Applied Imagination Fellows Project Report: ImagiNasi by Benjamin Ong

Project summary

My project, the Kampung City, explored the relationship between people and nature in Malaysia’s capital metropolis, the Klang Valley, specifically through the lens of food.

During the fellowship, I reconnected with the Urban Biodiversity Initiative (Ubi) to explore the terraforming of local neighborhoods into guerrilla gardens during pandemic-induced lockdowns; set up a digital garden to document traditional and contemporary knowledge of urban nature; and convene ImagiNasi, a public food festival in May and June 2022 that featured artists and cooks—and culinary artists—exploring food past, present, and future. (Imaginasi is the Malay word for “imagination,” while nasi is the Malay word for “rice”; we used rice as an “edible canvas” of sorts—it’s conveniently white!)

The kampung (Malay for “village” or “hometown”) is defined by a sense of tightly knit community, so a significant accomplishment was bringing together diverse collaborators and contributors to provoke new thought about nature in the city through food, art, and community: from the Boleh Makan Tak? (literally, “Is this edible?”) competition at the end of 2021, to ImagiNasi. I was also able to showcase the project at the East-West Center’s Gen2 Leadership Program Alumni Summit (July 2021), The Art of Conservation event in Kuala Lumpur (December 2021), and The Nature of Cities Festival(March 2022).

Insights, surprises encountered, and key moments in the process

Imagination is equally about asking, “What if?” as about asking, “What is?” What’s already going on around us but not getting (enough) attention? What is being actively ignored or suppressed? Applied imagination ought to be rooted in lived reality, where the path to an as-yet intangible future is through very real and tactile elements in the present.

I was surprised by the richness of our “everyday nature”—the common plants that have so many cultural and culinary uses. A lot of traditional ecological knowledge continues to exist, albeit informally. It was a bonus to conclude the fellowship year with ImagiNasi. With food and nature, it must be tactile, it must be tasted, and it must be shared. The event brought out rich conversations and reflections on near-forgotten practices, and inspired new pro-nature action. ImagiNasi was featured on a television talk show and in a newspaper write-up.

I am indebted to a handful of conversation partners who helped shape the direction of my project. These include Ella Hillström, Lauren Keeler, Rita Leduc, Rich Blundell, Rae Ostman, Grace Dillon, and Michael Simeone. Shoutout to the team at CSI and to Ian Edwards, my fellow Fellow, for these invaluable connections. CSI’s Climate Imagination Fellows Vandana Singh, Libia Brenda, and Hannah Onoguwe helped enrich my decolonial and art-science reflections.

How did the fellowship benefit you as a researcher and/or practitioner and/or organizer? How did it benefit your work? And how did it benefit your community? 

I cofounded the Urban Biodiversity Initiative (Ubi) in 2018 as a transdisciplinary platform to spark new thought and action around urban ecology and environmentalism. We rooted our work in the (re)discovery or urban nature—getting to know local wildlife, both plants and animals, and indirectly questioning narratives of conflict, e.g., “weeds” and “pests.”

Ubi’s work has encompassed environmental education, landscape and micro-habitat experiments (e.g., the Biodiversity Indigenous Garden), and crossover workshops with visual artists. The fellowship enabled me/Ubi to further develop our vision by connecting urban nature conservation with a quintessential Malaysian obsession: food/eating. It enabled me and my partners to (re)discover the colorful natural histories of common, wild plants.

It has helped to strengthen our foundation for collaborative conservation, working with diverse partners across various disciplines to reenchant a growing urban population with new ideas for shaping (and sharing) our local neighborhoods.

My project created space for the discovery and sharing of stories and perspectives from everyday folk, outside of the circles of policy or academic influence. In ImagiNasi we created a democratized platform where cooks and artists, contributors with many degrees and contributors with none, could share equally, through both words and actions. In their doing was their teaching.

What’s next? How has the fellowship shaped the path forward for you and your work? 

The Kampung City began as a response to an observation, a provocation: Why return to the “kampung” and to village/past practices even in the city? How can reconnecting with traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) help us imagine new possibilities for cities and urban nature? The project aimed to challenge the “smart city” paradigm by (re)discovering the kampung paradigm as a biocultural alternative for inclusive, resilient, and ecologically regenerative cities.

Building on the fellowship, I want to continue holding space for the sharing of stories from the past and the present; developing embodied learning opportunities and events, working with hands because not everyone operates in words, whether written or spoken; and continuing exploration at the intersection of the environmental arts and sciences.

Perhaps most significantly, the fellowship inspired me to embark on a PhD, the focus of which will be reconciliation and repairing our fractured relationship with nature, which is manifest in human-wildlife conflict. My doctoral research will ask: How can TEK-inspired interdisciplinary learning help transform our relationship with nature in cities? The fellowship helped me discover a foraging approach, rooted in Malaysia’s TEK, as a potential entry point to reimagining the city and its wild spaces.