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02/02/2012

What do we want? I_n_f_r_a_s_t_r_u_c_t_u_r_e

In certain countries there is a requirement to use a stock or phrase in order to break the ice. They are like a secret passwords: once uttered people are instantly well-disposed to he or she that muttered these words. Confused? Let me give you an example. In the UK one is almost obliged to mention the weather. If you don't then one may be greeted with an air of suspicion. That it is slightly rainy is important and should be mentioned. In Jakarta in response to the question "and do you like Jakarta?" one is obliged to say, "yes, very much... apart from the traffic!" The traffic is a hardship that every Jakartan endures on a daily basis. It is unavoidable and pervasive, an equalizer as no man, rich or poor, can beat the sea of cars and scooters that are ever present.


While the traffic might bind all in good humor, it points to perhaps the largest underlying challenge for Jakarta. There is a weight of expectation resting on shoulders of the city to become the next great place for investment and business. The enormous potential of Indonesia has been written about at length (4th largest population in the world, fastest growing economy in Asia, etc etc etc.) and Jakarta is the hub of the country, the melting pot of all thousands of islands, where is all happens. There is a "but". The "but" in this case is the traffic. The city will be constrained in its ambition to be an Asian capital (rather than just the capital of Indonesia) by its utterly inadequate infrastructure. 

Benchmarking is an extremely useful tool for analysis and when looking at cities one can do just that. The shortcomings of Jakarta are highlighted when presented in the context of the cities that it aspires to emulate, but falls utterly short. It takes an hour or more to travel a short distance, necessitating huge buffer times ahead of any meeting or when catching a flight. Even when one is at the airport, domestic flights are typically delayed by around an hour - of the six internal flights I took while in Indonesia the least delayed one was 30 minutes late. 

Compare that to Shanghai where the Maglev train flies at 250mph (over 400 kmph) from the center of town to the airport. Or to Japan where trains are listed to the quarter minute. Or the fairly extensive and generally reliable subway systems in Bangkok, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and (of course) Hong Kong, to name but a few.

Jakarta nearly had a monorail system. At the start of century the city had gained financing from international investors (from Japan or Dubai, depending on with whom one talks). Construction of pylons started in 2004 but financial problems and legal disputes soon stalled the project. In March 2008 the developers, PT Jakarta Monorail, officially abandoned the project. So, instead of a brand spanking new monorail system that would bind various parts of the city, get commuters off the roads and free up some much needed capacity, the city has a series of monuments to this infrastructure failure. Large monolithic pillars can be seen going down the center of many of the roads. They do nothing apart from encourage more flooding because their foundations are said to penetrate the sewage systems.

The authorities recognize this gross shortfall and the government has put together a major Master Plan with over 400 proposed infrastructure projects that will transform Jakarta and the rest of Indonesia in order to realize the aforementioned potential. This is all very well but there is a vast funding gap to achieve these projects. Indonesia is not China which can simply chose to build a road or a railway and then pay for it out of a vast surplus, displacing people at will. 

With this challenge comes an opportunity for Western companies. If they can work out truly innovative solutions to the huge issue of congestion and inefficiency then these solutions should be jumped at. I, for one, truly look forward to the Indonesia of 2020 where I hope to be able to move around the capital quickly, and jump to the plethora of islands with minimal efforts. Sitting in a cab for hours at a time, it is possible to daydream, but for Indonesia to achieve its potential, this is a dream that must become a reality.