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“Welcome to the command centre,” says Bandung’s mayor Ridwan Kamil as he ushers MONOCLE into a futuristic control room. “From here we are transforming how we manage the city in a quicker and more dynamic way.”

Apart from running the city government, Kamil is also an award-winning architect and founder of the Bandung Creative City Forum. “I want to have the best of everything we can afford,” he says. “Bandung was unknown before but I want to put it on the global map. There’s something exciting happening here with an architect as the mayor.”

Bandung, Indonesia, is a mountainous city of 2.4 million people, nationally known for its design community but not yet recognised globally as a creative hub. Located in West Java, 160km southeast of Jakarta, its streets are as vibrant by day as they are by night thanks to universities such as the Bandung Institute of Technology, home to one of the nation’s top design schools. However, the city also suffers from many of the issues that are also proving to be challenges for Indonesia as a whole. For one, Kamil’s predecessor is currently serving a 10-year jail sentence for bribery, while urban disorder has left the city’s streets lined with rubbish. An outdated town plan has led to stifling traffic and the infrastructure is in disrepair. In the face of these challenges Kamil, who became mayor in 2013, is designing benchmarks for improving less-affluent cities at a terrific pace.

From the command centre’s glossy white console, the architect observes and interacts with the happenings of Indonesia’s third-largest city at a heady pace. Switching from screen to screen, Kamil navigates information on a giant monitor as the room’s surround-sound speaker system erupts in sci-fi bleeps and whooshes. In the centre, which Kamil himself designed, the mayor follows up the progress of his public works and quickly monitors on social media which part of town was most angered by the rush-hour traffic.

His latest creation, a so-called “panic button” app for citizens in trouble, sends their exact location to the emergency services when pressed and the whole rescue plays out in real time on the giant screen. “I don’t have too many human resources to work with but this creates a lot of shortcuts,” he says, explaining the system that he and his team engineered and which he hopes to provide for other Indonesian cities.

“We adapted an existing system but I knew we had the engineers here in Bandung to make this world-class, so we simplified it.” The innovation of the command centre is representative of Kamil’s leadership as mayor. During his two years in office he has utilised the design principles he mastered as one of Indonesia’s most prominent architects to win the people’s trust and reimagine Bandung’s urban landscape.

“Because my background is in architecture, imagination is my business and aesthetics are part of the goal,” he says. What Kamil lacks in direct experience he has made up for with his design-minded take on his mayoral role. The one-time lecturer has begun to streamline the positions of his bureaucrats while “helping them see that all projects must be not just beautiful but useful, too”.

Bandung’s public, who mob Kamil like a rock star as he guides monocle along his city’s streets at dusk, attest to that usefulness. At Alun-Alun Park, a former Bandung resident visiting the city finds the area unrecognisable compared with a few years ago. Then, she says, it was “run-down, dangerous and filthy”.

“This is the city centre I revitalised four months ago,” says Kamil, looking over the Astroturfed park where families now routinely relax late into the night. “It was dark and empty, nobody came here and we had lots of problems. I’m using the strategy of public space to bring new happiness to the public.” And it’s working, too: the influx of foot traffic to the park is boosting businesses.

“Now everybody’s scrambling to this park and restaurants are springing up to cater for them,” says the reformer. For a mayor who walks to work each day and who says his best ideas come when he is weaving through Bandung’s traffic on his bike, appreciating the city’s fine climate in the design of its public spaces has been a natural process.

For the Taman Film park project, Kamil brought in international architecture firm Shau, which has transferred its Indonesian arm from Jakarta to Bandung to work more closely with the mayor. “Ridwan Kamil understands what design can do,” says Shau’s director Daliana Suryawinata. “Through this project we discovered that a minimal intervention could create a very optimal effect through the whole city. It was genuinely scary and unsafe under this bridge but now there is a vibrant series of parks and the people are really treating it like it is their living room.”

Working with the city’s creative community, Kamil has boosted neighbourhoods by devoting parks to different themes including art, music and film. The Taman Film public space is one of the most successful examples. With a panoramic view of the mountains and a stepped-concrete design that flows onto an evergreen Astroturf lawn, the park has become a beacon for Bandung’s film-loving citizens. On the LED screen, people can watch free films every evening. It’s also home to Bandung FC, the team that, Kamil points out, won the Indonesian Super League last season.

Even so, Kamil admits to big challenges ahead. “In 18 months I can’t come close to fixing traffic problems. But I see solutions,” he says. “We’re building a cable-car system that will open in 2017 and is more like a flying bus, where each car can accommodate 34 passengers.”

Another ambitious project is a high-speed rail link to Jakarta, intended to connect the two cities in less than one hour. Kamil’s collaboration on it with president Joko Widodo reflects the close affinity of the young leaders, a topic often discussed in the Indonesian media. Kamil is tipped as a future governor of Jakarta and perhaps to follow in Widodo’s footsteps to the presidency. With major international events such as this year’s Bandung Conference bringing country-builders from Africa and Asia, he is already demonstrating leadership abilities at an exhilarating time for Indonesia’s economy.

While his ambitions are for the nation as a whole, it is the spirit of Bandung that remains critical to his vision. “Bandung cannot compete with world-class cities in terms of infrastructure,” he says. “But when it comes to social capital and collaboration we are world class, because voluntarism is in our mindset.”

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