Interview with Thanan Lilaonitkul

I interviewed Mr. Thanan Lilaonitkul on November 30th at Central Embassy. We talked for about an hour regarding the Creative District Project, and other related subjects. Below is a summarised recap of our conversation.


Tinn: Why Bang Rak?

There are a number of reasons why we chose Bang Rak. There are many forces coming together, along with a reoccurring movement of creativity going on in Bang Rak.

Even before this whole Creative District concept came about, a lot of art galleries started coming up by themselves in Bang Rak. That created a trail of art galleries along the river. There are more opening up, interesting restaurants are being established, and some people decided to move in.

There was this feeling. A feeling that there was value in a lot of the shop houses along the river. People are coming in to take advantage of the unique location and setting. Especially creative businesses. They are starting to move to the fringes of the town, with the river being this fringe.

With the virtue of the Thailand Creative Design Centre (TCDC) moving into Bang Rak, you are beginning to see a confluence. A confluence of art galleries, businesses, and a public sector for creativity.

When a place becomes known for something, it usually isn’t intentional. We did not randomly pick Bang Rak, but we chose it because we saw a trend that was growing organically within the district. What we are trying to do is pick up the pieces, put them together in a structured manner, and help plan out its future.

We saw the hidden potential within the district. That is why we chose Bang Rak.


Tinn: Aren’t there any other better candidates for a Creative District?

The creative scene that we are trying to create is different from what has already been established. If you declare somewhere along Sukhumvit as a Creative District, the problem is that it has already been developed.

It is special in its own way, very modern, but fashion isn’t the only form of creativity. If you can think outside the box, you should.

If I wanted to open a shop and sell something that nobody has ever bought before, I don’t know how successful I’ll be. If I don’t know how successful I’ll be, I need to keep my costs as low as possible. What do you do? You move to a part of town that is out of the way and cheap, but still accessible to people. That is where Bang Rak is sitting.

You could say, generally, the feeling all along Sukhumvit is the same. Ari is beginning to feel a bit different, but we have this desire to create a neighbourhood that gives you a different experience of life in Bangkok. We can achieve this in Bang Rak, simply because it hasn’t been developed, yet.


Tinn: Does that mean you want to increase Bang Rak’s value?

We try to see the intrinsic value of the Creative District as a symbol. What we are trying to do is create a place where people look to and feel inspired to have their creative ideas executed.

Thai people are really creative, but most of their ideas don’t reach production level. We want to create an ecosystem of things, project, and people. Then, invite these people with ideas to come and collaborate with us. By doing this, we hope to boost the Creative Economy, and encourage creativity.

There is a sense of positive feedback within itself. That’s what we are trying to achieve. 


Tinn: What about the residents of Bang Rak?

We are very sensitive to a number of things that could happen. One of them is gentrification. If gentrification happens, it becomes a double-edged sword. An area becomes more valuable, but the communities that lived there, that made the place pleasant, goes out.

There is a fine balance in what we are trying to do. We are trying to look for projects that are non-invasive. If a project encroaches onto their territory, we tend to have a more inclusive approach.

We hired an anthropologist to go in and ask the people what they really wanted. We can’t presume what their needs are. If we have a project that fits their needs, then of course we will go through with it. If not, then we will cancel the project and start a new one. That is the method we will use over the years of operation.

We try to look at this project as urban planners and community representatives, since our project is almost at a city level development. If we just focus on businesses, that is when detrimental effects happen.


Tinn: Is there a schedule for the project?

There is no schedule. This is a long term project. I could be here for the next 20 years, struggling to develop this scene. It is a matter of slowly getting people to participate in the process.


Tinn: What is your measure of success?

It is hard to put a measure of success on a city level project. For me, success would be if I woke up one day, and people are talking about it. It they are interested and want to participate, that to me would be a measure of success.


Tinn: Who are you benefitting by raising the value of the city?

