People are key to successful climate action

04 Jul 2021

Interview with Prof. Ron Holzhacker and Prof. Bobi Setiawan


In January 2021, on the occasion of the Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS 2021) in the Netherlands, a scientific conference took place focusing on bridging science and policy perspectives on climate and sustainable development in Southeast Asia. On a cold and early morning in May in the Netherlands and a blistering afternoon in Indonesia, the Indonesia Nederland Society, in its quest to offer a cross sectoral platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas, brough together two key actors of that conference from Indonesia and the Netherlands, Prof. Bobi Setiawan and Prof. Ron Holzhacker for a discussion on climate change, sustainable development, contextual approaches and the way ahead.


Research interests

Prof. Holzhacker of the University of Groningen, indicates that the climate debate is often led by science/engineering perspectives and climatologists, while for successful adaptation or mitigation it is crucially important to also bring in the social sciences. Between colleagues in the Netherlands and Indonesia he looks at the implementation side of climate policies. How do cities combine networks/corridors? How do urban areas link with the surrounding agricultural areas, forests and coastal resources?

Prof. Setiawan first wants to clarify that he is not studying climate change as such and that he does not have a background in environmental studies. At his university, Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, climate change as such is not high on the research agenda, but climate adaptation is, from the perspective of disaster management, urban planning and resilience.  His main research focus is on the way we can make policies work in Indonesia. So he looks at strategic corridor developments in main islands in Indonesia and focusses on what the specific needs are in the different corridors and what the main triggers are in the urban transformation.

The SEA ASEAN climate and sustainable development conference

Prof. Holzhacker, as the organizer, is happy with how the SEA ASEAN conference in January 2020 went. The conference took place on the occasion of the Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS 2021) organized by the Netherlands, and its main goal was to bring different levels and actors on climate change and sustainable development together. ‘In our approach  – scientists, policymakers and the public all over the world – need to find synergies and identify methods of implementation to tackle the great transformation problems we face’. So in this conference we started with science perspectives from Southeast Asia and the Netherlands, then we moved to the policy agenda and then took the discussion to a more political/strategic level.’

Prominent scientists from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Netherlands, the Ambassador of Vietnam and the Netherlands Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen delivered speeches and remarks, in-person and online. Their presentations focused on subjects like climate security and water as leverage for resilient cities.

The central question in Professor Setiawan’s presentation on Sustainable Corridor Development in Indonesia was: ‘How best to plan, design and govern sustainable transformation, integrated in a broader ecosystem and development corridor, in times of rapid climate change?’

In his concluding remarks Prof. Jouke de Vries, President of the University of Groningen (UG) summarised the necessity of international and regional collaboration. ‘We are confronted with great transformation questions, so we need a lot of research before politicians can tackle those kinds of problems together. Working with other universities is very important. But we also believe in a strong relationship with stakeholders from the region. There are world challenges, but there are also local solutions.’

The conference took place on the occasion of CAS21 hosted by the Netherlands. One of the highlights from the perspective of Prof. Setiawan and Prof. Holzhacker was that a group of mayors also participated and discussed how local government and civil society organizations in their cities can be involved in making their societies more sustainable.

20,000 kampongs

President Jokowi, in his virtual address to the CAS meeting, spoke about Indonesia’s Climate Villages project in the context of extraordinary measures to both recover from COVID-19 and tackle the global impact of climate change. ‘Indonesia has engaged its communities to mitigate climate change through the Climate Village program covering 20,000 kampongs by 2024,’ he said.

Reflecting on this target Prof. Setiawan explains that the main goals of the programme are to improve the resilience of the kampong societies, mostly linked to adaptation. Furthermore, president Jokowi has stressed the importance of international collaboration in tackling climate change and of green development.

He thinks that the effectiveness of the Climate Village Program might be an issue as the concepts are very general while in Indonesia the situation and context of each village is very different. Implementation could therefore be an issue, especially in the small islands and remote villages. Another issue is local government commitment. ‘To link the central and local governments is a problem incl. with the achievement of SDGs. Hopefully direct elections, once implemented, will help.’

Science & politics Indonesia

Prof. Setiawan describes the position of science in politics/government interact in Indonesia as special.  He states: ‘Our president is from my university and quite a few ministers are which also means quite a few civil servants are from our university. It is our tradition that academics are quite often serving as cabinet ministers and also (temporarily) as Director, DG or SG at a ministry. These positions and hence policies depend on the 5 years political cycle. This short term political horizon we often have does not combine always well with the long term vision we need to tackle problems like climate change and sustainable development.’

Despite this, Prof. Holzhacker is amazed at how Indonesia changed in the past 30 years while at the same time there is still a lot to develop. The innovation he is working on together with Prof. Setiawan and others is to look at the corridors in a different way.  In Indonesia the corridors are often looked at from a transport perspective, from highways to high-speed rail, while he states that these corridors should be looked at as integrated development corridors. In South Sulawesi for example there are sectors like fisheries and tourism that offer opportunities for sustainable economic development that goes further than transport alone. Prof. Holzhacker and Prof. Setiawan are trying to bring groups together to have a dialogue on how the different developments can be combined.

