In February 2019, Bangkok was shrouded in a toxic cocktail of smog for weeks, forcing hundreds of schools to close. Constant environment stresses are a daily reality for the local people, and Bangkok’s Chief Resilience Officer wants to build a city which is better able to cope.
Dr Supachai Tantikom tells GovInsider his vision is to combine technology, sustainability, and resilience in city planning. “You cannot be just resilient, you cannot be smart”, he says. “It has to be both smart, resilient, and resource efficient”, he says.
Seated in a posh five-star hotel right smack in the middle of the polluted and congested city, Tantikom has just wrapped up another interview and carves a weary figure. But the Chief Resilient Officer was still excited to share about his plans for the city in waste management; reducing environmental stresses for people; and pushing for good data collection.
From landfill to lighting
Bangkok generated 4.85 million tonnes of solid waste in 2018, making up nearly 20% of what was produced in the entire country, according to Thailand’s Pollution Control Department . Tantikom wants to turn this trash into energy. “Most of the waste management in Bangkok goes to landfill in other provinces. So we propose to have incinerator waste turned to energy”, he says.
However, indiscriminate burning emits toxic pollutants, and waste needs to be separated first. Tantikom is looking at MBT (Mechanical Biological Technology) to process waste. MBT plants combine a wide range of technology to sort garbage mechanically by sifting out what can be recycled, and separating biological waste from the pile to create bio-gas. This effectively reduces the need for curb-side recycling in a city where more than half its garbage is dumped openly.
Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital, also faces similar issues when it comes to waste management. A local startup is using a decentralised approach to turn trash to treasure. Instead of sending trash to a central dump, ‘Sampurn(e)arth’ provides customised solutions to segregate waste, recycle, and install bio-gas plants to transform wet waste into cooking gas and fertilizer in the city.
Healthy people for a healthy city
Tantikom says he also wants to make it easier for city residents to decompress and cope with environmental stresses. “It starts with the people: if the people are not resilient, then there’s no way the city will be resilient“, he explains. Tantikom wants to expand and set aside land for green spaces and enable more walking and cycling.
The city ranks below average in green spaces per person. At just three square metres per person, Bangkok is well below the average of 39 square metres, according to the Asian Green City Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Tantikom says these green spaces serve both form and function by reducing stress of those living in the city, while reducing greenhouse gases at the same time.
He also wants to improve health management by suggesting basic check ups for everyone. “We proposed to have a check up for the healthy because [we] think that prevention is better”, he says. In the long run, pollution is detrimental to health, and Tantikom wants to make sure people are resilient to it.
Looking through a murky crystal ball
Looking to the future, smart cities must be powered by good data because they allow for efficient resource management, monitoring, and future planning, Tantikom says. “With a smart city, you need a lot of big data. If you don’t have data, how can you do [anything]?”
“With a smart city, you need a lot of big data. If you don’t have data, how can you do [anything]?”
There is currently a lack of reliable and consolidated data in Thailand even as it marches towards digitalisation. “When you want to have a data you have to go to the department, and sometimes they don’t want to give it to you. Another thing is that they’re not sure whether the data is correct. “
Tantikom wants data to predict pollution trends and mitigate traffic congestion. “You need to know the real source of the pollution for mitigation. If you don’t know the source, you should have a lot of monitoring and you can forecast it” he says.
During the smog crisis this year, Tantikom says there were only 50 monitoring stations across the sprawling metropolitan city. He says people started using their own devices. But without proper calibration, the data may not be accurate.
The Chief Resilience Officer says there needs to be a central data collection agency, and this needs to be initiated by the central government. “We need the central data; we cannot afford to have every department collect their data and keep for their own.” He says having accurate baseline data for comparison is fundamental to forecasting the future needs of the city.
Tantikom acknowledges that the city and its people are not the most resilient. He believes there needs to be a change in mindsets about the future. “When we had a big flood in 2011 – after the flood, people are so scared because we lost a lot of economic growth. But after a few years, everybody forgot what happened in the past”, he says.
The city needs another shock to the system. Meanwhile, Tantikom says his team will carry on the work to prepare for the constant shifts that Bangkok faces.