He cycles to work, feeds the poor, and has 3.6 million Instagram followers.

Meet the charismatic mayor of the Indonesian city of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, who is also an award-winning architect and urban designer.

A firm believer in utilising social media to engage the grassroots in city planning and development, he also advocates public-private partnerships to drive infrastructure development.

In the three years since Ridwan, 44, became mayor, he has been making waves in local politics with the numerous projects and policies he has been implementing in the city of 2.4 million people that he serves.

In fact, for his work of transforming the city, he has received 160 awards both locally and abroad.

Even before he became a politician, he was a social activist committed to promoting grassroots urban design that empowers the poor. He is behind initiatives such as the Bandung Creative City Forum, an organisation that supports the creative community, and the One Village One Playground concept.

He also founded the “Indonesia Berkebun” movement which, to date, has set up urban gardens in 40 cities across Indonesia.

The mayor was in Kuala Lumpur recently to give a public lecture entitled Future Communities: Re-emergence of Social Urbanism, at the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival organised by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia.

The signature bright red bridge over Cikapundung river.

The signature bright red bridge over Cikapundung river.

The Plenary Theatre at Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre was packed during his one-and-a-half-hour talk, with many sitting on the steps. At the end of the lecture, he received a standing ovation.

Sporting a serious demeanour that belies his sense of humour, the unassuming Ridwan shared his plans, projects and vision for Bandung city with this writer during a half hour interview before the lecture.

Without a doubt, one thing that stands out is how he successfully uses social media in his work: he has 1.7 million Twitter followers, 87.5% of the population in Bandung are Facebook users, and the city is the sixth-most active city on Twitter per capita in the world.

“I am using social media big time because currently, this is the best way to reach my people. I can post my daily activities, answer directly questions from my citizens, or reply and give clarification on any issue or even gossip,” says Ridwan, in Indonesian-accented English.

“Because of this, I train my bureaucracy to be active on social media as well. Bandung is the only city in Indonesia where each department has a Twitter account and they are all active in it,” he adds.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing from the get go, of course.

Ridwan (in white helmet) has been cycling to work since he took office in 2013 and is behind the Indonesia Movement Cycling project that rents bikes to citizens for free.

Ridwan (in white helmet) has been cycling to work since he took office in 2013 and is behind the Indonesia Movement Cycling project that rents bikes to citizens for free.

“In my first week as mayor, only 20% of the staff knew what Twitter was. Now, everybody uses it. Before, thousands of complaints used to go to my account. Now, they are distributed evenly to the relevant departments,” says Ridwan, adding that 90% of citizens’ complaints are resolved within three days on average.

“And the case is not closed until the complainant says ‘Thank you’. This means that now, communication between the government, the mayor and the people is very good. I am a reachable leader and that gives an unprecedented good example in Indonesian politics,” he says.

Asked if his active involvement in social media takes up a lot of his time, he says, “No, because I was already active on social media before becoming a mayor and I multitask. But it’s more difficult for other politicians who are not used to social media. For me, it’s just an extension of what I used to do,” says the mayor, who also provided free wifi to every mosque in Bandung.

Ridwan also believes in and practises a transparent management policy; citizens can see exactly how much money is spent on various projects online.

He is also the only mayor in Indonesia who uses social media as a city management tool. Unsurprisingly, this year, Bandung won Indonesia’s Best Smart City and Best Government Awards.

What is the key challenge that Bandung faces in becoming a more sustainable and livable city?

Ridwan had swings installed at bus stops in Bandung six months after a citizen suggested the idea to him via social media.

Ridwan had swings installed at bus stops in Bandung six months after a citizen suggested the idea to him via social media.

“We created a slogan called ‘Livable and Lovable’ for the city. Bandung needs to be loved and taken care of beautifully. Besides pursuing modern infrastructure (which includes monorail and cable car systems), I also launched the Happiness Project, which is a series of programmes that can bring up the Happiness Index in Bandung.

“We score 70.6% (based on Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistic parameters) which, by Indonesian standards, is very high. That means my people are a happy society now.

“One reason is the creation of social interaction activities. For example, in the last three years, I have renovated almost 10 city parks. Before this, social interaction in the parks was not common because they were not well-designed, dirty and fenced up.”

