Thailand is poised to be a major player in the digital world. With nearly 30 million people logging on every day, the country has the second largest base of internet users in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—a number that’s set to grow at a fast clip. Clearly, the desire for a digital economy is there from citizens, and it’s also a priority for government officials who recognize that a thriving online marketplace is going to play a huge role in shaping Thailand’s financial future.
Thailand is particularly well situated to make the leap to a digital-first economy: The government’s recently introduced Thailand 4.0 initiative (pdf) presents an economic model aimed at attracting and supporting innovative, high-tech companies. Under this initiative, Thailand is positioned to accelerate its ascension to digital powerhouse status by increasing infrastructure investments, focusing on workforce training, stimulating entrepreneurial creativity, and reshaping the professional culture of a country that’s only at the start of its technology revolution.
Thailand’s government knows that supporting a new online economy begins with building solid technological infrastructure. In the past few years, Thailand has invested millions of dollars in making internet accessible to the country’s population, allocating more than $588 million for building out a broadband internet system with the intention of catching up to overwhelming demand in cities and expanding access to the country’s more remote locations. Today, broadband access reaches 40,000 villages, or 80% of Thailand’s population. That number is expected to increase to 95% by 2023. At the same time, smartphone usage is booming. Currently more than 90% of people access the internet via smartphone, making the bolstering of wireless internet and 4G access more imperative than ever. The benefit of removing these logistical roadblocks is twofold: Entrepreneurs will be free to build innovative companies, and the public will have the connectivity to shop at and support them.
Of course, it takes more than high-speed internet to propel Thailand forward. With Thailand’s digital economy poised to contribute 25% to Thailand’s GDP by 2027, the National Legislative Assembly recently established the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. The department addresses the challenge of making Thailand a 21st century player from multiple perspectives, including improving internet infrastructure and increasing economic support for technology companies. But a main tenet of the initiative centers around how to build cities and culture around a new technological future.
Bangkok, for example, is home to a vibrant co-working scene, which provides startups with both a community of like-minded individuals and cost-efficient office space to get their ventures off the ground. Last year, the government announced the introduction of a $570 million venture fund, half of which will be dedicated to young technology startups. Since 2012, funding for startups has increased by more than 120 percent with the goal of spurring growth in areas like e-payments, e-commerce, digital advertising, and media. Data centers in Thailand have been designed and built to world class standards as part of the backbone of the country’s new digital economy.
Meanwhile, Thailand is beginning to adopt the Silicon Valley mindset, with initiatives from leading banks, telecom companies, and real estate developers such as DTAC, Krungsri, and True Digital Park opening accelerators that will help advance the local startup scene by providing hubs for education and innovation. The Digital Park Thailand is a hallmark of the Eastern Economic Corridor’s (EEC) efforts to expand the digital economy and is working to attract big-name tech companies with benefits like thirteen years of corporate income tax waiver on top of a 50% reduction for five additional years.
The government’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society is also exploring public-private partnerships to fund the development of smart cities, which so far include Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Khon Kaen. These provinces will act as Thailand’s technological hubs, boasting high speed internet and tax incentives as a way to attract both young and established technology companies. The goal is to use the first three pilot provinces as a blueprint for an even more expansive smart city initiative.
So far, it’s working. Recently, e-commerce company Lazada set up a digital hub in Bangkok that will focus on the design and development of its online shopping experience and related apps. Alibaba is also investing in a regional electronic-trade center that would serve as the base for distributing products to nearby countries like Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Accelerators, business deals, and government initiatives are an important first step in establishing Thailand as a digital leader, but training will be key to realizing the country’s full potential. Workers who’ve spent their careers in other industries are realizing the technology sector is on the cusp of a boom and are honing new expertise to reap the benefits. Increased English literacy is part of it, but building IT skills like programming, product management, and interface design is key too. Some companies have started to offer online opportunities to bolster technological know-how, including Alibaba, who recently signed an agreement with Thailand’s government to offer e-commerce training for 30,000 people and digital technology training for 10,000. Simultaneously, Alibaba and Lazada will begin training government officials at Thailand Digital Government Academy, focusing on big data and artificial intelligence technologies.
These programs are an important part of building’s Thailand’s technological proficiency, but the real solution rests with the education system, which can instill necessary skills and knowledge at a young age. Without a doubt, creating this kind of systemic change in education and industry takes time and effort, but Thailand is already making major strides to build a truly 21st century digital sector.
For more information about the benefits that Thailand might offer your business, visit the Thailand Board of Investment, which showcases resources and programs that create opportunities across a range of industries.
This article was produced on behalf of the Thailand Board of Investment by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.