Indonesia: 2 people, 13 dynamic days, 15 innovation insights.

Allison Hornery and Matt Skinner share their insights from their recent visit to Indonesia 

Over the last two weeks we’ve been working in Indonesia with the GIZ Transformasi team to come up with ways to help local government professionals share experience and knowledge about public sector innovation.

Armed with a brief to challenge the status quo, having never met each other before arriving in-country (one of us is based in London and the other in Canberra), and needing to work in English as well as Bahasa meant the scene was set for a pretty interesting ride.

As rapid immersions go, this one was pretty intense. From meetings with the Governor of East Java to hanging out with staff working on the extreme front lines of health care for the urban poor, we met dozens of people who were ready to learn and determined to make things better.

As we write this from the Jakarta airport, ready to part company and head back to different hemispheres, we are still under the influence of the rhythms of this country that is so different and yet so similar to our respective homes. And before that buzz wears off, we want to share our top 15 observations, musings and conversation starters from our last two weeks in Indonesia.

traffic1. Keep moving.

Action and activity is part of everyday social life here, whether it’s wedging your car into the tightest gap possible or rushing to catch a crowded elevator at lunchtime. With so much going on, it’s easy to lose some of that energy in the workplace. So no matter how busy the outside world is, it’s important to  try new things, experiment and keep moving at work too.

2. Innovation is everywhere.

The ingenuity and inventiveness of everyday Indonesians never ceased to amaze us. In Jakarta, for example, poor or homeless peopleoffer their services as “jockeys” – paid passengers who enable drivers to use the 3-passenger-minimum express lanes during peak traffic times. This inventiveness extends to frontline government staff, who creatively find small ways every day to try and improve the ways they deliver services.

3. Public perception is a powerful motivator.

Despite the relentless traffic and stresses of their daily environments, Indonesia’s government workers are determined, deliberate and reflective. When we asked them what they thought would be the best thing to come out of knowledge sharing, over and over they told us, “We really want people to think what we are doing is good for citizens”.

Herawan4. Persistence wins the day.

There are many inspiring people working in challenging conditions, often under stifling layers of structure and formality — but they just get on with it and make change happen.

They’re people like Pak Herawan (pictured) from the Gresik Regency in East Java, who won a coveted JPIP Otonomi innovation award for his project to develop community-managed sanitation facilities.

5. People come first.

Achieving the right mindset with an organisation’s leadership and team seems to trump the usual focus on cost effectiveness or improved efficiency. Resourcing is not really seen as a barrier or a driver to innovation here, which took us some time to get our heads around.

For the leaders we met, it starts with people. (Which we happen to think is a good place to start.)

contrast6. Indonesia is a place of contrasts.

From the scorching sun to monsoonal downpours, from the crazy pavements to the glamourous malls, from the state-of-the-art biometric security systems in government buildings to the cheerful-against-the-odds civic administrator in Gresik who has to sign 1000 birth certificates by hand every day.

7. Get social.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest user of Twitter, and everyone seems to have at least one smartphone. But in the government workplace, these technologies seem to be lacking and even frowned upon. We found little use of social media in the workplace — letters are commonly used in place of email.

There’s a massive opportunity for government to tap into the enthusiasm for these technologies to improve work life and to connect with citizens.

indo-suramayor8. Charismatic leadership literally moves traffic.

Tri Rismaharin, the mayor of Surabaya, walks around the city every morning meeting people and solving problems on the spot.

We spent an hour in her office transfixed as we watched her monitoring hundreds of CCTV cameras across the city, issuing real-time instructions to her teams on the ground via walkie-talkie. She told us she’ll know she’s a successful leader when“all of her citizens are treated equally”.

9. Sometimes you need just enough structure.

Government problems are the same the world around – structure, good leadership, buy-in and regulation come before action. Securing ownership and commitment to try new things often takes too long, or gets caught in layers of hierarchy. We’ve been encouraging the idea that innovation will flourish where there is “just enough structure” to create the right conditions.

10. Flip your thinking about regulation.

Regulation is like a currency that drives the innovation conversation in Indonesia: you need to have it in order to trade knowledge, ideas and experiences.

We repeatedly heard, “I want to be innovative, so I need regulation first”. There’s a fear that if you don’t have regulation, innovation is somehow less valuable as a result.

To overcome this, we need to tackle the challenge of how to flip the idea of regulation as an inhibitor to regulation as an enabler. It’s OK to experiment and to fail sometimes — this is how people learn — so how can we use regulation to create these conditions?

Delivery is King. So says Matt Skinner.11. Delivery is king.

Putting a label on an idea too early can be a big mistake — it can lead to a lack of clarity and put unnecessary constraints on creative solution design. We’ve been talking with people about starting small, learning quickly, delivering tangible outcomes and growing iteratively. Moving ahead in this way saves time and money, building more sustainable support for the long haul.

12. Innovation is a buzzword.

In Indonesia, we experienced an almost reflexive need to institutionalise innovation through formalised relationships and hierarchical governance arrangements. But is it really possible to institutionalise innovation without killing it?

13. Collaborate with innovative institutions to build capacity.

There’s an appetite for open data, as well as lots of talk about transparency, but (like in many places around the world) capacity and skills to benefit from data are needed on the front lines. Energetic organisations like UN Pulse Lab and Knowledge Sector Indonesia are playing important bridging and brokerage roles in this space through innovative forums and events, as well as research programs in open data and technology innovation.

14. New approaches to program design and delivery can have a major development impact.

Development agencies like GIZ and KINERJA are ready to show government that it’s OK to try new, creative ways of working, and they’re starting this conversation by walking their own talk. Our in-house session with the GIZ team gave them some practical experience and insights about how new techniques like service design, agile project management and unconferencing could be applied effectively to high-level development policy and program work.

15. Innovation is personal.

People want human contact and shared experiences, this is how people learn best. Expecting people to find information from a book or database isn’t the answer. Sometimes “smart” tech isn’t the answer to the problem either.



Reflecting on our experiences, it’s clear how much the culture, environment, people and ways of working had an impact on us. We are now writing up our findings and recommendations and thinking about next steps, so watch this space!