Other initiatives implemented include Movie Nights, where movies are screened for free on a huge screen set up in a space under a flyover that has been spruced up; pedestrian-only streets to promote retail and street life; giving poor school students bicycles; and setting up a micro library that floats above an existing public stage and is made of recycled materials like ice-cream tubs.

This year, Ridwan also got the Green Building Law implemented, which will require projects to pass a green certification test before being issued a permit.

Within the community, he also initiated a series of groups according to different interests such as the Smart City Council, Architecture Advisory Board, One Village One Architect programme (where architects assist local villages in micro-architecture projects), as well as anti-corruption and cultural advisory groups.

This is why Ridwan is often called the people's mayor. Once a week, he and his staff take food to a poor family and join them in a meal.

This is why Ridwan is often called the people’s mayor. Once a week, he and his staff take food to a poor family and join them in a meal.

The “If I Were A Mayor” programme, which invites citizens to submit ideas to improve the city, has resulted in 1,200 ideas implemented in and around the city. These include installing swings at bus stops for people to have some fun while waiting for the bus.

“Bandung people want to be involved in the design and creating process. Basically, this is the way I reach the people and get them involved in the political process, not only in the form of Parliament versus mayor, or mayor versus Parliament, but there is another group of civil society, the citizens. That’s how I build the city via a bottom-up system, and not as a top-down approach,” he asserts.

It goes without saying that Ridwan believes in the power of creativity and collaboration.

“One value among the citizens that I am proud of is collaborations. It’s true because every time I ask the people to engage in a public event, the response is very high.”

Last year, he posted a request online for 3,000 volunteers to help in 20 events during the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference. In the end, a total of 15,000 people registered!

“The best part about Bandung people is their spirit of giving and willingness to participate. I am taking the energy now to distribute to many forms of development,” he explains.

In terms of the local economy, Ridwan also played a huge role in boosting the small-medium industries sector.

He removed the permit application process for small-medium enterprises making less than US$50,000 (RM200,000), merely requiring registration by mobile phone; offered micro-credits without equity or mortgage to groups of five people; and created a brand called Little Bandung that selects the best SME products to promote online (generating 16 million transactions per year) and via retail stores. To be set up in Asean countries, the first Malaysian store opens in Shah Alam at the end of this month.

The Movie Park is a space under a flyover that has been spruced up and set up with a huge screen that airs different movies every night for citizens to enjoy free of charge.

The Movie Park is a space under a flyover that has been spruced up and set up with a huge screen that airs different movies every night for citizens to enjoy free of charge.

All these economy-reforming efforts earned him a medal last month from Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

“The thing is, I am enjoying exercising my power. My contemplation is when you are given power to change and use it in the proper fashion, the power you have to (affect) people’s lives is totally rewarding,” says the modest mayor who travels with just one personal assistant, doing away with the usual entourage.

One challenge the forward-thinking mayor faces – a common problem among politicians – is budget.

“I intend to create a new way of building the city in the future by using PPP (public-private partnership). My challenge is, I have US$6bil (RM24.2bil) worth of projects to carry out but my budget for five years is only US$1.5bil (RM6bil). Without PPP, you need nine mayors to finish the job. But with PPP, I think I can do it,” he contends.

His vision for Bandung city is for it to be the creative economic hub of Indonesia.

“Bandung is a city of youth, with 60% of the population under the age of 40, and we have 50 institutes of higher learning. So it’s a young population that’s highly educated, doing creative businesses ranging from ICT, film to design,” he says, adding that Bandung was named a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Creative City of Design last year.

A long term master plan project that Ridwan spearheaded is Bandung Teknopolis, which aims to be a smaller, 600ha version of the renowned tech hub, Silicon Valley, in the United States.

“I think the course of our future will be set by the mindset of its people. So never underestimate the power of grassroots and people’s involvement in politics because they are the stakeholders.

“That’s why in Bandung we create a concept of collaborative cities, which means the future of cities is not up to politicians or a top-down approach but that participation and collaboration is really the future of cities. We call it social urbanism.”

In his lecture, the father of two shared this phrase: “Mimpi harus melangit, kaki harus membumi”, which loosely translates as “Aim your dreams sky high, but plant your feet firmly on the ground”.

Which pretty much sums up who the mayor of Bandung is.