Clean Air Without Border: Crossing Boundaries to Collaborate for Clean Air in Thailand and Lao PDR

June 14, 2024
Photo Courtesy: UNDP Thailand
The Beginning of the Initiative 

Recognizing the critical effects of air pollution on our quality of life, UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand has started working on finding innovative solutions for clean air since its early years. In 2021, the Clean Air Heroes innovation challenge was launched in Chiang Rai province to invite local youth and stakeholders to develop viable solutions from the ground up. In 2022 – 2023, the Clean Air Heroes initiative was co-organized with our partner, Thailand Knowledge Park (TK Park) in Mae Hong Son province, as part of UNDP x TK Park local incubation training programme where the local partners select their own thematic areas. Air pollution is an important issue in many areas of Thailand, particularly the northern provinces like Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai, among others. Soon, we realized that it was insufficient to tackle this problem from a local and national perspective alone. Air pollution is a transboundary issue. It respects no national boundary and requires no visa to travel across borders. Hence, we need a collective effort and space where stakeholders in affected countries can join hands and work together.  

Leveraging the power of the UNDP Accelerator Labs network, the Accelerator Lab Thailand reached out to the Accelerator Lab Lao PDR which was more than eager to co-develop a cross-border initiative. This made a lot of sense since UNDP Lao PDR has been exploring the issue of air pollution since 2020. This is because air pollution is also a pressing issue affecting health and the environment in Lao PDR. Through the Social Innovation approach and platform and collective intelligence, UNDP Lao PDR gathered extensive knowledge and intelligence from diverse stakeholders on their perception of the causes, drivers and impacts of air pollution and on people’s behaviors contributing to this issue.  A co-creation workshop on air pollution organized in 2022 opened an opportunity for us to interact with unusual stakeholders and realize the need to work cross-sector to address this complex issue. We identified three priorities: waste management, infrastructure/transportation, and transboundary air pollution. The recent increase in air pollution has further driven the need for cross-border collaboration.  

The two Accelerator Labs together with the Youth Co-Lab team jointly designed ‘Clean Air Without Border’, a cross-border innovation challenge to demonstrate a bottom-up approach to cross-border collaborations. With an initial concept developed in 2022, we reached out to potential partners in both countries. The Embassy of Luxembourg, GIZ, and the World Health Organization (WHO) responded enthusiastically which allowed us to bring Clean Air Without Border to life in September 2023. This blog will take you through our project design and incubation process, the solutions developed by the participating teams, and the way forward as we share the results and the model of Clean Air Without Border with the public.  

Why Clean Air Without Border?  

Air pollution develops indoors and outdoors. It can cause a variety of harmful effects on the environment. Human exposure to air pollution is linked to a wide range of health problems, from respiratory illnesses like asthma to chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. Children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions are especially vulnerable. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die every year because of air pollution. Southeast Asia is one of the regions that suffer the most with over 2 million deaths annually. With unhealthy populations and environments, countless economic and social implications follow. Moreover, air pollution knows no borders. It travels across countries, meaning that air pollution in one country can impact air quality in another. This means addressing air pollution issues requires cross-country collaboration. Without such collaboration, we also observe a 'blaming game' where people on one side of the border blame the other for the problem that they are suffering from. This is the reason why it is crucial to create space for people who share borders and experience a common problem to work together and take collective action. 

To tackle the issues, we must first seek to understand the sources of air pollution. That is where air pollution proves to be a ‘wicked problem’ – a complex problem that interconnects diverse economic, social, and environmental issues. The culprits behind the problem are numerous. Burning of fossil fuels, industry pollution, waste management, and vehicle emissions all contribute significantly. Agricultural practices like agricultural burning and forest fires further exacerbate the problem, especially during the dry season. Thus, no matter who you are, or which sector you are in, you play a part in this story.  

Designing for Diversity and Collaboration  

When we think of cross-border collaboration, governmental-level cooperation often comes to mind first. While that provides an important foundation, civic engagement is another key to driving action and creating impact. Air pollution is a complex issue. No single sector can tackle it alone. It affects people of all generations. This means we need people from diverse sectors and generations to take action. Therefore, the core principle of our project design was to invite multisectoral stakeholders, including youth from Thailand and Lao PDR to learn from one another and co-create solutions for clean air in both countries. 

We often observe scenarios where people’s lives are affected but they feel powerless to change anything, waiting for the authorities or someone on the other side of the border to do something. While structural and regulatory changes are crucial, there are many other pathways to addressing the problems and we have witnessed time and time again that civic action and grassroots innovation matter. People need to feel that they own the issue and that their actions make a difference. There is no better way to create a sense of ownership and empowerment than inviting people to co-create solutions for the problems that they are facing. Thus, Clean Air Without Border was designed to do exactly that – inviting Thai and Lao people from diverse sectors to co-create solutions for a common problem. 

Graphic Courtesy: UNDP Thailand

Team formation: The team recruitment was designed to foster diversity in many aspects. Teams of three people from Thailand and Lao PDR were selected on the condition that they would have to merge with teams across the border to form Thai x Lao teams, each consisting of six people. In addition, each team had to have members from more than one sector - for example, government x the private sector, academia x media, etc. Last but not least, every team had to have at least one youth member to reflect the voices of the new generation. With this design, we welcomed ten cross-border, cross-sectoral, and cross-generation teams to participate in the innovation challenge.  

