How Indonesia Sees Itself

This article was published by JG on 15 Sept 2010:

Let’s forget the Indonesia-Malaysia border dispute or the arrest of a firebrand Muslim cleric for a while. Now it’s time to shift our thoughts and talk about a rarely mentioned issue: our nation’s branding at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, a grand gathering for the world to boil down the essence of participating countries into a medley of striking pavilions.

Luckily, earlier this month I was given the opportunity (thanks to private company Artha Graha, one of the Indonesia pavilion’s sponsor) to see the world’s largest exhibition fair.

The Indonesia pavilion is the biggest our country has built to promote itself since the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

By erecting it among those of 194 other countries, our government hopes to bring in Rp 1 trillion ($111 million) in future trade and investment while aiming to convey Indonesia’s identity and achievements to the world.

The Indonesia pavilion covers 2,400 square meters and cost an estimated $9 million to build.

It showcases many traditional aspects of our cultures: textiles, foods and coffee, ancient musical instruments and even a sculpture of Admiral Cheng Ho, the Muslim Chinese explorer who ventured to Indonesia.

The structure has a natural feel, built largely out of wood and bamboo. It is one of the 10 most visited pavilions at the Expo.

Despite all this, Indonesia has yet to get its “branding” quite right due to the presentation’s lack of a substantial message about our country.

I don’t know whether its related to our government’s lack of preparation or something else, but the principal message of the Expo — “innovations for better life” — cannot be seen in the our nation’s pavilion.

Many visitors see Indonesia as a primitive country due to the traditional items on display. Of course it’s not inappropriate to display such items, but what’s missing are our new ideas and innovations.

In what amounts to something of a branding competition, there are 195 nations competing to “sell” their country at the World Expo.

The “object of the branding competition,” said John Quelch, a professor at Harvard Business School, is about positioning a particular nation state in the minds of consumers.

Those consumers citizens of other countries, and they could become tourists or even investors.

China, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Iran, Israel and even Kazakhstan, which has been independent for only 19 years, present good examples of how to make the right branding choices.

They do not merely “sell” their past heritage, but they also exhibit their new ideas and innovations in the course of developing their modern civilization.

Portugal provides specific goals for the future, vowing that by 2020 40 percent of its electricity needs will be supplied by water and pointing out its efforts to promote a low-carbon lifestyle.

Denmark promotes itself as a “family” destination by showcasing its cities that are planned for bicyclists and pedestrians rather than cars.

Sweden proposes the idea of “symbiocity” (the city’s symbiosis between innovation and collaboration) through Alfa Laval’s new heat exchange system that provides heating and cooling using heat from industrial waste.

Iran presents its well-developed technology, such as an electrosurgical generator and a thin-disk laser. Israel presents its advanced innovation and inventions, such as a USB disk and microchips.

What are missing in our pavilion is clear: innovation.

Moreover, we have yet to present the world the innovations with which we tackle our nation’s problems, innovations on how we preserve our natural resources, innovations on how we embrace our civilization, innovations on how we deal with the future challenges and innovations on how we guard and protect our diversity in culture.

I believe we have the resources to innovate and propose new ideas.

In fact, we have innovations like a medical biochip by Joko Sasmito, a radio detection and ranging system by Liem Tiang Gwan and aviation ideas by our former president BJ Habibie: the Habibie Factor, Habibie Theorem and Habibie Method. Even innovation on enviromental issues, such as Trembesi tree and Hybrid Paddy.

Big international events like the World Expo are the perfect venue to demonstrate our strengths so that the “consumers of the world” begin to pay attention to Indonesia. Thus, the reluctance to promote our innovation is disappointing.

Still, I believe we can do more and become a “winner” in the branding game in the future.

At least in Shanghai we took steps to build a pavilion that has proved to be one of the event’s most popular draws. The next step: innovation at the World Expo Milan 2015.

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