‘Balancing different interests of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a focus on the interests of the most vulnerable is critical. For example, when considering the SDG 11 on cities and communities, it is important to have health services located close to neighborhoods in local clinics, while assuring access to hospitals within a larger development corridor.  The access to health services have of course become even more critical in the age of Covid 19.’

Success factors

With many other countries Netherlands and Indonesia signed the SDG’s and committed themselves to implementing the SDG’s targets. For their implementation both countries not only need to cooperate respectively with the EU and ASEAN, but also internally with its regional and local governments, stakeholders, civil society organizations and citizens.

For both the Netherlands and Indonesia, Prof. Holzhacker thinks the link between the strategic planning and implementation levels are key success factors in achieving the SDGs, the Global Goals 2030 agenda. ‘People in societies want to be listened to and want to understand, so connecting politics and government to individuals is very important.’


At the end of the interview we discuss how the Netherlands and Indonesia can work together in tackling climate change. Both professors are indicating that the close personal and professional ties that have developed and are developing between Indonesian and Dutch students and academics, can play an important role. For example in how we do research and collect data together.

Prof. Holzhacker tells us about the research of Isti Hidayati who recently received her PhD cum laude from Groningen’s Faculty of Spatial Sciences. She has now returned to teach at UGM. With her research she contributed to sustainable urban development. One of her research methodologies was walking in kampongs and doing interviews on the street. In that way she was able to collect primary data for informal settlements which are rarely collectible for researchers given the local context and the trust that must be earned from the local community.

Prof. Setiawan wants to make the point that capacity development is still important for Indonesia and how the colleagues and students at Universitas Gadjah Mada learn a lot from the collaboration with Groningen and other universities. Furthermore, he sees that it is essential that the various subject areas and sectors link through interdisciplinary approaches, like urbanisation, forestry, industry and agriculture. Finally, he sees opportunities to learn more from each other on the social political aspects of all developments.

The final point made by both is that they have also been very interested how the Netherlands works with Europe and compare that to how Indonesia works with ASEAN. It is fascinating to see how countries with a joint history take their own course in development.

Looking ahead

Bilaterally there are still many options to explore. Prof. Holzhacker looks back at the visit of the Dutch King and Queen prior to the lock down in 2020 and how different priorities can lead to joint results. With the focus of President Jokowi on Indonesia as a maritime nation, he proposed to the Indonesian government to host some PhD candidates from relevant ministries. The first candidates are now there and both Indonesian and Dutch academics look forward to the joint research emerging from this high-level collaboration.

Prof. Setiawan thinks that with the focus on the pandemic and economic development, Indonesia can benefit from international collaboration and that the Netherlands is a very natural and logical partner on many occasions when it comes to making progress on the climate agenda.

Prof. Holzhacker ends by stating that climate scientists will have their debates, targets will be formulated, but the real changes have to be made in the people’s hearts and minds.



Prof. Bobi Setiawan

Prof. Ir. Bakti (Bobi) Setiawan MA., PhD. is professor in urban planning, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. He graduated with a Master’s in urban and regional planning, University of Waterloo, Canada and then took a PhD. Program in community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, Canada in 1994-1998. In 2001 he was appointed as the director for Centre for Environmental Studies, Gadjah Mada University – a leading research centre in the university. After four productive years in that centre, he was elected as the director for the Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, Department of Architecture and Planning. In 2010, he became full professor in urban planning from Gadjah Mada University.

Besides teaching, he serves also as ad hoc-advisory board in several ministries at the central government in Indonesia, including Ministry of Public Works and Housing, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and also Ministry of Education and Culture. At present, he serves as a Vice President of the Asian Planning School Association/APSA and he is also a member of the excecutive committee for Global Planning Education Association Network/GPEAN. His research interest covers several areas such as: urban housing, sustainable city, urban land management, environmental management, and community development.


Prof. Ronald Holzhacker

Prof. Ronald Holzhacker, is Professor of Comparative Multilevel Governance and Regional Structure, Faculty of Spatial Sciences, Department of Planning and the Environment, and the Faculty of Arts, International Relations and International Organization, at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He is Director of the Groningen Research Centre for Southeast Asia and ASEAN (SEA ASEAN), an inter-disciplinary and inter-faculty research program. He is most recently co-editor of the books Challenges of Governance: Development and Regional Integration in Southeast and ASEAN with Wendy Tan (NY: Springer 2021), Sustainable Development Goals in Southeast Asia and ASEAN: National and Regional Approaches, with Dafri Agussalim (Leiden, Boston: Brill 2019), and Decentralization and Governance inIndonesia (NY: Springer 2016), with Rafael Wittek and Johan Woltjer. He is broadly interested in issues of sustainable development, institutions, civil society, and governance.


By Mervin Bakker and Monica Bouwman