How Jakarta Teaches How to Read Rivers - Goethe-Institut Indonesia

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"Labtek Apung"
How Jakarta Teaches How to Read Rivers

Kids on a floating lab
Das Labtek Apung möchte Kindern Wissen über die Gewässer um sie herum näherbringen. | Photo (detail): © Labtek Apung

Many rivers in Jakarta are heavily polluted, despite being dynamic spaces. A collective of architects, scientists, and activists, came together to turn a bamboo raft into a laboratory, joining citizen science with education and inviting people to listen to rivers. 

Von Jonaya de Castro and Laura Sobral

The Inspirador is rethinking sustainable cities in identifying and sharing inspiring initiatives and policies from more than 32 cities around the world. The research is systemising these cases in categories, these are signified by hashtags.

Natural resources were seen for years as something infinite, and today we are being overwhelmed by the consequences of this. Many initiatives are trying to reach a circular model by recycling and reusing resources, promoting waste reduction, and taking responsibility for the use of water. Cities with initiatives that are mindful of this reality are better prepared for all the crises that we will inevitably face, prompting us to change the paradigm of the urban sphere.

Unlike many cities in Europe and America, in Indonesia, most waste, including wastewater and sewage from our toilets, is not processed through the sewer network. Often there is faecal contamination in the groundwater, in the soil, in the river and so on. It is in this context, that the initiative Labtek Apung creates basic user-friendly activities to sensibilize people that are surrounded by these environmental problems.

Indrawan Prabaharyaka and Novita Anggraini are some of the co-founders of the Labtek Apung, a collective that has been experimenting with science, art and education in Jakarta and the surrounding area. The name comes from the abbreviation of laboratory technique and the word Apung, which means “floating” in Indonesian.

The project started organically when they came in contact with a kind of traditional bamboo raft and decided to adapt it as a lab. “A common friend, Ronald Osmond, introduced me to Novita. At that time, we were discussing about how difficult it is to talk about dirt and waste,” says Indra. “I met Sri Suryani, who introduced me to a bamboo raft where people do a lot of things: hang out, clean, wash laundry and utensils, take a shower, poop and pee, all in the same spot.” Considering this raft as a platform and starting point, other scientists, activists and designers came together and began the concept of the Labtek Apung.

“The idea developed further through a WhatsApp group called Ngebikin Bareng, which literally means co-creation.” shares Indra. At the same time, Sri, one of the founders of the group, won a grant from the National Geographic Society to study the Ciliwung River, which flows through Jakarta.

DIY Science – How to Let the River Speak for Itself

When starting a workshop on the raft, they often ask: “Do you know that we can read the river?”. To the surprised participants, Novita answers, “Yes, we can read the river, if we know what is inside of it”. 

“We usually talk about how nature actually speaks, and the river speaks. But the problem is we don't know their language.” Indra explains. Through this floating tech lab, they aim to understand how the river speaks and to amplify this voice. 

With this in mind, the collective adopted the idea of Citizen Science, providing scientific alternatives for the residents, and especially children. People are able to then not only understand how the pollution of water can be very problematic, but also know how a laboratory works. For example, once you collect water samples from the river, it is possible to do simple physics, chemistry and biology tests using tools and materials that you can easily find in your home. One possibility is to know if there are heavy metals in the water and through water samples you are able to determine if it contains magnesium metals. Instead of simply having access to information about the state of the river, people become equipped with the tools to discover this data by themselves and formulate their own opinions.

Democratizing Information about the River and Pollution

In 2018, the Floating Lab idea was tested for the first time. “Most people in Jakarta, from a modern point of view, would see this raft as a primitive device or a primitive space” says Indra. The members of Labtek Apung, nevertheless, saw it as an opportunity and decided to add one more activity to this already dynamic space - scientific collaborative research. 

Three activities were tested out in the beginning. The first was an ecological approach to the river's water quality. This was possible because Novita works in a lab and brought some equipment. “We learned together with the children who stay around the raft, how to measure the water quality. Novita would share this with everyone: “Oh, this is actually the water that we live on, we are exposed to this water each day.” tells Indra.

The second activity was more architectural. It was about thinking together about the relationship between the houses along the riverbank and the river itself. For example, what would happen if you lived in this area, and you are exposed to flooding? Also thinking about the water as a resource, where do you get the water, you use every day? The third regarded the senses, about smelling, tasting and observing the water as a visual element. 

The idea of the Floating Lab is to open a space where previously there are just “specialists” and a scientific lab, to the public space. With this, different people can come together, creating a new perspective, and talk about the river. 

With education, we can create new resources and competencies in responding to current challenges, like sanitation. It is about allowing all elements of society to play an active role in developing environmental knowledge.

Novita Anggraini

Collective Challenge

Asked about the main challenge in the whole Labtek Apung initiative, Novita says that “maintaining a team or a collective like us is very difficult”. All members have other daily tasks besides the Lab and every person has a different personality, their own business, or trajectory. “Also, in Indonesian terms, we have this phrase: hangat-hangat komunitas, which means that often there is enthusiasm at the beginning of doing a collective action but later the spirit tends to fade away. In a community people are just like a liquid, they can change their mind all the time, following their own interests.” and adds “some people may go away, but others come. It has a balance.”

Novita realizes that they are a “liquid organization”, and that it would be possible to somehow punish people who go away, but they prefer to just make it fun, so people are genuinely interested in what is happening. “People will come if they have the same vision or dream as you.”

A community that feels joy in its activity can continue to exist for a long time.

Indrawan Prabaharyaka

Indra confirms that it is really important to make it fun and also to keep the collective open and flexible. “We are also careful that it doesn't get commercialized and deviate away from the original goal, which is to experiment, to do things together, to hang out, to associate, to share time. We don't want to lose this spirit.”

One challenge that they share is to maintain friendships in a quiet, relaxed, and undemanding way as well as to share interests and thoughts and at the same time consciously and explicitly plan or organize. Their tip is to “think outside of the box and be sensitive and imaginative to see upcoming opportunities.”

Write Your Story and Share It

The final recommendation shared by Novita and Indra is to document. “Document as much as you can so if we do not survive in the end, we know some people can continue the spirit. A community who feels joy with its activity can continue to exist for a long time.”

Occupying this raft with activities that make people rethink their relationship with the rivers of Jakarta is a way of writing another story. “It is important to be imaginative, to rethink and reinterpret things that we see in our everyday life and that look familiar, but actually, they're quite strange. Like this raft”, says Indra. 

Novita adds “You can invite your friends and family members to make another floating tech laboratory in your city, your river. If you have other ideas, tools, or methodologies different from ours, try them out and contact us to share your knowledge and experience. Let's collaborate!” Labtek Apung is indeed an open Lab – join!

What Is This Series About?

The ”Inspirador for Possible Cities”project is a collaborative creation by Laura Sobral and Jonaya de Castro aiming to identify experiences among initiatives, academic content, and public policies that work towards more sustainable, cooperative cities. If we assume that our lifestyle gives rise to the factors behind the climate crisis, we have to admit our co-responsibility. Green planned cities with food autonomy and sanitation based on natural infrastructures can be a starting point for the construction of the new imaginary needed for a transition.

The project presents public policies and group initiatives from many parts of the world that point to other possible ways of life, categorized into the following hashtags:
#redefine_development, #democratize_space,
#(re)generate_resources, #intensify_collaboration,