It was by chance that Frank Sedlar walked through the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in the spring of 2013 and spotted a flyer announcing a project called “Architecture + Adaptation: Designing for Hypercomplexity.” This phase of the project, the flyer announced, would take place in Jakarta, Indonesia, and would be led by then University of Michigan College of Architecture Fellow and Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Research Affiliate Etienne Turpin and U-M College of Architecture Professor Meredith Miller. Frank had just obtained his Bachelor of Engineering degree and, as a budding civil engineer conducting independent research on flooding, the flyer intrigued him. Not entirely confident that an engineer would be invited to join the project, Frank reached out to Etienne to explore the possibility. Two weeks later, Frank was on a plane to Jakarta.
The trip he took to Indonesia with Etienne and Meredith in 2013 was Frank’s first visit to Southeast Asia. At the time he knew very little about the region, and his mother was sure to remind him that he would be very, very far away from his hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Though the first trip didn’t necessarily allow him to get a comprehensive taste for the culture of Indonesia, Frank did make a meaningful connection to the city of Jakarta. Perhaps most importantly, that first visit enabled him to discover that the flooding issues facing the city were directly related to the work he was interested in pursuing as a civil engineer.
As one of approximately thirty megacities in the world, Jakarta has been facing rapid urbanization. The number of megacities, defined as cities with populations that exceed ten million, is on the rise worldwide due to trends that show steady increases in movement to cities from rural areas. Most megacities are similar to Jakarta in that they are coastal cities in developing countries. The burden that such rapid growth places on existing infrastructure, infrastructure that was never intended to accommodate so many millions of people, is significant. Jakarta, a city that has been sinking in places at a rate of two meters per year, has a sea wall separating it from the Java Sea that consists of a mere several feet of concrete. Needless to say, the city floods often. In recent years, the flooding has been so severe that people have been forced to abandon homes and neighborhoods. Jakarta’s plight indicates a clear need for solutions and when one factors in climate change and the estimated resulting sea-level rise of about 3 mm per year, the need becomes even more apparent.
When Frank started his work in Jakarta, the government was beginning to explore the possibility of building a 40-billion-dollar sea wall to protect the city from flooding. As a civil engineer, however, Frank wanted to explore the possibility of working with the existing infrastructure to see if it could be managed more effectively. He began by seeking existing flood data and, to his surprise, discovered that very little data had been collected.
After four weeks in Jakarta with Etienne and Meredith in 2013, Frank returned to Ann Arbor inspired to find a way to continue to work in Jakarta. He quickly discovered that U-M is one of a handful of universities in the U.S. that offers Indonesian language courses so, as he pursued his MS in Civil Engineering, Frank decided to enroll in Bahasa Indonesian. He worked with his language instructors, Agustini and Nancy Florida, whom he credits for much of his progress in Indonesia, and received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) through CSEAS as his commitment to Indonesian language acquisition became more focused.
At the same time as Frank was working toward his MS in Ann Arbor, Etienne, now a research fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia, began a research project named Peta Jakarta. The project was founded on the idea that the citizens of Jakarta could provide a great deal of assistance with the collection of real-time flood information via social media. In partnership with the government of Jakarta and Twitter, Peta Jakarta has developed a method of data collection that works efficiently in a country with one of the most social media savvy populations in the world. The governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, sent the very first project-related tweet on December 2, 2014. In it, he encouraged the people of Jakarta to tweet @petajkt about flooding and to report where it was occurring. Now in its second year, Peta Jakarta has received and verified millions of tweets.
Given the availability of high-quality data as a result of Peta Jakarta’s success and having completed his MS in Civil Engineering, Frank wrote a Fulbright proposal that would enable him to continue to work toward exploring new ways of operating existing infrastructure more efficiently. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and moved to Jakarta in December 2015 to begin his work. Currently underway, his project focuses on identifying areas of Jakarta that are most vulnerable to flooding and then building and installing computer-based sensors to measure water levels in order to better predict when a flood might occur. Frank will be working on this project through September 2016, during which time Frank hopes to install multiple sensors to enhance his work with flood data collection, calculation, and modeling.
After living in Jakarta for the past five months, Frank has had the opportunity to build relationships with the locals and to get an overall sense for the culture. He’s found that the people of Indonesia tend to be conservative but are also friendly, open, hospitable, and easy to work with, particularly after consuming a few cups of numbingly sweet coffee. Initially, Frank hadn’t considered staying in Jakarta upon completing his Fulbright project. The prospect of working with a local engineering firm and spear-heading the way in which flooding will be handled globally in future years, however, has left him reconsidering the possibility.