As Homer Simpson once said: “Do you know that Indonesia is at a crossroads?”

It has seemingly been there for decades, unable to quite take the path to become a high-income nation. Bambang Brodjonegoro, Minister of Research and Technology, believes Indonesia requires a “paradigm shift from being a natural resource-based economy to an innovation-driven economy.”

It has been moving “relatively slowly” in that direction – but the pandemic may push the country to reform. GovInsider spoke to the Minister to find out how tech can help the country rebuild from Covid-19.

Hit hard by Covid-19

Indonesia’s economy fell into recession last year as it struggled to keep infections under control. It has clocked 1.4 million Covid-19 cases and more than 38,000 deaths, the highest in the Southeast Asian region.

Data from the Central Statistics Agency revealed 27.55 million Indonesians live below the national poverty line as of last September – a 2.76 million increase from the previous year.

Tech innovation will help the battered economy recover from Covid-19. Brodjonegoro hopes the National Research and Innovation agency, founded in late 2019, can bridge collaborations between the government, private sector, and academia.

“This is the first time the word ‘innovation’ has become part of the cabinet portfolio, meaning that Indonesia is now seriously thinking about promoting innovation, rather than just doing promotional research activities.”

Ramping up AI and data

Indonesia will focus on enhancing its big data and AI capabilities, he says. “We hope the big data that is collected and analysed will create AI that improves the quality of public services without having to employ too many government servants.”

AI has a huge role to play in agriculture, with some palm oil plantations turning to AI-equipped drones to identify trees ready for harvest. Some greenhouses have also used sensors to alter temperature and humidity levels to create optimal conditions for crops.

“I believe Indonesia can really still increase agricultural productivity, despite the reducing number of farmers,” Brodjonegoro says.

Indonesia also ramped up the use of big data to keep track of the spread of the virus, he says. It now plans to enhance its telemedicine services, which has helped to reduce the strain on healthcare facilities.

Halodoc, an Indonesian telehealth platform, saw 7.2 million users access its Covid-19 feature from March to June last year, Channel News Asia reported. The company is currently collaborating with Gojek and the Ministry of Health to provide drive-through vaccinations for tourism workers and the elderly.

Even after Covid-19, telehealth services will remain necessary, Brodjonegoro believes. “This type of innovation needs to be developed so people can stay healthy and safe in future pandemics.”

Tackling education challenges

Tech will also be useful in tackling challenges in Indonesia’s education system, Brodjonegoro says.

Indonesia has 3 million teachers and 60 million students, making it the fourth largest education system in the world. But when teaching moved online during the pandemic, many students were unable to stay up to date due to a lack of internet access.

Indonesia has turned to broadcasting educational programmes on TV to close the digital gap. The Education Ministry has also provided students and teachers with up to 50GB of mobile data, spending a total of IDR7.2 trillion (US$490.7 million).

“Connecting more than 74,000 villages in Indonesia will not be an easy task,” says Brodjonegoro. The Ministry of Research and Technology can help by creating “community internet” spots that improve the “last-mile connection” for every household, he adds.

Transparency in procurement

In the past twenty years, Indonesia has transformed into a burgeoning democracy. It embraced decentralisation laws that gave greater political power and budget to local governors and mayors, and even established an anti-graft agency.

But corruption remains an issue among high-profile government officials and businessmen. Indonesia ranks 108 out of 180 in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and loses up to US$4 billion per year in bribery and favouritism in procurement, according to a study by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Fortunately, more government agencies now use an electronic catalogue for e-procurement, Brodjonegoro says. That helps to determine where money is going, whether prices paid are reasonable, and whether projects have been delivered on time and within budget.

The e-catalogue will also invite more participation from Indonesia’s private sector, he told GovInsider in 2018. “They can understand with this electronic procurement catalogue, whether their product is highly competitive or not, because they can see the price of exactly the same stuff from other companies,” he said.

Brodjonegoro’s ministry plans to set up a special page, known as Innovation Indonesia, to feature products developed in the country. That will hopefully give its small businesses a competitive edge, and “increase willingness of people to buy products developed by Indonesia”.

Simplifying bureaucracy

Government officials “have to be very adaptive and agile” – a lesson learnt from the pandemic, Brodjonegoro says.

But Indonesia’s bureaucracy has sometimes been an impediment to innovation, acknowledged by President Jokowi in a 2019 assembly, reported Jakarta Globe.

Previous governance systems were very “hierarchical”, Brodjonegoro adds. The current five-level structures in his ministry, known as the echelon system, have been reduced to just two levels. More functional roles for civil servants have also been created.

To make these two layers more effective than before, Brodjonegoro plans to “rally everyone to use technology to reduce bureaucracy”. Electronic signatures are an example. “If you can do electronic signing, why should you follow the old paradigm that needs the real signature?”

Many opportunities lie ahead for Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Innovations in health, education, and agriculture, along with efforts to tackle corruption, may just be the key to unlocking Indonesia’s massive potential.