thesupersystem: Advocating for Nature

Heider Ismail is redefining his design practice for all living things.

Words by

Text by Stephanie Peh
Interview by Jonan Liang

“Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in the natural world,” says Heider Ismail, a designer who practices under thesupersystem. While pursuing his masters in design and juggling a full-time job, Heider has been working on a self-initiated project titled Alam Se-kita for the past couple of years. In the Malay language, Alam means ‘nature’ while Se-kita (sekitar) refers to ‘surrounding’. When the words are put together, it means ‘our place as one’, accurately summing up his vision. Through research, design and technology, he hopes to “transform human-centred spaces into poly-species environments”. In other words, create worlds where humans and animals can coexist, be it within low- or high-density urban premises.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Heider has a diverse body of work under his belt. Although trained in graphic design, he has dabbled in fields that straddle art, design and technology. As part of audiovisual collective Syndicate SG, he creates motion graphics for live performances and installations. For him, design is more than just creating beautiful visuals, it is a medium to solve problems. As such, he has been evolving his creative practice in hopes of lending his skillsets to a meaningful purpose. “Design has always been about humans. How do we define design as something that has to do with the world and other living things instead?” he asks. 

In an attempt to seek balance in life, he started hiking in 2017, scaling close to seven mountains a year. Naturally, he started becoming more conscious about his actions, buying fewer things and opting to repair or thrift if he needed anything. He could no longer turn a blind eye to the impact human activity has on wildlife. For instance, urban infrastructures constructed for the convenience of people pose detrimental effects to animals and biodiversity. “People think that you need to be a biologist or someone with a specialised skill to do something but that is not true,” he says and adds, “We just need to understand that human beings are not the only ones living on this planet. Our counterparts, deers, fish, pythons and even ants deserve the right to live like anyone of us.”

Alam Se-kita’s recent case study revolves around the endangered sambar deer as its primary stakeholder. “We only have about 20 of them left in the wild and they are not being properly studied in Singapore,” he says. He first discovered their locations through web-scraping, comparing photos from Facebook groups and news articles. He looked for footprints, droppings, antler rubbings and forest openings as high as 1.8-metres tall. After identifying a spot, he set up cameras and waited from three weeks to a month. Not unlike answering design briefs, studying the behavioural patterns of the sambar deers is crucial if he wishes to design an infrastructure that would make their lives better.

Heider’s studio at Goodman Arts Centre

In his final outcome, he hopes to produce two briefs: Firstly, a design methodology on poly-species environments and secondly, to develop a poly-species traffic system that communicates with both humans and deers through artificial intelligence and other sensory equipment such as lights, sounds and scent. “Animals don’t know boundaries. They don’t know what is a road or house,” he says. It is on humans who infringe on their habitats to let them know of any possible dangers. Ideally, a natural barrier or bio-fence that sends signals to the deers—or any other animals—of incoming traffic can help lower the rate of roadkill. “Just last year, there were 114 reported traffic accidents involving animals like wild boars, snakes, monitor lizards and birds,” he says. He hopes that this system can be adapted to other regions and he can start a lab to collaborate with more like-minded professionals to expand the research.

“Even though Singapore is a small island, we have different types of endangered species,” he says. The consequence of not preserving these species is the loss of biodiversity. He recounts his experience of first moving into his flat in 2016 and spotting wild boars and snakes on a nearby hill. As soon as the hill was levelled to make way for housing, the animals disappeared. Through his work, he hopes to inform the public on the effects of climate change and human activity on precious wildlife. “Humans have long been detached from nature. My project is trying to put humans back into part of nature itself,” he says.

To temporarily escape the city life, Heider heads to the Dairy Farm Nature Park and Mandai T15 Trial to immerse himself in greenery. “Nature lets me know that I’m human,” he says. Mandai Road, specifically, is where he has spent significant time tracking a family of deers. It is also a place where remnants of Singapore, such as tiles from the 60s, can be found. “Once you spend a lot of time up in the mountains and in the jungle, you start to feel tiny. It humbles you,” he concludes.

This editorial provides complementary content to Hidden Places, a film series that showcases an alternative Singapore through the eyes of four homegrown creatives. Watch the rest of the films here.

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