In Jakarta, solving problems with new tech tools and people power

The mega city of 10 million people is defying cliches and embracing innovations to solve some of its most pressing urban challenges.

Jakarta often appears in photographs as a teeming metropolis awash with honking motor bikes, buses and cars snarled in traffic. Then there are the deadly floods that frequently befall this megacity of more than 10 million people.

But defying the clichés that surround it, the capital city of Indonesia also is beginning to earn its spurs in urban innovations. What is generating a lot of interest across the country and beyond is web-based planning mechanisms that involve residents in local government’s decision-making process. Citizens are becoming engaged in identifying the city’s most pressing problems and proposing solutions.

Some of Jakarta’s tech tools may sound familiar in other cities. For example, thousands of residents are using Qlue, a smartphone app that lets users snap a picture of uncollected garbage or a broken street lamp, and report it to local authorities. Like “311” services in the United States or Seoul’s “smart complaint” app, Qlue gives citizens an immediate way to tell authorities what needs fixing.

But other solutions are more particular to Jakarta, and seek to engage residents in deeper, long-term questions about the future of their city.

One strategy mixes face-to-face meetings at the local level where residents can propose new ideas to city officials, and uses a web-based platform to track whether authorities are delivering on them. Any city resident with a valid city identification card known as a Jakarta ID can propose an idea through the system.

These physical bottlenecks are on top of the mind of most people.

Ruslan Said, Jakarta 

I recently had a chance to see some of these tools and talk to urban planners, community leaders and ordinary citizens about them as part of an international study tour.

The city’s participatory planning strategy was one of 15 programmes acknowledged last year by the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation. A delegation of Asian city leaders and experts visited to learn lessons from Jakarta Smart City, a government agency that partners with the private sector and NGOs on these approaches.

[See: Inside the Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation]

What we saw was a megacity that hasn’t solved all of its myriad woes, but is well on its way to a new bottom-up formula to work at it. Citizen engagement is now seen here as crucial to improving services, improving transparency in government and holding local leaders accountable.

The public’s priorities

The word you hear all the time when you listen to city planners here is musrenbang. It’s the local word for community meetings that happen at the level of Jakarta’s 44 districts and 2,726 sub-districts. These forums have become a primary path for citizens to express concerns and demand better services for their neighbourhoods.

For communities who historically have had little say in local decision-making, merely having a forum for residents to make suggestions directly to local officials represents something of a breakthrough. However, their recommendations often get lost in the city bureaucracy afterward. Residents would have little way of knowing if the city was working on their idea or rejecting it.

So city leaders added a digital component to the process, known as e-musrenbang. Proposals decided upon at the local-level meetings are submitted to city government through the web-based application. It’s the repository of aspirations residents have for their communities—in 2016, Jakarta city government received more than 46,000 proposals from the public.

The platform is also a tracking mechanism, so that the public can easily check on the progress of their suggestions. If the proposal is rejected, local officials must give a reason why.

According to Tuty Kusumawati, head of Jakarta’s Regional Development Planning Board, 76 percent of the proposals from the community are accepted, validated and funded for implementation.

This bottom-up process works alongside the more traditional top-down planning and budgeting systems driven by local government agencies, says Andhika Ajie, a planner and analyst with the Province of Jakarta Special Capital Region.

“The head of the sub-district should know the real needs of the people,” he says. “The proposals are verified by the sub-district and then the district authorities. The idea is to combine technocratic planning by municipalities with citizens’ ideas.”

According to Ajie, having the Qlue app as a separate platform for handling day-to-day complaints has helped improve the dialogue between residents and planners.

“Previously, citizens used to submit proposals which combined complaints needing immediate redress with long-term demands,” he says. “Now we have separated it. Qlue deals with complaints and the proposals are fed into e-muserenbang. If there is garbage lying around somewhere, all that a Jakartan has to do is to click a photo and report it. Within 24 hours, it will be removed.”

Tracking progress

In Cipete Utara, a middle-class neighbourhood in South Jakarta, residents and community leaders generally offered a positive assessment of the changes.

“The most interesting part of e-musrenbang is that now we can actually track online the status of our community proposals,” says Yostiana Bella Ulfa, 25, who has lived in Cipete Utara all her life. “If any suggestion is refused, we are also told the reasons. If it has been accepted, we can track various stages of implementation.”

She says she was “thrilled” recently when a proposal from the neighbourhood committee to fix a number of streets pocked with potholes was acted upon quickly. “In Jakarta, we use motorcycles a lot, especially in narrow lanes,” Ulfa says. “Commuting becomes a big problem if the lanes are badly in need of repair.”

Yostiana’s father, Iyus Ruslan Said, a 50-year old businessman, heads the local neighbourhood committee. He says e-musrenbang has been helpful in communicating and tracking the progress on the community’s main demands, which relate to repairs of roads, sewers and other infrastructure. “These physical bottlenecks are on top of the mind of most people,” he says.

However, older residents and many community leaders are still trying to adapt to technology, he says. Much more needs to be done to spread awareness of the e-musrenbang process. “The sudden change has been a cultural shock,” according to Said, “because there is a big difference between the process earlier and now.”

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at Citiscope.org.

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