Is Bangkok savvy enough to become a 'smart city'?

Is Bangkok savvy enough to become a 'smart city'?

Development expert Sarinee Achavanuntakul says capital has a long way to go, writes Anchalee Kongrut

Sarinee Achavanuntakul worked in banking and investment before opening Sal Forest Co. Ltd and co-founding the online investigative news website, Thai Publica. Somchai Poomlard
Sarinee Achavanuntakul worked in banking and investment before opening Sal Forest Co. Ltd and co-founding the online investigative news website, Thai Publica. Somchai Poomlard

The "smart city" has become a new buzzword for development policy in the Thailand 4.0 initiative, which would see big cities in the country like Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and the Eastern Economic Corridor, transformed into technology hubs. The government has established the National Smart City Committee and invited various agencies and experts to join. Sarinee Achavanuntakul was one of the experts invited to sit on the committee, but she turned down the military-led invitation. A Harvard graduate economist, Ms Sarinee had worked in banking and investment before opening Sal Forest Co. Ltd, a research firm on corporate sustainability. She has also launched and operates the respected online investigative news Thai Publica website. Her latest research project is about the current capacity of cities in Thailand to handle increasing levels of tourism. Ms Sarinee spoke to City Talk about how unsustainable Bangkok is and how big data and modern technology can help.

Why did you turn down the offer to become a member of the national committee on smart cities?

My name was put on the list without my knowledge and I only found out early this year. My stance is that I do not condone governments which arise as the result of coups, and I do not want to compromise my principles. Look at the makeup of the smart city committee -- 10 of the representatives are from the bureaucracy. Obviously, the committee was not designed to take heed of public opinion. Committees set up by this government are not created with the common people in mind.

What is your definition of a "smart city"?

In some ways, the government's Thailand 4.0 is forward-thinking. Smart cities are a new concept for the kingdom but they do fit in with the Thailand 4.0 initiative. In simple terms, smart cities are about making use of big data to manage city services. For example, you can use traffic data to manage and reduce congestion in Bangkok or even utilise underground water statistics to help to control floods. So, the idea behind smart cities is about maximising the role that information can play in creating efficiencies. However, before you can become a smart city, you need to understand the concept of big data. And, even more importantly, before trying to become a smart city, you need to have a vision first. You need to understand what your objective is for developing the city.

How do you think becoming a smart city can benefit Bangkok?

It is not just about being a modern city full of flat screens for people to touch and interact with. For me, Bangkok remains a city with a widening gap among social classes and a problem with inequality. Migrant labourers, who number in the millions, often live in very poor conditions, and are deprived of good welfare. So you must first ask: How can technology and data help to solve these issues in Bangkok? The other big question relates to whom one would want the smart city to serve.

You have done a lot of research into sustainable development policies. What do you think of city development in Bangkok?

I have never felt that Bangkok has a discernible development direction. People have generally assumed that any vacant plot of land will become a new condo or shopping complex. But I believe people are starting to look differently at the city in terms of its potential. However, with regards to becoming a smart city, I don't think Bangkok has enough big data. But what is also very worrying is that Bangkok is a primate city -- one that dominates Thailand both politically and economically -- while other, secondary, towns like Nakhon Ratchasima are much smaller. This centralisation is part of the cause of inequality in Thailand and shows how unwilling our country is to decentralise development and authority to secondary towns and localities. So, for example, when the city floods, the floodwater must be diverted to other provinces, regardless of the consequences. Everyone perceives Bangkok to be the nerve centre, it is almost like it has a gravitational pull for the country's resources.

What will Bangkok be like in five years?

That's quite difficult to say. But I think we will see more citizens' efforts like Mayday, the civic group with expertise in graphic design which helped the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority design new public bus route maps. We will also see people increasingly use online crowd sourcing to monitor corruption, such as in the case of the CSI LA Facebook page which kept tabs on Gen Prawit Wongsuwon's expensive wristwatches. The next question is how to empower people so they can solve problems themselves. If policy makers have a genuine wish to develop the city for the good of everyone, they should look at how to use technology to enhance public participation in order to gather data about what citizens really want, as opposed to wasting money on projects that may not be well received.

Is moving towards becoming a smart city an expensive process?

Being a smart city does not mean the government needs to be rich. Bogota in Colombia and Brazil's Rio de Janeiro have used big data and the internet to enhance public participation, while Indonesia has used online platforms to involve its citizens in budgetary decisions. For example, authorities can create applications which allow people to propose new projects. But nothing can happen unless those in office really want to empower citizens and decentralise power. You must be open to allowing citizens a greater role so they can contribute towards a collaborative vision to develop the city.

Can Bangkok become a smart city in the future?

You cannot be smart without being sustainable. It is not smart to build more and more roads just to accommodate 800,000 cars all running on fossil fuels. In this respect, the government itself must become smarter. It is about time that authorities in the city started collecting data about what the people themselves would like to see happen in their areas in the future. Ultimately, though, I believe that we must import more expertise and technology or risk the idea of Bangkok becoming a technotopia slipping back into the realms of fantasy.

What is the most worrying aspect about the current development model in Bangkok?

Usually, capitalism tends towards increasing inequality, as the rich get richer and the poor struggle to maintain their place in society. So, we must ask: A city with 50 mega-shopping malls and two hundred condominiums, is that what we want? Or a collaborative space where ideas and talent in the grassroots can grow freely?

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