In August 2020, I moved to Eindhoven, bringing six months of lockdown spent in Delhi to a close. Not sure what to expect coming to the Netherlands (I moved there for personal rather than professional reasons), I dedicated my first year there to meeting and collaborating with new practitioners, voices, creators. My hope was to explore how my experience as a design researcher and workshop facilitator could make itself relevant (if at all) to participatory urbanism projects.
To aid me in this endeavor, I created a little project: Cyberlocal Dreams. The project functioned both as a workshop format I started shopping around and a broader intention of finding work at the intersection of city-making, maker culture, and digital collaboration tools, heavily inspired by the work of Plethora Project with Block’Hood and Common’Hood.
In the text below, I’ve tried my best to detail out the disorganized inspiration-stew this project surfaced from (PART I), a cursory look at key workshop formats the project Cyberlocal Dreams manifested as (PART II), and to close, a slightly self-indulgent rant on digital twins (PART III). This will be my own little Cyberlocal Dreams post-mortem. Because even though I have enjoyed this exercise, this conceptual vehicle has run its course and must be put to rest.
My hope is that anyone reading this can: find interesting references, feel inclined to provide constructive criticism, find what they need to try their own experiments.
Much of what will be shared below would not have been possible without the support, the trust, or spirits of Pedro Gil Farias, Salil Parekh, Leif Czakai, Mayra Ortega Maldonado, Yuri Van Bergen, Henk Kok, Rinke Vreeke, Abhimanyu Singhal, Riwad Salim, Florian de Visser, Giacomo Gilmozzi, Samira Dafa Yow, Kaoutar Boustani Dahan, Hélène Thébault, Computational Mama, the Humankind crew, René Paré, Francesca Tambussi, Jetse Siebenga, Makan Fofana, Alice Haugh, Arnaud Dressen, Philipe Coullomb, the Plug In City crew, Sitraka Rakotoniaina & VVFA, Calvin Mays, Nicolas Gluzman, Hermeline Sanguard, Sylvain Grisot, Linas Gabrielaitis, so a very warm thank you to all of you, and I hope you know how much you have helped me through this process.
PART I / WHY CYBERLOCAL DREAMING?
The genesis of Cyberlocal Dreams sprang from a series of frustrations that I encountered during my previous professional venture. These frustrations included navigating a somewhat insular and apolitical professional environment and growing disenchanted with the simplistic belief that the sprinkling creative magic dust could remedy any user painpoint, a sentiment I delved into in a previous post.
In an attempt to channel my ravenous disenchantment, I made some time for personal R&D and fashioned myself a project that could serve both as the guidelines and sandbox of my upcoming professional reinvention.
Step onto the stage, Cyberlocal Dreams. This became the vehicle for my transformation.
The project’s core intent crystallized after watching Gaming the Real World, a documentary on how four different video games are being used to shape the real world. I was especially moved by Jose Sanchez’s Block’hood (which was the reason I was watching the documentary in the first place), and his use of a simple narrative arc to guide the unpacking of a complex set of socio-technical systems: the urban matrix. Around that time, I had also discovered Dark Matter Lab’s Trees as Infrastructure project, calling for a Boring Revolution that suggested rethinking our urban stack by showing how the administrative papertrail of cities’ finances can paint a clearer picture of our city’s value systems than their own marketing efforts. Gradually, I began to develop small projects in collaboration with Salil Parekh and Pedro Gil Farias around these newfound sources of inspiration like Digital Bunkers, Haul Earth Ledger, and Ahmedabad2050. Eventually, the impulse to give this burgeoning interest its own name became irresistible.
Cyberlocal Dreaming was conceived primarily to describe the intent behind the aforementioned projects. This conceptual vehicle evolved into a collection of collaborative exercises designed to center individual human perspectives within the city-making process by leveraging digital tools. An extension of the very premise of Gaming the Real World.
Beyond the documentary’s influence, a couple of books that played a pivotal role in shaping the Cyberlocal Dreams project (though initially unclear to me at the time): there’s Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do?, a thought-provoking work that challenges conventional notions of normalcy in the design of spaces, time, and bodies. It’s arguably the most enlightening foundational design book I’ve encountered so far. The other was Arturo Escobar’s Design for the Pluriverse, particularly the sections on governance, agency, and decision-making within the realm of design.
These works propelled my exploration beyond the boundaries set by Gaming the Real World. Instead of simply gamifying urbanistic or infrastructural concepts (a common aim of serious gaming) or simulating large-scale behaviors (the prevailing purpose of digital twins), these readings prompted me to imagine an extension of this premise: crafting immersive, tangible realms for experimental endeavors, fluidly combining construction and roleplaying. Creating virtual environments where scenarios could be curated as effortlessly as they could be reacted to through the stories they inspired (a bit like spatial enticatypes?).
The term Cyberlocal Dreams was coined to encapsulate this emerging component of my practice at the crossroads of city-making, maker culture, and digital collaboration tools, culminating in a name with three distinct facets.
🎮🡢 CYBER / VISUAL VERSATILITY & EXPLICITNESS
Being a comfy-middle-class-and-digital-friendly-creative-practitioner, I underwent a relatively smooth online transition of my professional activity at the beginning of the pandemic. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would have taken such a hard turn into the digital were it not for the lockdown.
