Smart cities listen to their citizens
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Smart cities listen to their citizens

Thailand has embraced the agenda of smart cities, with promises of hope for better urban futures. It is not always clear what is meant by a "smart city" but the agenda in Thailand is presented as being founded on seven core pillars -- Environment, Economy, Mobility, Governance, Living, People and Energy, with promises to improve people's quality of life, reduce inequality, and create prosperity, security, and sustainability.

Importantly, the Smart Governance pillar offers "to make governance fair and transparent, and also encouraging people's participation". These are commitments that are much needed in Thailand, but the planning process of smart cities appears to exclude the majority of urban citizens and is a long way from being transparent or accountable, and with no meaningful participation in how cities are shaped or for whose benefit.

Cities are fundamentally sites of people, culture, knowledge, and politics. But people and their needs have been largely neglected in urban planning. People in cities are not just individuals but people living together, creating communities, and sharing spaces and opportunities. Yet urban citizens have been invisible, rarely consulted and often obliged to navigate the consequences of bad planning as best they can.

Most cities in Thailand struggle with inclusive and equitable urban development policy and practice. Most urban land use plans, the framework that is supposed to guide future urbanisation, are several years, if not decades, out of date.

With rapid urban expansion, land use plans are simply amended after the fact, with zoning colours changed to accommodate changes on the ground or to serve commercial interests of a few elite groups. Few urban citizens have the opportunity to engage in these planning processes.

A case in point is the recent experience of Laem Son On community in the southern Thai city of Songkhla province. Located on a low-lying peninsula, a naturally risky coastal area, the informal settlement lacks land tenure and house registrations.

Taken by surprise, one morning in April 2022, a hut belonging to one of their own was being torn down by local authorities. Many community members gathered outside the hut, protecting it from demolition. They were dismayed by the lack of a formal notice, let alone a consultation process.

The demolition decision was made to pave the way for a tourism-based municipal development plan targeting the coastal zone with the purported aim of boosting the city's economic growth.

The community was told the land belonged to the Treasury Department and, as such, could only be used for recreational purposes as it was painted light green on the land use map. However, the colour was recently readjusted for the municipality's development plan. Decades of negotiation to formally lease the land by the informal residents were lost. This has once again resurfaced the longstanding issues of land rights and limited participation in local planning faced by informal settlements.

The Laem Son On case is emblematic of nationwide problems. Citizen involvement and participation in the production processes of urban spaces are critically missing. People are not able to shape their own urban futures. Failure in planning is felt most acutely by informal residents who are simply displaced, but we all feel the consequences of planning that is anything but smart and follows commercial interests at the expense of the wider community.

The smart city agenda has the potential to address the core problem in Thailand (and everywhere) of poor urban governance. Instead, smart city development is taking a paternalistic approach, deciding what is best for citizens.

As the smart city agenda gains traction in Thailand, several municipalities are presenting themselves as potential sites for investment, largely focused on the promises of high-tech digital infrastructure and big data as the basis for shaping Thai cities of the future. Yet cities in Thailand appear to be a long way from anything approaching smart.

Despite loose rhetorical commitments to improved governance, smart city development is not addressing the issues of inclusiveness and equity but pushes an agenda of digital tech and data. Smart cities are still shaped without meaningful participation.

The smart city agenda could be turned around with these governance challenges placed at the centre. "Smart" should be rooted in knowledge generated through the requirements and realities of urban citizens, particularly poor and marginalised groups.

Being smart should be more about knowledge and learning, not just technology and digital infrastructure. Cities and people are more than digital data, maps, and charts. Data mining and more statistical data should not be confused with knowledge creation and usable knowledge.

A smart city agenda that puts citizens centre stage could reshape Thailand's urban future to one that is more liveable for all and more able to navigate an uncertain future.

Pakamas Thinphanga, PhD, is an urban climate resilience expert at the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI). Richard Friend, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of York (UK). This article is supported by the GCRF Political Capabilities and Equitable Resilience project -- in collaboration with SEI-York, University of York (UK), TEI, Chiang Mai University and Tribhuvan University.

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