Thailand leading the way for smart cities in ASEAN

This file photo taken on 7 August 2019 shows the skyline of New Town Bangkok by night. (AFP Photo)

During the 2019 ASEAN Summit, Thailand introduced the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) initiative to transform three Thai provinces into smart cities – which has turned out to be a success. With the aim to create a centre for trade, investment, regional transportation, and a strategic gateway to Asia - Thailand is confident that it would promote a seamless ASEAN. 

In accordance to Thailand 4.0, the country aims to achieve 100 smart cities by 2022, and now that goal is getting closer following the partnership between City Possible global network and Thai government agency, Digital Economy Promotion Agency (depa). Pioneered by Mastercard, 27 Thai smart cities had been inducted into the City Possible program which is designed to make technology work for people by aligning key stakeholders to address urban issues. 

City Possible provides members unrivalled access to a global community of urban leaders, businesses, NGOs and academics and are regularly invited to a series of knowledge-exchange forums where participants identify common challenges, exchange learnings and establish holistic urban solutions. 

“Cities around the world face similar challenges but they are too often solving in isolation. City Possible connects cities with insights and resources from cities around the world which accelerates progress and enables smart governance,” said Miguel Gamiño Jr, Executive Vice President, Global Cities, Mastercard.

Smart City architecture
Source: PwC

The focus on smart cities is a core pillar of the government’s Thailand 4.0 initiative which aims to transform Thailand into a high-income nation with vastly improved quality of life in urban centres. 

“As a country relying on agricultural and tourism industries, we want smart cities to be the ecosystem to promote both of these, which in turn will afford to close the income gap and accelerator much-needed growth in the economy of the country as a whole,” Dr Passakon Prathombutr, Senior Executive Vice President of depa told The ASEAN Post. 

“Two most important sectors are environment and economy. We place environment as the most important sector because it only makes sense for a city to be smart if it does not deteriorate the environment,” he added. Pollution and drought are the two most critical environmental issues facing Thais, “the key idea is to deploy to the local governments by equipping them with the technology; such as sensors, integrated data system, digital twin, to monitor and predict foreseeable disasters,” explained Dr Prathombutr. 

The establishment of a smart city transformation framework and Thailand’s already successful pilot cities could be one of the reasons why its cities are suitable candidates for implementing and promoting smart city living. 

“Depa is a trailblazer as the first cohort of cities to join City Possible, but they are indicative of a larger trend. We’ve had many discussions with networks of cities who are looking to benefit from the insights and resources City Possible provides. Through City Possible, city leaders can identify the pain points and challenges that are hindering their growth,” Gamiño Jr told The ASEAN Post. 

Nonetheless, the implementation of new infrastructure comes with its challenges and resistance. In terms of effectively utilising resources and technology, three significant challenges lay ahead; the mindset of leaders in a city, existing regulations, and the capacity to act. 

“Many city leaders do not have adequate technological literacy to pivot the role into innovators. Among those who do, they are sometimes too timid to pose a technological vision,” said Dr Prathombutr. He further explained that “local agents of transformation in each city are needed to play a critical role in moving the cities toward becoming “smarter." That is why the Chief Smart City Officer (CSCO) Program will play a pivotal role in building the essential mindset; hands-on knowledge on regulatory, communication and technical skills, to connect the sense of being global and the local.”

Thailand is fast becoming what was envisioned by the ASEAN Smart City Network when it was launched by Singapore in the 2018 ASEAN Summit. While very little collaborative efforts have been made to achieve this, individually, countries such as Singapore is progressing towards tech-driven cities. While other ASEAN cities may face similar challenges as Thailand, an important aspect noted in this case is the strong government commitment that is essential to achieving the smart city vision. 

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