Bangkok needs a smarter plan
While being shown how "smart" Berlin is as a city during a study tour last month, I came across a piece of news from Thailand about an effort to turn an area in Bangkok into a "smart city". I couldn't help but try to figure out how smart a city Bangkok could become if it embraced this model of development.
In the news report, Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittiyapaisith was testing the water, saying recent findings by Jica (the Japan International Cooperation Agency) supported the ministry's plan to spend 11 billion baht to turn a 35-rai plot near Bang Sue station into a "smart city".
According to Jica, previous research by PTT and the State Railway of Thailand showed that Bang Sue station and nearby land have the potential to be developed under the smart city concept.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
The minister said the smart city suggested by Jica would be the largest in Asean.
The ambitious plan is to make the station an inter-provincial transport hub for electric, high-speed and goods transport trains. It would include shopping complexes, hotels, offices and convention space as part of a transit-oriented development (TOD).
The project sounded promising, especially with all those big words -- smart city, transport hub, and TOD.
But I don't see how these big words alone can really make that part of Bangkok a real smart city if commuters arriving from all over the country at this so-called hub will only become stuck and confused when they venture on to explore the rest of the city afterwards.
This reminds me of the Makkasan project which was recently proposed to the public a few months ago by the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand. The project was to turn the 497-rai plot in Makkasan into another hub, with high-end shopping complexes, hotels and condominiums.
However, neither project mentions how commuters will get around the wider city outside of the "smart city" area.
Unsurprisingly, our interpretation of a smart city often relates to big investment, crisp graphics of a future world and smart technology (that unfortunately often ends up making users dumbfounded).
Examples of unsuccessful smart systems abound. Look at how the new smart e-ticket machines for buses work (or don't work, to be exact). Or at how the smart solution of the operator of the Purple Line to take out seats from some trains simply upset commuters. We waited over a year for the missing link between the Blue Line and Purple Line to be connected. Even linked, the Purple Line is always packed and too expensive.
During a tour in Berlin with the International Journalists' Programme that flew in 15 journalists from Asia last month, I was shown a totally different version of a "smart city" in Berlin.
When discussing the Berlin programme, we predominantly talked about mobility, not necessarily advanced technology, and the independent livelihood of Berlin residents. The main tenets were less about technology than one might expect from the Germans. Urban farming and public recreational space making use of old buildings were also included in the concept.
Some advanced technology, such as driverless buses and a smart grid, was also shown. But the technology demonstrated was designed to maximise the existing systems; the former for transport and the latter for electricity. They also boasted of the electric-car charging stations scattered around the city as people begin to adopt this more eco-friendly mode of personal transport.
Their idea of a smart city means a city where people can move around to any part of the city conveniently and affordably, using bikes (both private one and those from various brands of bike-sharing system available on the pavements), buses, trains, and private vehicles.
Berlin's public transport is crowded, if not jam-packed like Bangkok, but the commuters were fortunate enough to have seats in every carriage and space for bicycles in some as well.
Interestingly, during our tour, we used most of these modes, including walking, rides on public buses, the subway, and private coaches.
We were also shown how people in Berlin are trying to be less dependent on other cities in terms of food security by raising their own fish and growing their own vegetables in an urban farm.
Although the urban farm doesn't seem to be a huge success yet, it's another example of how a smart city doesn't always have to involve advanced technology when smart management can allow citizens to live independently and move around freely.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.