Firstly, we are hoping to benefit the entrepreneurs who are trying to do something different. Untraditional businesses, struggling startups, and NGOs would benefit from being in the area.

By inviting in these individual social enterprise projects, we hope to create a distribution of wealth to everyone. We want this district to be diverse and resilient. To make it resilient, everyone has to benefit from it.

Our anthropologist recorded data from the communities, that if foot traffic increased, they would setup some tables or carts to sell stuff. More people visit the community, and they receive the opportunity to make some personal profit as well.


Tinn: The project hopes to make everyone happy?

Not everyone happy. In hopes to give everyone an opportunity and choice to take advantage of.

You have an idea. We are here to provide you the resources. You don’t need to participate, but if you do, we can guarantee that we will look out for you in your best interest. Not ours, because by achieving your best interest, we achieve our best interest.

We can’t control that people are going to be grumpy and be like, hey, I lived in this neighbourhood for so long. I like to be quiet. Of course, we don’t know if they are overreacting, but we can’t control these small factors of everyone. What we can control is opening up the opportunity for conversation, help making things happen, and again, being very careful with the effects that will happen.


Tinn: How will you solve the traffic problem?

When you talk about traffic, especially in Bangkok, you can’t say one area has bad traffic. It is a citywide level problem. There are a number of reasons why Bangkok has bad traffic.

  1. One car, one person
  2. Lower ratio of roads to service area, when compared to other cities

We can’t solve automobile traffic, but what we can solve is alternative transportation. Walking and biking can be promoted in the area by planting more trees and providing bike lanes. Buses and boats can also be considered as well.

If you are going to ask me personally, what we should do. I would actually tell them to reduce the road. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that building more roads, provides incentive for more people to drive.

In the future, we hope to add elevated zebra crossings to Charoenkrung. This simple solution would make Bang Rak much more pleasant. The actual term for this, is small scale intervention. We need to start with really small scale interventions that provide examples, then, people start adapting across the city. That is how change, actually, should come about.


Tinn: What about the future of the project and Thailand?

Whatever happens to Bangkok, happens. We are focusing on the district only. If people decide to create another district of a different personality, we are all for it.


Tinn: What is your personal definition of creativity?

Creativity is the ability to observe, know exactly what resources surround you, connect these resources, then recreate something new out of what you have seen before.

Creativity is not sitting in a room and suddenly having an idea. It is past experiences and resources, plus the skill to combine them into something new.


Tinn: During a TCDC Panel Discussion, I learned about Operational & Intentional. Can you expand on these two keywords?

The intentional phase is the design and objective phase. The operation phase is where you try to execute it in the right way.

80% of all projects success, comes from execution. Not ideas. Anybody can have ideas, but it is the execution that is important.

A lot of people have good ideas and intentions, but they don’t take the time to assess the risks, weaknesses, and strengths of what they are trying to do with their intentions. If you don’t go through the process properly, then of course you are going to fail.

We are trying to be careful with how our big projects affect the community level, while still achieving the objectives and staying true to our core values and beliefs as an organisation.

The separation of these two phases are what makes TCDC and the Creative District Project different. We realise that these, are two different things. We realise that having good ideas, is not enough.


I personally enjoyed talking with Mr. Thanan very much. By talking to him, I felt a sense of energy, commitment, and positivity that I haven’t felt in quite a while. When he looks at the project realistically, he knows that the chances of success are extremely slim. However, he doesn’t see the obstacle. He sees the opportunity.

His definition of creativity also got me thinking. This process of creation, is actually the basis of everything we know today, because this process is what creates change. Without change we wouldn’t have history, art, math, or any other form of academics. We wouldn’t have technology or knowledge. We would just be the same, never changing, adapting, and evolving.

After speaking with him, I reflected back and realised something. The people who we define as good leaders, are the people that can see what others can’t. What they see, is potential. They become great leaders by showing others how to connect the dots to create something new. These people possess one of the greatest tools given to man. Creativity.


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