10 things I learnt when I ran the iris Indonesia Planning department

As someone who had never been further east than Greece and had never touched on the southern hemisphere, I found myself on my way to spend two months in the capital of the world’s fourth largest nation (¼ billion people), Indonesia. It offered me the chance to experience a totally new culture as well as to mentor a small team of local planners. I jumped at the chance to travel with work.

Jakarta is not a city for the faint hearted however, and required a lot of patience and acceptance. As part of an archipelago of over 17,500 islands, I managed a few weekend trips during my rotation, a welcome break from the…


  • Because they all drive wildly. There’s no road rage. I spent every day in traffic and only saw one stern stare, which could have been to do with anything. Honking isn’t aggressive but it does have many other uses: “I’m here”, “I see you”, “I’m about to do something” etc.
  • The hard shoulder appears to be a legitimate lane
  • Even on a sunny day you only see a morning’s worth of sun before the smog takes over and it’s overcast again. Recycling is simply not a thing there; there is a common belief that climate change is God’s will and that humans can do nothing to stop it
  • You can’t estimate a time of arrival based on distance; it’s pure luck of the draw, meaning that punctuality is the exception not the rule


  • The prolific use of the words “can” and “cannot” in the office served to remind me of the very apparent divide between the haves and have-nots in Jakarta
  • Indonesians as a whole are the friendliest nation I’ve ever encountered. This secondment would have been infinitely more difficult had everyone I met not been so kind and generous
  • Indonesia is 90% Muslim and religion noticeably plays a role in everyone’s lives; I was something of an anomaly as the atheist in the room but the motto of unity in diversity (Bhinneka tunggal ika) is never more apparent than when a group of Indonesians come together (usually over food)

Indonesian Millennials

  • Martin Weigel made a lovely observation on his trip to India “Empathy and insight depend on understanding technology through the lens of people. Not people through the lens of technology.”
  • What interested me most was observing the differences between Indonesian Millennials and the traits that we commonly associate with this group in the UK. They have the aspiration to be part of the current global culture, but at the same time they want their indigenous identity and culture recognised
  • Research studies often sub-divide into ‘single’ and ‘married’ Millennials. Most people live at home until they are married
  • What I was surprised to see, given the way it’s reported in the world news, was how out and proud young gay Indonesians are. There are also plenty of young female Indonesians wearing the hijab. Some do, some don’t but everyone mucks along


  • The odd opposite of advertising cigarettes but not alcohol and the challenges of advertising alcohol in a “dark market”
  • Happy aspirational faces with offer messaging still appear to be the lead output of Indonesian advertising, even if it is in the more modern veil of a KOL (key opinion leader) on social
  • Beyond the pleasantries, my Bahasa remained non-existent (catch up Duolingo) but there is comfort to be found seeing communications in the alphabet that you recognise. I expect this would be a noticeable difference, and would potentially offer a different perspective, in another busy Asian city


  • Indonesians over-index on smartphone usage compared to the rest of the world. It is their primary screen and many have foregone the desktop entirely, opting solely for mobile. A behaviour almost unique to Indonesia
  • The on-demand economy has taken Jakarta by storm. Companies such as Go-Jek enable you to order anything from your ride to work, to your groceries, to a massage, to a cleaner, to your prescription (the list goes on) at the tap of an app
  • Despite this, you have to appreciate the small miracle that has taken place when something “just works” in Indonesia, which leads me to:

Ways of working

  • Use of Whatsapp over email. Each new project had its own Whatsapp group
  • Few people in the office before 11 but they then stay until 1am
  • I remember more than one instance of an account handler picking up their phone, which wasn’t on silent, during a client meeting and stage whispering “I’m in a meeting”. It was also common for conversations to be taking place while people were presenting
  • Another nuance was making a room booking request, I was told “I’ll write it down and get back to you tomorrow”. Things just operate at a different pace to London and you have to account for that rather than letting it frustrate you; I wasn’t going to change the system in two months, who was I to try and do so anyway?

Being white

  • Aside from 4 days in Morocco, this was only the second time I have ever been a minority race. This was never problematic but did not go unnoticed
  • I lived in the same area where the embassies were so I wasn’t short of an expat face or two but go even to get an internal flight and you’re suddenly having stealthy photographs taken of you
  • One of the first words I learnt was “bule”, literally meaning “red hair” but any comments I did receive were said with a smile and meant with all kindness; “I like your face” and one girl, while putting her arm against mine said “Like milk and coffee”

But still being female…

  • Six weeks into my secondment, my boyfriend came to visit and despite me being the guide it was suddenly “Sir. What will she have Sir?” “Thank you Sir”.
  • I rode every day on the back of the scooter of a male stranger and didn’t once feel in anyway compromised. Until the occasional message afterwards (Uber and Go-Jek don’t mask your phone number)…

What I learnt for work

  • Global strategies need to not rest on Western truisms
  • Your media plan will be wrong. Snapwhat? Path FTW

What I learnt for me

  • The history, geography and culture of a country I was ignorant of
  • My previously unacknowledged ability to make the most of any experience

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