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Jakarta Post

Role of social scientists in Indonesia's smart cities goals

Singapore   /   Mon, September 16, 2019   /   10:31 am
Role of social scientists in Indonesia's smart cities goals Indonesia has the world’s fifth-highest number of internet users. Indonesian internet users increased from 132.7 million to 150 million last year. (Shutterstock/Creativa Images)

Indonesia’s decision to move its capital to East Kalimantan has generated significant interest. Locals may hope to see wealth being distributed away from Java while foreign businesses are keen to be involved in upcoming infrastructure projects. On the flip side, some observers are quick to dismiss this announcement given that past leaderships had also proposed and shelved the capital relocation plan.

It is timely for the government to ponder over two things. First, how will they address the urbanization woes in Jakarta through smart city solutions. Second, what do they need to do to achieve the “smart” and “forest” vision they have for the new capital?

In my recent discussions with industry players, there was much debate over what constitutes a smart city. There was a consensus that smart cities boil down to leveraging technology to solve urban issues and to benefit the public – all members of the public and not just pockets of it. The sustainable development goals mandate that no one should be left behind when it comes to economic growth. But what we have seen in Jakarta is that, even though more than a fifth of the country’s urban population stays there, there was not much inclusion until disruptors emerged in the market and offered solutions such as e-wallets, e-commerce platforms, and ride-hailing apps.

These apps proved one point: the speed of technology adoption is much higher if the technology solutions are tailored according to the behavior of people in the community. Online transactions weren’t rampant in Indonesia because people generally did not own credit cards and preferred peer-to-peer bank transfer. Now, e-wallet service providers have changed this by allowing consumers to store money into their e-wallets through various channels such as convenience stores or by handing over cash to drivers.

Therefore, the key to successful smart city development is the understanding of consumer behavior and tailoring solutions to it. Beyond investing in data engineers, governments would also have to leverage in social scientists to ensure that the solutions provided are quickly adopted.

To fully understand data, you need a team of engineers who can help you capture, clean and run models to derive insights from it. However, advanced engineering talent is lacking in parts of Asia, including Indonesia.

How are governments or industries addressing this? In Indonesia, e-commerce company Bukalapak is working with the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) to nurture more local AI engineering skills. Similarly, Hong Kong Polytechnic University is doing the same by collaborating with the Hong Kong Electronic Industries Association. Meanwhile Singapore introduced the [email protected] program to facilitate the hiring of foreign skilled talents.

The issue of the lack of digital “talents” requires a holistic solution. Turning to skilled foreign workers is only a stop-gap measure. The general Asian mindset that career transitions have to be based on paper qualifications has to change. Companies should be more open to recruiting local resources from tangential fields and train them with technical digital skills.

Airbnb sets an excellent example for companies. It runs its own internal university to make its entire workforce – not just the programming department – more data literate. This enables them to create tailored programs that meet their company needs.

Hiring managers scouting talents in emerging industries should be interested in finding out how candidates teach themselves new skills rather than solely targeting people who have done it before. Because if it is a new field, chances are there’s a limited pool of talent to fight over. Finding a way to bridge talents coming from another field that uses the same skill sets such as hypothesis-setting and data-driven insights, is also a viable solution. One such field which takes a similar approach to research is the social sciences. More importantly, social sciences skills such as understanding human behavior are also critical to ensuring successful adoption of an innovation.

Although engineers are vital to a data-driven economy, every step of product or solution development should include both engineers who understand how the technology works and social scientists who can give insight into human behavior and how they might use the technology. Social scientists study society and the way people live – they help connect the dots. Social scientists can also pre-empt societal issues that could emerge from the technology – such as privacy invasion or biases – and work with engineering teams to address them.

For instance, today, we see the struggles that tech companies face when introducing a new service. Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency project, have raised questions among the payments community because of concerns over risks and money laundering. This is just a hypothetical example, but the point of having social scientists working together with engineers could be to develop a product lifecycle that already put in protocols to address these concerns before bringing it to market.

Moreover, when we talk about using autonomous vehicles, internet of things networks, and artificial intelligence to create a smart city, various issues such as physical safety and cybersecurity emerge. Social scientists can identify these issues early and highlight the importance of engaging with government stakeholders to senior management within a company.

At the speed that big data applications are growing, it may take governments a long time to develop an environment for testing. There could be an opportunity for commercial companies to engage with governments to build a framework for testing and launching products together, within the boundaries that are comfortable for government and society. By combining the expertise of both engineers and social scientists, industry and government can benefit from and further develop a data-driven economy.

Within Southeast Asia, such collaboration could begin by creating room for industry players to participate and sharing knowledge at regional meetings. Opportunities like this would help connect industry players and government decision-makers; thereby, improving understanding of what types of solutions is needed by smart cities, how gaps can be quickly filled by industry players and the processes that companies would have to go through to deploy solutions.

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A Certified Information Privacy Professional woring with the Access Partnership team in Asia to help technology clients shape and influence the regulatory and policy environment in the region.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.