Jakarta: Making a Megacity a Smart City

Michael Sianipar, left, shares his experience working for the City of Jakarta. Paul McManus, right, looks on.
Michael Sianipar, left, shares his experience working for the City of Jakarta. Paul McManus, right, looks on.

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, stands as one of the largest urban centers in the world with an estimated population of nearly 10 million. On Thursday September 15th, Boston University (BU) students had the opportunity to learn about some the biggest challenges facing the city. The BU Initiative on Cities and the Pardee School of Global Studies welcomed Michael Sianipar, staff member to Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Governor Ahok), to campus for Jakarta: Making a Megacity a Smart City. Moderated by Paul McManus, Master Lecturer in Strategy and Innovation at the BU Questrom School of Business, the discussion shed light on how Jakarta is changing and the opportunities ahead.

Creative Destruction for the Greater Good

Elected as Lieutenant Governor of Jakarta in 2012 and named acting Governor in 2014, Governor Ahok leads an institution historically known for rampant corruption and complicated bureaucracy, prompting his team to commit themselves to a policy of creative destruction. “In order to create something, you have to destroy what existed,” said Sianipar. “You have to demolish the buildings and dig out the foundations.” In a system plagued by wasteful spending, mismanagement and inaccessibility, every function of city government needed to be reexamined. The new administration’s candor and transparency, combined with a willingness to buck past trends, has been critical in changing the political environment.

The scale of corruption in Jakarta’s public services was by all accounts monumental. Yet Sianipar remains optimistic, explaining his belief in the fundamental goodness of people working in government. “Most people have a conscience,” he said, elaborating in his overriding belief that most people do not want to work for a corrupt organization, nor engage in questionable activities. But when people work in an environment that tolerates corruption and encourages bribery and cheating through poor pay and poor working condition, they may not have any other choice.

Governor Ahok’s administration thus set out to eradicate corruption through means that often appeared counterintuitive. Wages were raised for employees who had previously relied on bribes. The city stopped spending on certain public services where funds had been mismanaged, and discovered that reduced spending did not result in a lower quality of life.

For a city with 70,000 civil servant employees and over 200,000 contract employees, these efforts were massive. Still, the city government believes in the potential of its employees and is committed to turning the ship around, even if it means tearing down the instruments of past administrations. Bureaucratic reform remains the number one priority for Governor Ahok’s team, explained Sianipar. “Yes the rest is important – infrastructure, healthcare, education – but most important is to identify who is capable for the job… We don’t want a bureaucracy based on connections but one [based on] merits. If you have the skills, you’ll get the job.” The city is installing better incentives, recruiting more young talent, and developing inclusive policies, all of which contribute to a spirit of optimism for the future.

Incremental Improvement in Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Change

City government in Jakarta, and elsewhere, can often be perceived as complex and slow. Sianipar acknowledged that the pace of progress can be disheartening at times, but momentum has started to build: “It is like moving a big rock one centimeter a day, but when you look back after five years, you realize that you moved quite far.” It is an approach that necessitates taking the long view.

The administration also adopted practices from the private sector, setting goals and timelines for projects in order to measure progress and track small victories. Unafraid of public backlash, Governor Ahok has been willing to make short-term sacrifices in the interest of long-term progress. Sianipar described a decision to dramatically cut funding for cleaning the city’s rivers downstream. Instead of investing in short-term fixes to the problem, the city spent less and focused on key choke points upstream. Despite an initially negative reaction from the media, over the course of several months, the rivers proved to be the cleanest they had been in years and the city saved tens of millions of dollars. 

Human and Technology Systems Enable a Smart City

One of Sianipar’s chief areas of focus is establishing Jakarta as a “Smart City” by adopting new technologies and innovating government processes. But simply accessing more information through tools like street sensors isn’t enough. He explained that being a Smart City wasn’t only about having the data available, but being able to truly understand and leverage it. For example, Sianipar described the importance of using technology to create new channels for exchanging and communicating ideas. While most policies and programs ultimately come from the Governor’s desk, Smart City technology has empowered lower level city employees and members of the public, giving them a platform for their voices to be heard, something Sianipar refers to as a “bottom-up Smart City program.” Ideas can reach levels of government that were previously inaccessible, increasing participation and improving public engagement.

Sianipar frequently emphasized the human infrastructure that must undergird a Smart City. “I think that people don’t believe in the technology,” he said, “they believe in the person behind the technology.” This highlighted an underlying belief that technology goes hand in hand with human capacity and conscientiousness. Having the right government workers and the right leaders in place to manage that technology is critical to its success. Challenges still exist; increased transparency does put more pressure on civil servants, Sianipar admits, and the digital divide among members of the public remains. But overall, he remains optimistic that Smart City technology will help Jakarta become a better, more responsible and transparent city.

Looking to the Future

Sianipar alongside Boston University students.
Sianipar alongside Boston University students.

The importance of engaging the next generation of public leaders emerged as a key theme throughout Sianipar’s discussion. The government’s reputation as complicated and corrupt has made recruiting young talent challenging, especially as the public sector competes for engineers and developers with startups and the booming technology industry. Students in the audience, many of whom were members of the Indonesian Student Association of Boston University, asked how they could help Jakarta succeed both in Indonesia and here in the United States, a sign that enthusiasm for public service persists. As an organization committed to helping foster future city leaders, we at the Initiative on Cities were delighted to see that passion in action.