One man’s vision for Chiang Mai: An interview with Narong Tananuwat

Talking about any of 14 business ventures, ranging from his family’s property, furniture businesses and his position as a Director of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

By | Thu 1 Mar 2018

Over the past quarter of a century, this magazine has featured and referred to Narong Tananuwat countless times, whether it’s to talk about any of his 14 business ventures, ranging from his family’s property and furniture businesses, to his ownership of Modernform, Meechok Plaza and Index in Chiang Mai, Lamphun’s Nikhom Plaza and numerous developments in Vientiane, or his position as a Director of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Narong is a native of Chiang Mai and a graduate of Montfort College and Chiang Mai University as well as the prestigious and exclusive Thailand National Defence College, from whence most of this nation’s leaders have graduated. He spent a year as CEO of the Night Safari, has been appointed Chiang Mai Goodwill Ambassador, holds a doctorate in philosophy of business and sits on nearly half a dozen university boards, as well as having been appointed Chiang Mai University’s youngest council member. Narong’s accolades and achievements could fill these pages, but the reason we decided to sit down with him today was because of his role as founder and president of the social enterprise Chiang Mai City Development, Co., Ltd. which seems to be making headway in pooling resources, pulling various authorities to the table, and pushing development agendas.

Citylife: What is Chiang Mai City Development?
Narong: We are a social enterprise in the spirit of Chiang Mai. Did you know that we have a long history of social enterprise? Our first one was by a man you may have heard of called Kruba Srivichai [Ed. Whose statue you can see on the left hand side as you drive up Doi Suthep mountain.] He inspired around five thousands of Chiang Mai residents to volunteer their efforts to build the 11 km road up Doi Suthep in 1934, completing the task in under half a year.

It is in this spirit in which I and some of my friends have decided to invest our own resources to create this enterprise. We aim to collect and correlate data from all the various government, academic, private and non-governmental agencies and input the data into platforms which we can all have access to and analyse. This will create not only transparency, but cohesion and cooperation. With the data collected we can then start to use real numbers to make good decisions for our city’s future.

Citylife: How do you see your role in Chiang Mai’s development?
Narong: I run many successful companies and sit on the board or act as an advisor to even more working groups, committees and initiatives. I have always had a bit of an analytical mind and am very good at data and technology, but yet my family runs furniture businesses, so I have that other more creative mind-set as well. I look around and see that I have the power, the expertise, the voice and the ability to do something for the city I love and I am in the position to do so, so this is what I intend to do. In fact, you will be surprised at how many successful business people in this city are working together, out of their own pockets, to help Chiang Mai.

Citylife: So where do you see our current challenges?
Narong: Let’s start with people because the numbers are very revealing. There are over two million people living in the province and the number is growing. Yet in the 43 square kilometre municipality of our city our numbers have dropped from 165,000 registered residents ten years ago to now 115,000. This is very alarming because it shows that many locals are moving out of the city to areas such as the ring roads and many non-locals are moving in. The problem with this is that a major part of our economy comes from tourism [Ed. 16% of Chiang Mai’s GDP] and part of the charm of our city is in its people and communities. Then you have the increase of passengers through our airport which has risen from two million a decade ago to over ten million today. Even our trains used to bring 200,000 a year, but last year it leapt to 600,000 and our bus arrivals have risen from five to six million just last year as well. These are all numbers which have and will continue to affect all of us who live here. Yet we the people rarely have any say in how we develop; only protesting when something is truly objectionable. We in Chiang Mai have always had the ‘chang man teu’ mentality, which translates loosely as, let it be.

Citylife: That’s a pretty bleak outlook, do you share this attitude?
Narong: Absolutely not! And traditionally Chiang Mai people can only be pushed so far. When something is so beyond the pale, we get motivated. Look at the fight for underpasses versus overpasses in the ‘90s. We won. And I think that this air pollution thing is soon to get to the tipping point when we simply can’t bear it anymore and we will rise up to do something. You may not know this but last year we put our foot down to CP and told them to stop their policy of supporting farmers who burn their corn crops. CP didn’t care, they went to the Ukraine and ordered corn there, corn which I hear had harmful radiation, and our farmers suffered greatly as a consequence. So the issue is very complex.

