BANGKOK Thailand's Smart Cities Research Center is hard at work proving an emerging nation can foster more efficient cities.
The SCRC is the country's first research institute specializing in information technology for next-generation smart cities. It was set up in 2012 at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, a national university in the Thai capital known for science education.
Developing the technology needed for more efficient social infrastructure is only half of the battle. The center is also working to change ideas about city management in a country where bureaucratic attitudes rarely embrace cutting-edge methods.
Feeling that the era of smart cities was about to arrive in Thailand, and that the country needed a research institute to lay the foundation for that era, KMITL graduate Agachai Sumalee joined hands with KMITL executives to create the SCRC, which he now heads.
"The center is a cross-disciplinary organization," Agachai explained. He described most research bodies at Thai universities as "silos" organized by discipline, with little crossover among them. "The SCRC is the opposite of a silo-type institute, bringing together 10 researchers with expertise in a diversity of fields, including software, electrical engineering, electronic engineering and telecommunications, and allowing them to flexibly join various projects."
Thailand lags behind in terms of modern city management. Many bureaucrats have an old-fashioned view of the administrative process, and tend to shy away from using IT to streamline management or provide new services. One way Agachai and other SCRC staff help promote administrative innovation is by explaining the vast potential and utility of IT. The kind of infrastructure targeted in the center's innovation drive ranges from transportation systems to electricity and water supply.
"Traffic and other problems in Bangkok, where more than 8 million people live, may be difficult to solve at a stroke, but chances lie in regions outside the capital," Agachai said. "As a result of several generational changes in political leaders, more leaders now lend an ear to the idea of introducing IT in city management. We would like to address the problems facing the governments of small to midsize cities."
Agachai himself is an expert on algorithms for processing data. His study on a road management system, which is designed to reduce congestion based on traffic data collected through sensors installed on roads, won him the 2014 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education.
Research at the SCRC is already beginning to bear fruit out in the real world. One example, though not related to government administration, is a fleet management system developed for a taxi company. Tablet computers and cameras were installed on 550 taxis and linked to a data analysis system. Based on the enormous amount of data on customer rides amassed each and every second, the management system instructs taxi drivers where to wait for customers.
The SCRC is not interested in developing its own equipment or devices. "We would like to compete on software," Agachai said. Rather than challenging technologically advanced countries like the U.S. and Japan head on, the center is focusing on producing useful insights from data obtained through connected devices and utilizing them to operate infrastructure more efficiently.
Thailand is a middle-income country, with a per capita gross domestic product of about $6,000. The government aims to foster high value-added, knowledge-intensive industry. The SCRC's attempts to produce innovation is consistent with that aim and with the demands of Thai society.