At the entrance to the spaceship-like command center for the Indonesian city of Bandung, all workers remove their shoes before starting their shift, the better to keep the carpets clean.
Inside, operators ensure the city’s more than 300 mobile apps run smoothly and check what words are trending on social media in the city so that any problems are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
“Wild animals entering houses are the strangest complaints,” said social media operator Dyar Dwiqi. “Snakes, bees and squirrels. We call the fire department and let them handle it.”
“These types of things make the job more interesting,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The 24-hour command center is just one of a series of changes launched over the last five years to try to boost sustainability, reduce climate-changing emissions and make Indonesia’s third-largest city more liveable.
Cities across the Asia-Pacific region have seen unprecedented growth over the last two decades. This year, the United Nations estimates that more than half the region’s population will for the first time be urban.
But as they grow, Asia’s cities also need to hold the line on – and try to cut back – their carbon pollution from things like transport, heating, cooling and waste.
Without that, the world will miss its goals – set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement – to curb global warming, exposing billions of people to more of the fiercer storms, deeper droughts, crop failures and other disasters the world is already seeing, scientists say.
To deal with the threat, rapidly expanding cities such as Bandung are testing technology aimed at both cutting their contribution to climate change and improving the lives of their citizens.
Other cities in Indonesia have experimented with green projects but urban experts say the number of changes, the speed of their implementation, and the innovative use of technology make Bandung stand out.
At the city’s pristine white command center, designed by the tech-savvy mayor, for instance, 27 operators can check closed-circuit television feeds for traffic hot-spots, in an effort to ease congestion.
They can also use a public address system to chastise road users for using mobile phones or not wearing helmets.
“I enjoy my job,” said Dwiqi. “My job is important because it helps people connect with the government and services.”
‘Paris of Java’
Surrounded by mountains, Bandung was once known as the ‘Paris of Java’ because its cool climate, parks and surrounding tea plantations made it a relaxing weekend getaway.
Developers during the Dutch colonial era planned for only 300,000 inhabitants. But the city’s population has since soared to 2.4 million, resulting in cramped conditions where about 1.4 million vehicles battle it out on mostly narrow roads.
As well as congestion and air pollution, Bandung’s population – which almost doubles during working hours – has to contend with crumbling infrastructure, limited public transport, regular flooding and earthquakes.
But the city’s close proximity to the capital Jakarta, its large number of universities, and a student population that means 60 percent of the population is under 40 years old, make it ripe for innovation and investment, experts said.
“Because it is a very attractive city, people are flowing into the city center,” said Tadashi Matsumoto, an urban policy and green growth coordinator at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Bandung attracts manufacturing and service industry companies, and has a good university, which means it has “the basics in terms of economic potential”, he said.
The driving force behind the city’s green revolution is widely considered to be Ridwan Kamil, elected in 2013 as mayor of Bandung, the capital of West Java province, urban experts say.
Before entering politics as an independent, Bandung-born Kamil was an architect who spent time living in New York and Hong Kong and studied urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.
“The main reason why I jumped to politics was because I was an angry citizen,” said Kamil, who has millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter.
“Everything was in a bad condition – so much corruption … and every kid wanted to go to shopping malls for happiness.”
In an effort to transform Bandung, Kamil has made the city’s bureaucracy more target-driven and innovative, and has introduced almost 30 new policies – many aimed at least in part at lowering carbon emissions.
A green building law forces developers to make their structures energy and water efficient, to install separate waste facilities to promote recycling, and to maintain green areas to help absorb rain water.
The city carries out emissions tests on public and private transport vehicles every three months, said Hery Antasari, head of the Bandung’s development, planning and research department.
High-emission vehicles are banned from the roads, but low-emission private cars issued with stickers that give them priority parking.
The city’s nearly 30 public parks have been made more accessible and family-friendly, while communities are encouraged to clean the streets of trash, create small parks or green spaces in their neighborhoods, and start urban farms in backyards or on rooftops.
Other changes in Bandung include the introduction of free school buses, the widening of pavements and the building of pedestrian bridges, as well as weekly car-free days or evenings on the city’s main road.
Food sellers have also been banned from using styrofoam packaging and some plastics have been eliminated in supermarkets.
In a sign of its success, Bandung won a clean air award from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last year.
“When I was a kid, every day I would see morning dew on the leaves. Now it doesn’t exist,” said Kamil, who has seen city temperatures rise since he was young.
“A low-carbon footprint is logical and a noble goal to reach,” said the mayor, who regularly cycles to work.
Best yet to come
Bandung’s tree-lined streets are dotted with flowers and largely trash free, but some urban experts said many of the mayor’s projects have struggled to make a significant impact.
Big infrastructure pushes, in particular, have struggled to get financing experts said, including planned light rail and mass rapid transit train networks, and a cable car project.
The city’s bike-sharing scheme has just 30 docking stations and is rarely used by commuters, while a lack of designated cycle lanes means that cyclists are allowed to use the sidewalks.
As well, the city’s major bus system only runs on nine corridors and does not have designated lanes to beat the jams, officials said.
“Any Indonesian city you go to, the first thing on people’s mind is always congestion and the ability to transfer people from private to public vehicles,” said Joris van Etten, a senior urban development specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Jakarta.
In Bandung, that switch is proving difficult, he said. “In terms of transport, there is still a huge amount of work to be done.”
Better monitoring of air pollution and better efforts to cut the risks from floods and earthquakes also are needed, said Matsumoto of the OECD.
Experts also worry about whether the projects and policies Mayor Kamil introduced will lose momentum as he moves in mid-September to become West Java governor.
But Kamil, who is tipped by many to run for Indonesia’s presidency in 2024, is confident that his vice mayor, who will succeed him, will continue the good work.
“The best of Bandung is yet to come,” said Kamil. “Whatever the good qualities of Bandung are, I will apply as a standard to the whole province,” he said.