Resilient Bangkok?
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Resilient Bangkok?

How the Rockefeller Foundation hopes to help the Thai capital navigate physical, social and economic shocks to come.

Resilient Bangkok?
Phubes Saechin, owner of ybertech Limited Company, sits at his desk looking at live webcam footage of water levels on the canels and rivers approaching Hat Yai that provides businesses and communities with accurate, real time information on water levels.

New technology, changing investor and consumer expectations and regulatory support has done much to encourage private companies worldwide of the importance of incorporating the concepts of sustainability, social responsibility and governance within their operations.

"The idea that corporate social responsibility is just public relations, I think very few companies can get away with that anymore," said Ashvin Dayal, managing director for Asia at the Rockefeller Foundation.

He pointed to Unilever and its work in sustainable sourcing with its supply chain or India's Tata Group focus on labour standards as examples of companies that have moved to embed sustainability within its core operations.

"I think there is a more strategic approach being taken towards tackling problems," Mr Dayal said.

Ashvin Dayal

"There have been positive changes, better direction of resources [by the private sector]. We see more long-term partnerships rather than one-off initiatives."

The Rockefeller Foundation, one of the oldest and largest non-governmental organisations in the world, traces its work in Thailand back to 1915 with a project to eradicate hookworm.

The "100 Resilient Cities" programme, an initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, in 2013 selected Bangkok to be part of its global network working to help cities worldwide become more resilient to physical, social and economic shocks. Bangkok released its resilience strategy earlier this year, with initiatives aimed at addressing challenges faced from aging infrastructure, climate change and pollution.

A member of the Rour Leck Tai community in Chiang Rai works on her own small plot of land growing vegatables along a section of the Mae Kok Noi Channel where an ecological restoration project aims to improve water circulation and quality for the benefit of communities living along the channel.

Mr Dayal said new technology was opening up new doors and opportunities for entrepreneurs to help address basic challenges such as access to water, energy or healthcare.

Digital technology, he said, has helped unlock and create waves of new social entrepreneurs.

"The great thing about technology, is that so much of it is about the data. You can be a small player and innovate in ways that you couldn't 20 or 30 years ago," Mr Dayal said.

Many developing countries in Asia still face issues in providing energy access.

In Myanmar, 80% of the population lacks access to a centralised national energy grid.

But new technology, pushed by social entrepreneurs can help provide off-grid energy or create decentralised mini-grids within a period of months, in contrast to the years it might take a public utility to build out its network to reach rural communities.

Mr Dayal said a challenge was for governments to help create a supportive environment that would allow social entrepreneurs and innovation to flourish.

In some cases, the best choice for policymakers is simply to do nothing.

"Take the IT sector in India in the 1990s. It was the absence of regulation more than anything that was the enabler," Mr Dayal said. "Sometimes the best things that can be done is to just stay out."

He agreed that one step authorities should consider are regulatory changes to facilitate entrepreneurship and ease the cost of doing business.

Regulation itself can be a source of innovation, Mr Dayal also noted, pointing to how the auto sector has been forced to innovate to meet fuel efficiency standards.

Environmental awareness has also seen good progress, with more companies devoting resources into examining their carbon footprints or doing environmental audits, thanks to impetus from public policy as well as self-regulation.

But greater leadership and awareness is needed in the area of sustainability and resilience.

"While there has been more and more progress at the city and national level, there remains a long way to go," Mr Dayal said.

For Bangkok, the devastating floods of 2011 led may companies to rethink how climate change and natural disasters might affect operations. But still lacking is collective action to derive long-term solutions.

"It's not just a Thai issue. It's an issue where more awareness is needed," Mr Dayal said.

Leadership from policymakers and politicians is key.

"The government can't do it without the private sector. So many of the assets at risk are privately owned, and you need the public and private sectors to work together," Mr Dayal said.

Rockefeller is working to facilitate such public-private initiatives in areas such as energy access in Myanmar.

Mr Dayal noted that the green revolution in agriculture was a classic example of this type of coordination, where research institutes worked together with private companies and NGOs to boost crop production worldwide.

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