Citylife: Is that what you are doing with your City Development enterprise?
Narong: Our focus is on what will affect the charm and liveability of this city, so city zoning, mobility and the degradation of society such as changing communities and lifestyle. We are using technology to create simulations so that we can find the best solutions.
Citylife: You mention mobility and this is one of the greatest concerns of our readers, please tell me what is being done to improve our transportation.

We don’t have public transportation and without a budget from the central government we simply don’t have the finances to implement a working system. We have received four budgets for studies so far, but never one to create. The on-going and old battle with the songtaew association never gets solved. Right now our city is only 24 kms wide and is riddled with hundreds of small roads which is why the songtaews are hard to get rid of. There are a few small and short term solutions until we get a budget for mass transit. One is our recent suggestion that Chiang Mai University dedicates a route and transportation through their properties along Suthep and Nimmanhaemin to link the moat to the zoo. If regular shuttles can take students along these routes, through the hospital and their land on Nimman, then it would greatly reduce the traffic to the west of the city. The university says that they are seriously considering this and may use the vast chunk of land on Nimmanhaemin next to the Art Museum, called CMU Square, as parking. The company RTC transport is also about to test 12 genius busses for 15 days for free to see whether it is viable. Some of my friends and I have also recently put in 50,000 baht each, so far totalling 400,000 baht to come up with an electric bus system. Our challenge though is rush hour, because at other times of the day things aren’t too bad. And these buses will also be stuck at rush hour, so this isn’t a great solution. But again, look at the numbers, there are thousands of songtaews, taxis, motorbike taxis and tuk tuks on our streets and at this point only 21 public transportation vehicles. It’s just not right.

The other huge problem started when the Superhighway, or first ring road, was built without completing the circle. The road ends at the Rin Kham Intersection. Our group has recently proposed quite a radical plan to create a four lane tunnel from that intersection, so that you could potentially be able to drive from the Superhighway, go under Huay Kaew and drive underneath Nimman to emerge at the Warmup t-junction. This will increase the lanes along Nimmanhaemin to four above and four below ground. Once emerged, traffic can then be redistributed to Suthep, the Canal Road and Wing 41, with parking and shuttle services from CM Square. We also proposed a covered four lane highway to be built straight through Wing 41 to the airport. This will mean that finally our Superhighway will be completed.

Citylife: Is this a pipedream?
Narong: Not at all. I know it is being seriously considered but it will be up to Bangkok to give us a budget. Then the airport itself needs to expand its capacity. There is still room for expansion to the east of the runway and as long as the traffic can be sorted out then this could still be viable. However, there is still progress in the proposal to move the airport out of the city. There are a few contenders, and Baan Ti seems to be under serious consideration, but nothing has been confirmed yet. This is going to be at least a decade away, so we have to make do with what we have in the city and I believe that our proposal has merit.

Citylife: What is holding it back?
Narong: Lack of five billion baht! That is what it will cost to build this tunnel. But considering the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration spent 50 billion baht on ten lines, why can’t we get just ten percent of that budget for our city. Ideally we would have an entire underground system of public transportation, but this will cost around 100 billion baht for 35 kms of lines and I highly doubt we will be receiving that budget! But even if we get 30 billion baht for one line, perhaps going from the airport, via the moat to the International Convention Centre, that would be great!

Citylife: What do you think we can all do to help move our city in the right direction?
Narong: Participate. There are so many initiatives going on in Chiang Mai right now, intelligent, interesting, progressive and inclusive. We just need to be able to connect to one another more and pool our resources so that we are all on point and working towards the same goal. People don’t realise how much is being done and by so many. There are environmental groups, social activists, community leaders, government-led projects and everything in between. The good news is that our various organisations already have excellent data, whether it’s the irrigation, tax, tourism, pollution, immigration or weather departments, all the data is there already, now we just need a budget to create an operational centre to compile and analyse it all. Until then, I will step in and help out as I believe that if I can bring all that data together then we can begin to see the bigger picture and all work towards a brighter one. The important thing is knowledge transfer and networking. Digital clusters need to be formed and there is already quite a sizable budget being allocated towards these initiatives. Unfortunately most of the budget goes straight to the universities, which is great, but it doesn’t get dispersed to other sectors, such as the private sector, which may be better equipped to move things along. We need to be smart; educate smart people, invest in smart businesses, use technology to create an urban plan, a city pulse and something participatory by the entire community.