'Smart city' plan or is it the eve of destruction?

'Smart city' plan or is it the eve of destruction?

Upon hearing that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has launched an initiative to make Bangkok's old town in the Rattanakosin area a smart city, I became curious. What does the agency have in mind when it thinks of "smart city"?

More importantly, the BMA's credits in old town management is next to zero. The agency tends to use a heavy-handed approach in dealing with older communities. There are allegations that it has no understanding when it comes to the old town and residents and that unfortunately, is blamed for its demolition of more than a few old communities and markets.

It's unclear if the new initiative has anything to do with a plan -- with the same title -- adopted in Dec 2018, by a panel under the City Council, covering 17 districts including Chatuchak, Bang Sue, Dusit, Pathumwan, Klong Toey, Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai. The council's plan involves several agencies in the public, private, and state enterprise sectors and the scope of work is broad, stretching over the economy, safety, and mobility of the people. With regard to mobility, the panel aims to reduce the number of private vehicles, and make public transport more accessible in the designated districts.

We have regularly heard of a plan to turn Bang Sue Station into the city's new public transport hub which is part of the "smart city" framework. Smart city sounds nice, while the city we are living in is simply the opposite.

Just take a look at city bus stops. Too many are shabby and cannot really serve passengers. One example is a makeshift bus stop in the Bang Khae area. There is a "bench" (with only a metal frame), and no shade or roof, walls or any information sign. Some netizens satirically called it a minimalist style bus-stop. People have to sit on the frame of what is supposed to be a bench.

It's said the bus stop has been in such a sorry condition for about two years. There are also complaints that the nearby pavement, which is wide and convenient enough for pedestrians, is mostly occupied by motorcyclists.

Back to the smart city initiative. The BMA incorporates Silpakorn University as its partner. The job will be done in five years.

I talked to Assoc Prof Nattawut Preyawanit from Silpakorn's Faculty of Architecture who is making a draft plan.

He said the Rattanakosin smart city development model which goes beyond physical improvements, like installing street gadgets or painting a bike lane. It also features a digital platform and it's more about people.

The academic is to use technology to create data that will later be used to improve community economies, quality of life and the environment.

To initially obtain the data, he will, in the first year, create a digital platform which will combine cultural information collected by Silpakorn University and data about the city, such as traffic, from the BMA.

The data will later be open to the public.

The academic cited Pak Klong Talad, the famous flower market in Phra Nakhon district as an example.

Ironically, the market was a victim of the BMA's uncharted development policy in the past two years.

His team interviewed about 50 vendors in the market. His plan is to collect and match the information on vendors and flowers' prices. Buyers and sellers can access the data for their own use.

Some wholesale vendors have already tried to reach out to individual customers. Some community members have also tried to add the value to the market by encouraging flower buyers to explore culinary culture in the area.

This move is to attract new potential customers other than flower buyers.

Flower buyers can simply compare prices of the stocks available at the market, too.

The final and ambitious stage, which will hopefully be seen in three years, is to make it a participatory platform, which people can use to participate in any development plans. That means anyone can voice their opinion through the platform. Mr Nattawut said state agencies have hardly synergised their work.

Most state officials pay attention to physical developments and carry them out through a top-down approach, while academics have done countless of studies and researches, but rarely realised them.

He hopes this will change, with bottom up approach, and each side will integrate the expertise, experience, and the work will be based on public participation principle.

What we can do now is to wait and see.

I only hope the plan will be a true platform where public voices are heard, ending the state's top-down approach and the academic will be able to follow his research studies and not become a rubber stamp for the state agency, justifying the use of state budget not in a smart way.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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