Can Smart Cities Occur under a Rigid Centralization Regime?

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After the coup d’état on May 22, 2014, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, commander-in-chief, and head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military government announced several modernization policies to disguise the image of backwardness associated with military seizures of power. One of the junta’s central policies, “Thailand 4.0,” aimed at transforming the country’s economic system by using science, technology, and innovation. This article focuses on a subset of this policy to develop urban areas into “smart cities.” Under the policy, the southern province of Phuket was designated as a pilot area to transform the provincial capital of Phuket City into a smart city by 2020. This article is based on a study of various documents and interviews with officials from local government agencies, local politicians, representatives from the private sector, and civil society leaders. The author’s main argument is that although the smart city model aligns with the interests of Phuket’s local business elite and receives a budget from the central government, the policy implementation cannot operate effectively and efficiently under Thailand’s regime of rigid centralization and rigid deconcentration, which is a key component of the Thai bureaucratic polity. Therefore, this article discusses various issues identified in implementing the smart city policy that caused considerable delays and a lack of concrete results in Phuket and other cities. As a result, urban centers like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, and Chonburi might be unable to develop their own smart cities because they operate under the bureaucratic polity paradigm, which can be seen as one of the leading causes of Thai society’s backward development.