funding to scale up the business and deploy kiosk across the city realizing the potential opportunities.

“With corporations paying more attention to ESGs in today’s world, we are very excited to see enquiries growing on this essentially “green” concept of ours. We believe there is room for businesses like ours that promote green-living and book-loving in Hong Kong.”

Onepile helped me find a purpose in my second half of life.

For Damon in particular, what Onepile does is more than giving used books a second life. “Having established my career in the insurance profession, I’ve reached a point where I wish to make a bigger impact on the community. I’ve read a book about finding significance in midlife and now I’ve found mine – promoting a reading culture and preserving the planet – that’s what Onepile and the team is doing. If there are students who want to join and help , we welcome them to contact us anytime.”

“Onepile has brought together different generations of HKUST members. We have students and alumni from various disciplines and professions to create something that they believe is simple, yet meaningful, for the residents of Hong Kong—a platform to read, and share,” concludes Jessie.



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