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Sombere, or a Sombre Day?
Author: Joel Tan

It was our third day in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi, by the time we caught a glimpse of one of the city's most endangered species: the humble traffic light.

How we survived those first three days - indeed, the entirety of our stay - without serious automobile-related incident remains a mystery. Crossing the street in Makassar, we quickly found, is an almost religious experience: one essentially steps into oncoming traffic and hopes that approaching motorists show mercy. Locals, with a combination of careful timing and confidence, seem able to part traffic around them like a Red Sea; a skill we were never able to master.

From within a vehicle, getting around was no less harrowing: much of our longer-haul trips were spent on Grabs, bracing for potholes every few moments and waiting out jams. This is Makassar: a place where getting out of your car in a jam and legging it is a legitimate transport option, where being a pedestrian is an extreme sport. A place that mayor Ramdhan Pomanto, he tells us one afternoon at his home, also hopes to turn into a world-class "smart city".

We had arranged to meet Mr. Pomanto, in fact, precisely to discuss the measures - both past and future - which he hopes will improve his citizens’ quality of life. It wasn’t by chance that we chose Makassar either: both Singapore and Makassar are cosmopolitan port cities facing much the same issues (albeit on different levels) and pursuing smart city solutions in order to tackle them. Makassar’s government already has partnerships with Singapore-based companies, chief among them IE Singapore, in order to tap on their unique expertise. We, on the other hand, were here to see what Makassar could teach us about making a city 'smart', that might be applicable back home.

Perhaps due to the sheer number and variety of communities which have hopped on the "smart city" bandwagon, no single prevailing definition of the term exists - though common threads, of course, can be observed. A smart city, as mentioned, aims above all to raise the standard of living of its residents. While it can do so in a variety of ways, technology is often a big part of this equation. The Singapore government’s "Smart Nation" initiatives, for instance, appear to exclusively rely on emerging technologies, from self-driving cars and contactless payment systems to assistive robots for seniors and the disabled.

Automation is just the tip of the iceberg: a second, perhaps more sinister pillar of "smartness" is data collection - all the time, everywhere, about everyone. Streetlights along Stratumseind in the Netherlands, for example, are embedded with wifi-trackers, cameras and microphones, constantly gathering information on visitors in order to "detect aggressive behaviour" and alert law enforcement accordingly. In a world increasingly beset by environmental degradation, sustainability is another prime concern: Toronto’s public transport system now runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), and efforts are being made to utilize biogas from organic waste as well. Ultimately, however, every city has its own needs and context, and consequently its own special brand of "smart".

For Makassar, this is what Mr. Pomanto calls "Sombere and Smart City". Sombere, often loosely translated as "kind heart", goes beyond that. As our host is careful to explain, it’s an ethos unique to Makassar, somewhere at the crossroads of kindness, humility and hospitality - a somewhat tricky concept to grasp until he has his assistants bring out cups of tea and trays of traditional cakes for us. It is the middle of Ramadan* and we had thought it rude to eat in the presence of those fasting; but all this was clearly immaterial to Mr. Pomanto. "You won’t find this anywhere else; Makassar specialty!" His tone is disarming and bright, and for a while we are unsure if he is referring to the cakes, or the warmth of the Makassar spirit.

Even so, the kind gesture does little to elucidate what Sombere means in the context of urban planning. Mr. Pomanto sums it up as such: if a smart city is about connecting people, Sombere is about "connecting hearts and minds". In the way of the former, at least, Mr. Pomanto has many cards in play. One of his flagship initiatives, "Smart RT/RW", aims to tackle radicalisation by incentivizing community and grassroots leaders to engage with their wards. Officials' efforts at engagement are tracked via an app, for which virtual points - tagged to real-world bonuses - are awarded. Via the same app, officials are also told to report households or individuals who seem isolated or otherwise at-risk.

It soon becomes clear that, for Mr. Pomanto, most problems can be solved by everyone simply knowing more about everyone else. Another of his pet projects still in the works is a smart card for use in schools. Not only will students use their card to access transportation and school facilities, but their parents also receive message updates whenever the card is used - ensuring wily schoolchildren are unable to play truant.

The paternalistic bent to his policies is most apparent, perhaps, in his approach to surveillance. When prompted, he proudly brings up his latest brainchild, at once brutally effective and almost crude in its simplicity: a system of powerful CCTV cameras, capable of zooming in on events kilometers away, seeing into windows, and beaming this footage straight to the mayor’s personal war room, all in sparkling 7K quality.

Seeing our incredulous faces, he illustrates the efficacy of his solution with an anecdote: "If I see two boys in a parked car, and they are...doing something not so nice...I can zoom in, and I can tell them to stop over the PA system." We do not doubt he is having a laugh; but for a moment it both reminds us of the country’s conservatism, and puts some in mind of an Orwellian police state.

We venture to ask as much: do your citizens have any concerns about privacy? Not significantly, it appears - and for good reason. With Jakarta still reeling from a recent terrorist attack, and with the spectre of militant Islam constantly hovering over the region, privacy is a distant luxury. Opponents to surveillance, after all, are most vocal and dominant in safer first-world nations facing no immediate external threats. In Indonesia, it is more than likely that a measure such as Mr. Pomanto’s is viewed as insurance rather than intrusion.

Not everyone in Makassar, however, shares the same opinion of their mayor and his work. Just days earlier, we had the privilege of visiting Hasanuddin University, one of the largest and highest-ranking universities in the country. Talks on smart cities were likewise on our agenda here; but we were pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to meet a few of the students themselves, who not only displayed "Sombere" in excess, but also showed us a different side of the rosy picture their mayor would present to us.

The state of Makassar’s transport infrastructure, as described earlier, still leaves much to be desired: one student told us he catered an hour of travel time to school each morning, despite living only 15 minutes away. Attempts to remedy the situation appear to have been ineffectual: in a presentation about the public transport system, a professor brought up the example of the "smart pete-pete". Pete-petes (pronounced peteh-peteh) are minivans which serve as a kind of taxi in Makassar; despite being the main form of public transport around the city, they are unregulated, often overcharge customers, and are often uncomfortable and cramped. The "smart pete-pete" was an attempt at a sleeker, government sanctioned version, complete with air-conditioning and charging ports for mobile devices. Since the project’s launch about 2 years ago, however, there remains only one single smart pete-pete in existence, more for display than for actual use.

Environmental sustainability, too, appears to be low on Mr. Pomanto’s list of priorities. Waste management, for sure, is something he has tried to take care of, by way of "trash banks" which give citizens credit in exchange for trash. The scheme not only helps clean up the city, but also helps the underprivileged accumulate credit. That said, the participation rate remains only at about 20%, and the streets are nowhere near squeaky clean.

In the area of healthcare, too, the mayor’s good intentions seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Once again, his ideas are ambitious: he wants to issue every citizen with a smart card containing all their health records, and equip local doctors with devices that would send symptoms to the cloud to be diagnosed by more qualified doctors overseas. A few "mobile doctors" are also now in operation, driving straight to patients’ houses in specialized vehicles to cater to the elderly or less mobile. Yet, surveys show only about 37% of citizens know how to get such help, or are even aware of its existence.

All the above points to one glaring fact: if Mr. Pomanto is comprehensive in his approach to "connecting people", he appears a little less clear on the other half of his smart city vision: connecting hearts and minds. For all his high-tech measures, something is stopping them from reaching the people: perhaps a combination of a lack of proper communication networks, as well as a lack of expertise and education. Digital literacy - and larger issues of social mobility and access to/awareness of infrastructure - remains a stumbling block in the fight to make Makassar a truly "smart city".