In Star Trek: The Next Generation, an alien boards the Starship Enterprise and shows them the secret of space travel. With just thought alone, he can change their environment and take them to the farthest reaches of the universe.

We may not yet be able to travel the galaxy, but our world is also transforming at warp speed. As we adapt to Covid-19, we are creating new opportunities for how humans and technology interact – from transport to business; government to healthcare.

For Thailand, the desired destination is rapidly changing. GovInsider spoke with Dr Passakon Prathombutr, Thailand’s VP of the Digital Economy Promotion Agency, to understand plans for the next generation of smart cities.

The new normal

“Covid comes with a new normal,” explains Passakon. The nation had planned for a series of smart cities powered by high speed infrastructure – but that vision is rapidly changing. For him, the key question is: “What is the role of the Smart City to help the recovery?”.

Mayors apply to DEPA to be recognised as a Smart City, he explains. Once successful, they get tax exemptions and can work within a digital sandbox to test new tech. In particular, they are testing out 5G networks and how that can help. 27 cities have applied to DEPA for this status – a sign of the demand for new infrastructure.

The applicants must come up with a ‘minimum viable product’ of their vision to test out new tech. “This is the era of the start-up. You have to fail fast, and fail safe,” he continues. “Technology is rapid, and the life-cycle is very short. There isn’t always time to be perfect”.

A place on the Smart city leaderboard means more than just political kudos. On the global playing field it can also be an economic beacon for workers and business. The influx of new generations into the workforce will also cause a dynamic shift in digital capabilities.

“Generation Z are very quick to adapt to new technologies”, Passakon notes. Making up 39% of the Thai population, this tech-savvy age group at the kick-off of their careers may be the boost the nation needs to maintain its position as a tech hub leader.

Procurement

All of these plans must include data, Passakon says, even those with a lower budget. “For cities that are not able to procure advanced technologies, at least they can use unbiased, objective collected data to enhance the efficiencies and the capacity of public services. That’s very important.”

DEPA runs a training course, the Chief Smart City Officer programme, which stresses the importance of data in running a city, and gives public servants a leg up as they look to get onto this scheme.

Cities should also plan for companies to come in and use the city’s datasets. “We want the private sector to monetise their data. AI analysis can make money” confirms Passakon.

This may require changes to the law, he notes. “We have to revise the laws, like for example the procurement law, sometimes we can’t do procurement in advance, or we can’t hire equipment for longer than 2 years.”

DEPA works directly with city mayors to feed these suggestions into government, and help them rapidly adapt their plans.

Cyber security

DEPA’s work is not just about how to empower data, but also how to protect it. Smart cities require surveillance, “a lot of sensors and CCTV”. Laws such as the recent Cybersecurity Act raise questions over the balance between data governance and privacy.

“There will be a lot of debates on whether or not it is okay to trade your data for utility”, ventures Dr Non Arkaraprasertkul, Senior Expert at DEPA. “But the thing we’re trying to build on here is digital literacy, so businesses know more about the value of their digital assets. The debate for us is how to keep this data safe. And as we become more reliant on Cloud and IoT technologies, the laws of the future will be cyber-laws”.

The debates will continue as Covid-19 changes our plans. But DEPA’s approach will allow any enterprise, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “to boldly go where no person has gone before”. No alien technology required.