Incubation process: Diversity in the participants provided us with rich resources of insights and ideas, but it is not always easy to navigate. The incubation process needed to create an enabling environment so that people from different backgrounds can work together. We began with online sessions that helped the teams get to know one another and find their matches to form Thai x Lao teams. To ensure everyone had a common understanding of air pollution issues, the online sessions also engaged experts from various sectors to share insights on the causes and effects of air pollution, and existing initiatives to address the problem. After that, a three-day onsite incubation workshop was organized in Chiang Mai for the teams to dive into problem analysis, ideation, and project design. Apart from focusing on the content, we also had to be mindful of the cross-cultural team dynamics and actively create an atmosphere and a mindset for collaboration. We realized that the final objective that we should aim for was not only the solutions to air pollution that we hoped to achieve but also the collaborative spirit that we needed to build if we were to foster greater cross-border collaboration. 


Idea pitching and testing: Following the incubation workshop, all ten teams pitched their ideas to Thai and Lao judges who also represented diverse sectors, and three teams were selected to continue to the idea testing phase. With funding support from the project, the three finalist teams had to put their ideas into action and engage with their target communities both in Thailand and Lao PDR. While they sought to leverage learning from cross-border exchange, the teams had to pay equal attention to the local contexts. In the ideation phase, they might have developed a joint idea but in the testing phase, they needed to find appropriate adaptation to the local contexts. This was how team members across the border continued to build on one another’s knowledge.  

Solutions from Our Thailand x Lao PDR Finalists  

All three finalist teams came up with innovative solutions from diverse dimensions: 

AiroVet: The team offered an innovation to reduce agricultural burning by upcycling and adding value to the rice straw. This includes (1) producing utensils and containers such as plates, pots, and other products out of rice straw; (2) fermenting rice straw using a veterinarian’s formula for livestock feeding, which could increase the nutrient by 200% compared to the non-fermented rice straw; and (3) using rice straw for oyster mushroom cultivation. The team also provided training to communities to improve agricultural knowledge. 


Nikorai: With an engineering and environmental science background, this team came up with an idea to reduce the burning of agricultural waste (maize cobs, leaf scraps, twigs, rice straw, rubber leaves, etc.) by turning them into biofilters to eliminate odors from industries that also pollute the air in a different way. The model relies on microorganisms and waste materials to work together to treat odor pollution from factories and other businesses. The testing demonstrated that the biofilter is effective in treating odor pollution by more than 90%. The used filters then become organic fertilizer for agriculture, generating additional income.  


Voice Fight Dust: This team recognized the importance of communications and media in helping people cope with air pollution and motivating them to change behaviors to improve air quality. Their innovation focuses on raising awareness of the health risks and providing information related to air pollution. This was done by recruiting and training active citizens in Thailand and Lao PDR to strengthen their knowledge of air pollution issues and communications skills. The team started a Facebook page for cross-border air pollution information sharing. They also utilized an existing platform created by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service “C-Site” to collect information and data that could later be used to create online content and produce communications materials.  

Towards a New Chapter of Cross-Border Collaborations 

On 1 April 2024, the finalists were invited to pitch their solutions at an event in Bangkok, in front of more than 90 participants from government agencies, the private sector, academia, civil society, embassies, and international organizations. The winning team, Nikorai, was awarded USD 6,000 to scale up their work. While this seemed like a closing event, it marked the beginning of the next chapter – a chapter where more people are inspired to foster more bottom-up and multisectoral cross-border collaborations.  


After the finalists’ presentation, participants were invited to share their views about the Clean Air Without Border model and the future of cross-border collaborations. One participant reflected on how difficult it was to select one winner when all three solutions could have formed a good portfolio of solutions for clean air. Indeed, such a complex problem like air pollution cannot be solved by a single-point solution but requires a range of solutions that tackle the problem from multiple angles and at multiple levels. This gave us the idea to work on an ambitious portfolio of projects organized by subthemes. Many participants also shared their past and current efforts, which showed the many opportunities to connect to build a stronger network in the region. In that same spirit, we would like to invite you, the reader of this blog, to connect and explore how we can collaborate. You can read more from our Clean Air Without Border materials here.  

Graphic Courtesy: UNDP Thailand

[Clean Air Without Border] provides an opportunity for cross-border collaboration and for forging coalitions of like-minded Laotians and Thais on a key issue for both countries” said Martine Therer, Resident Representative, UNDP Lao PDR. 

“I really think this cross-border work involving two UNDP offices in neighboring countries that are confronted to the same complex challenges is the way forward and we should certainly do more. These challenges require the type of approach used in this initiative that transcends borders. We hope to see more support and incentives from the Regional Bureau for this type of collaboration.” Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative, UNDP Thailand. 

UNDP stands ready to support cross-border collaborations where people who are affected by a common problem can join hands and co-create innovative solutions together, regardless of which side of the borders they live in or which sector they come from. We hope that the Clean Air Without Border initiative between Thailand and Lao PDR will serve as a source of inspiration and that we will be able to scale up this initiative with more countries involved in improving air quality. Together, we can make the air we breathe cleaner in our homes and outside, and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in our region.