At a gathering on Monday, Bandung-based architect Ridwan Kamil urged a group of tech-savvy, middle-class Indonesians to give back to their communities.
For Ridwan, speaking at Erasmus Huis in South Jakarta, this was no idle call.
The energetic 40-year-old has started at least five organizations, among others Indonesia Berkebun (Indonesia Gardening), an initiative to acquire more green space by encouraging people to have their own garden. In the year and a half since it was formed, the community has spread to 26 cities nationwide.
As an architect, Ridwan has found success and can count several wealthy entrepreneurs among his clients. He has also designed internationally recognized buildings, like the Aceh Tsunami Museum, which opened in 2009.
It was a few years earlier, in 2007, that he began what he calls his “social experiment.” At the time, he figured it was the right moment for him to start balancing his professional life with other activities. Ridwan’s premise was that when a political system fails, civil movements could and should be the answer.
“I come from a middle-class family,” he said in an interview on Monday. “The government, they should listen but they never do, so it was my turn to do something.”
Ridwan turned to social media, recognizing that Indonesians are a naturally sociable people. “When we meet our friends for three hours doing nothing, we are fulfilling life, the Indonesian way,” he said.
“This is why social media is booming in this country.
“Caring and technology are the ingredients that I chose [to start a movement],” added Ridwan, who studied architecture at the Bandung Institute of Technology and urban design at the University of California.
Ridwan was keen to create a community based on solving problems and not personal interests. He figured that a problem or issue could lead to an initiative, creating a community or collaboration.
“I didn’t start a basketball community, I started a gardening community,” he said. “Indonesians love to join a cause.”
He has tapped into the willingness of Indonesians to contribute to a cause that comes to their attention through social media. There is “Coin for Prita,” where more than Rp 300 million ($31,800) was collected to support a woman who was in 2009 sued over comments she’d made in an e-mail that were critical of the medical care she had received.
Ridwan cited as admirable online activist efforts Blood4Life, which encouraged people to donate blood, Jalin Merapi (Merapi Network), a user-generated platform to spread information about disaster areas, and Akademi Berbagi (Sharing Academy), a public forum with experts.
While Indonesia Berkebun operates nationally, many of Ridwan’s contributions are in his hometown of Bandung. Creative City Forum is a forum for small-scale creative entrepreneurs or communities established in 2008. They have held a city festival, a networking event and a city conference with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Environment Ministry.
This event resulted in the designation of Bandung’s Babakan Siliwangi park as deserving of preservation. Ridwan also designed a forest walk so that visitors would not trample through the woods.
In 2004, Ridwan established an architecture and urban design consultancy in Bandung, Urbane Indonesia, that aims to design for the poor.
In 2009, Urbane held an event, One Village One Playground, at Babakan Asri in West Java. Urbane designed playgrounds, city infrastructure and flood prevention facilities. The event, sponsored by Danapaints and Bakrie Land Development, involved the construction of a drainage system. Infrastructure like that is usually the responsibility of city or provincial governments, but Ridwan sidelined the bureaucracy and built it through his own initiative.
Ridwan said it was important to involve as many people in urban projects as possible.
“Even a simple thing like a mural project is a very affordable way to keep optimism high,” he said.
The most recent movement that Ridwan started is a bicycle sharing project, Bike Bandung, where members share their money to build shelters where members of the public can rent bikes.
Ridwan hoped that every movement he started would become a cultural phenomenon; something people do subconsciously. He is working on fertile ground, given a recent study revealed that Indonesians are among the happiest people in the world.
Ridwan said that Jakarta was one of the best cities in Southeast Asia with regard to high-rise buildings.
“People say, in Jakarta you can only enjoy the city by looking up, because when you look down you can only see problems,” he said. “But recognizing the problem, you can provide a solution.”