Future

What Latin America Can Learn From China About Smart Cities

Most people in Latin America and the Caribbean live in urban areas. And many of those cities are downright massive, with sustainability challenges that desperately need solutions.

Mexico City
Mexico City
Patrice dos Santos*

-Analysis-

LISBON — At the heart of the so-called "smart city" concept, both in the developing and industrialized worlds, is the ability to create districts capable of tackling certain global challenges of our time.

Those challenges are starkly evident in Latin American cities and include urban regeneration, social inclusion, and socio-environmental issues like waste management, assuring water supplies and fomenting the circular economy. The smart city concept is intrinsically linked, in other words, to the quest for sustainability and social inclusion.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have on average an urban population rate of 80.6%, according to World Bank figures (compared to the global average of 55.3%). And 40% of the region's population lives in cities of more than a million inhabitants. LAC is thus the most urbanized place in the developing world, and the intensity of this urbanization has made traditional policies for managing issues of land use, social inclusion or governability, less relevant.

Obviously, information and communication technologies alone won't transform a city's environment. That's why LAC, perhaps more than other regions, needs defined national policies with a clear vision of civil society's needs, and in line with sustainability guidelines like the UN's Regional Action Plan (PAR) for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda 2016-36, or Goal 11 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals on making cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."

The rise of megacities — places like Mexico City and greater Buenos Aires with more than 20 million residents — and growth pressures exerted by regional cities are compounding these aggravated environmental problems. Examples include pollution due to the concentration of economic and industrial activities, traffic congestion and the critical state of residue disposal.

We need social and technological changes to forge a new urban paradigm.

GaWc, a research network connected to Loughborough University, in England, found that of all LAC countries, only Brazil has a range of cities qualifying as smart cities working on improving the urban environment. They included both alpha (Sao Paulo) and beta cities (Rio de Janeiro), and others with a potential for global role-playing (Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Recife, Campinas and Salvador de Bahía).

Governing for smart cities in LAC faces other, transversal challenges such as reduced citizen participation, limited industrial capacity, dependence on foreign technologies and unequal public financing capabilities. We thus need social and technological changes to forge a new urban paradigm defining the city as a public good whose process of "co-design" requires inputs from all actors of economic, technological and financial relevance.

These can typically include the Inter-American Development Bank, Inter-American Association of Telecommunication Firms (ASIET) and CAF, the Development Bank of Latin America. They must also include the views of ordinary people and active participation of universities (public policy and territorial sciences departments, architecture, engineering etc.).

Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China — Photo: Naitian Wang/Unsplash

But for inspiration, actors involved in urban policymaking in Latin America would do well to look beyond the region — to China, where more than 500 pilot projects have been launched in cities lie Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, among others. Indeed, China has demonstrated smart power through the WeGo information sharing platform, improved collaboration between cities, and developed particular solutions for urban co-creation and sustainable city development.

Applying those lessons in LAC will require precise indicators through urban and environmental monitoring, to evaluate and check on objectives duly set by public decision-makers and not just by the capacities of leading tech firms.

The sharing of experiences at local, regional and national levels thus becomes a key component in increasing the learning curve for Latin American districts, metropolitan zones and regions, and ultimately creating cities that are both more inclusive and environmentally friendly.

It's not too late for the LAC region to promote and enact policies for developing cities in greater harmony with the natural world. But the time to start is now.


*Patrice dos Santos is a Lisbon-based consultant in innovative urban and territorial planning, specializing in Iberian and Latin American cities.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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