A bottom-up smart city? Thailand’s evolving approach to smart city development

By Si Ying Thian

Governments should challenge themselves beyond incremental improvements from citizen inputs to consider exponential tech’s impact on human-centric smart city innovation, says Dr Non Arkara from Thailand’s Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA).

Dr Non Arkara, a senior expert from Thailand's Digital Economy Promotion Agency, spoke recently about smart city development at the World Congress on Innovation & Technology in Sarawak, Malaysia. Image: WCIT

Thailand has grown the number of smart cities from 27 to more than 100 in its pipeline the last three years since its national smart nation framework was being developed in 2019, according to DEPA. 


The agency's focus in the early years of its framework was centred around building high-speed infrastructure, such as 5G networks.  


Currently, it aspires to make urban centres more liveable, resilient and economically vibrant in the next five to 10 years.  


To achieve this, it would prioritise upgrading public infrastructure to be both green and intelligent, including transport, energy, and water systems; advancing human capital through digital skills training; as well as linking Thai cities to global innovation networks to attract investments and talents. 


Speaking to GovInsider, Dr Non Arkara, Senior Expert of the Smart City Promotion Department at DEPA, shared how the agency’s smart city promotion strategy has evolved significantly from being technology-driven to focusing on human-centric design.  


Tech meets human 


Presenting at the 27th World Congress on Innovation & Technology 2023 and the 6th International Digital Economy Conference Sarawak (IDECS) 2023 last week in Malaysia, Dr Arkara revealed how Thailand’s smart nation strategy had diverged from the conventional “greenfield” masterplan to a community-driven approach.  


“Too often, new smart cities are designed in a top-down manner with fancy technologies but minimal citizen engagement. We asked, ‘What if we could…?’ and flipped the script,” he said. 


Four key shifts in its smart nation strategy include tapping on public-private-people partnerships for diverse expertise and resources; using digital platforms to enable data-driven governance and planning; promoting citizen participatory processes; and localising sustainable solutions to individual cities instead of duplicating external models. 


There is a need, Dr Arkara said, to consider both emerging innovations in developing smart cities, as well as how they fit within the local context.


For example, the Nakhon Si Thammarat municipality in Southern Thailand deployed a crowdsourced reporting tool, the “My City” mobile app, which enabled citizens to report clogged waterways due to severe flooding issues in the city. 


By combining citizen-submitted data with data analytics, public officials were able to identify the root causes, and target upgrades and maintenance in the city. Due to its success, the app has since been expanded to other municipalities across the country, and DEPA aims to scale it to more than 7,000 of them by 2027.  


The app’s function has since been expanded to allow citizens to conveniently report other civic issues, track the progress of their resolution, and access other useful services such as pet registration. 

Space for experimentation in smart cities 

Dr Arkara hopes that urban planners would look beyond what people ask for, to deliver possibilities people never thought to ask for. Image: WCIT

Smart city innovation should not only rely on citizen inputs around pain points in current urban systems, said Dr Arkara. There is a need to “look beyond what the people are explicitly asking for.” 


“Citizens likely cannot envision how exponential technologies like AI, blockchain, IoT and robotics transform city life over the next decade. Thus, our role as innovators is to not just take citizen feedback at face value, but envision possibilities they never thought to ask for,” he added. 


He likened smart city innovation to the impact of the iPhone.


"Prior to 2007, no consumers were asking for smartphones, they thought they were content. But Steve Jobs recognised an opportunity to go beyond incremental improvements.


“By combining phone capabilities with GPS, internet connectivity, apps and more, he fundamentally reinvented the category to create a breakthrough innovation.”  


AI: a double-edged sword 


Although a fervent advocate of AI use in smart cities, DEPA also wears the auditor’s hat to determine where and how AI can safely and positively support public services, while considering its risk.  


On one hand, generative AI could contribute to both the ideation and implementation of public policy.  


Some examples include localising content for public education, automating repetitive tasks for public officials to focus on higher-value strategic planning and stakeholder engagement, as well as summarising research to sieve out evidence-based policy recommendations. 


“[On the other hand], humans must provide strategic direction, oversight and governance,” said Dr Arkara.  


“AI has limitations in generalising findings, understanding context, and making ethical judgements. We need to ensure appropriate oversight because AI alone lacks the nuanced understanding needed for effective policy-making.”   


Dr Arkara will also be speaking at GovInsider Live Malaysia on 28 November 2023 at Putrajaya, Malaysia. 


The one-day conference brings together ASEAN public sector leaders to address opportunities and challenges faced by government agencies in harnessing digital technologies to enhance service delivery, promote efficiency, and improve citizen engagement.