The term “CYBER” in “Cyberlocal Dreams” wasn’t just a descriptive prefix — it served as an invitation to delve into the nuances of crafting welcoming and convivial virtual environments. The choice of “cyber” held a certain outdated connotation that hardly evoked warmth, and aimed to acknowledge that most options at hand: Miro, Zoom, Google Docs were certainly not conducive to spending prolonged periods in.
The question then became: How could CYBER environments be made more inviting?
As a fervent enthusiast of co-creation-driven community events like hackathons, makeathons, and game jams, I naturally found myself exploring how cyber-spaces could be made more convivial through co-creation. I was particularly intrigued by how digital tools could be harnessed for subversion and creative misuse. Additionally, I wanted to do my best to embrace the value of open source culture namely the interoperability and subversive potential of the tools I used. This made working with friends like Pedro Gil Farias and Riwad Salim all the more enjoyable since these guys were far more comfortable with opensource platforms like Blender, Mozilla Hubs, and Minetest and brought a whole new depth to the projects we collaborated on.
The second facet of CYBER I sought to explore was its visual immersiveness.
Too often, virtual creations are marketed as immersive storytelling experiences (a selling point I’ve used on many occasions myself). However, this claim feels dismissive of other storytelling mediums, as if suggesting that other creative forms are somehow less immersive. Yet, it goes without saying that a good story, regardless of the medium used to tell it (performance, literature, music, photography), becomes inherently immersive the moment it captivates the hearts and minds of its audience.
Behind this misleading shorthand of immersivity lurks the idea of a totalizing vision. It could be argued that the immersiveness of virtual environments doesn’t solely stem from their apparent vastness portrayed through 360-degree panoramic views. But rather that it’s the way in which these environments confine your audiovisual senses that gives them their immersive quality. When in fact, virtual environments more often consist of a multitude of Truman Show-esque sets stitched together into a reality reminiscent of Monsters Inc.: there’s always a façade and its corresponding door, and upon discovery, the immersive illusion shatters.
Virtual environments are empty shells without the thread of narrative to weave them together, or an interaction mechanic that leverages this reality. The immersive sim Prey for instance, takes place on Talos I, a fully explorable space station. The catch being that it is isolated in infinitely empty space (although yes, this is still a high-definition Truman Show). The other example that comes to mind that highlights this stitching of distinct cyber spaces is the Discord ad with Awkwafina and DeVitto which tells journey of the two protagonists as they hop across Discord servers. The video does so by playing with a variety of visual mediums and more or less explicit portals.
All this to say that what I sought to explore through Cyberlocal Dreams was the possibility to question and push easily-accessible cocreative platforms, their immersiveness, their malleability, which started with understanding their constraints and shortcomings.
And to be fair, at the end of the day, it’s true that the visual explicitness of virtual environments — whether viewed on a smartphone screen or within a VR headset — can genuinely amplify the feeling of immersion. This explicitness also provides a new degree of tangibility in co-creative settings. The example of BlockbyBlock’s work showcased in Gaming the Real World, using Minecraft as a shared canvas for participatory urbanism, stands as a testament to this. Such tangible engagement becomes incredibly potent when combined with an equal measure of creative control, significantly enhancing the ability of workshop participants to react and engage with each other’s visions.
🌿🡢 LOCAL / CONTEXTUALIZED WORLDING
The term “LOCAL” is a direct nod to the concept of cosmopolitan localism, a notion I stumbled upon in Sara Hendren’s book What Can a Body Do, and I suspect Arturo Escobar might have also touched upon in Design for the Pluriverse. As cliche as this aspiration might sound, getting to question the influence of the local context of my work through the geographical and cultural anchoring had been a rare luxury up to this point and had only been possible on a handful of projects.
This intense feeling of rootlessness, amplified by my move to New Delhi in 2017 and subsequently to Eindhoven in 2020, compelled me to investigate how the virtual realm could draw inspiration from, honor, and appreciate the distinctive geographical and material contexts of workshop participants, including my own. At the same time stirring our collective curiosity towards each others’ worlds, diverse lived experiences, and varied realities.
Interestingly, the very visual explicitness that enhances the collaborative potential of virtual environments inherently sparked discussions on representation within co-creation activities. This provided me with an opportunity to integrate ideas from another significant source of inspiration: Kate Edwards. In her 2016 GDC talk titled A Geographer’s Guide to Building Game Worlds, Edwards highlights how the cultural biases of video game developers often manifest in their efforts to construct fictional realms. The meticulous scrutiny she advocates for when constructing game worlds, especially those navigated through dialogue trees and exploration, holds even greater relevance when crafting game experiences centered on co-construction using assets from these worlds. It’s a tangible reflection of what Donna Haraway articulated in Staying with the Trouble: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”
With each new Cyberlocal Dreaming workshop, I attempted to translate this representational and practical scrutiny into collaborative experiences within the virtual, constructed, and imagined realms. The ideas stemming from Sara Hendren’s work (which build on Rosemarie Garland Thompson’s concept of situations of misfit) enabled me to bridge Kate Edwards’ suggestions with design-related considerations. This was particularly relevant when exploring how the malleable and visual nature of virtual environments could be harnessed to prototype approaches for addressing misfit situations between one’s own lived experiences or needs and the physical, narrative, and conceptual worlds they operate in.
Central to this ongoing undertaking was the creation of assets, boards, and maps that could tangibilize a specific context — whether a 3D scan of a location rendered isometrically for use in Miro, a deconstructed vector plan of an upcoming urban development sourced from an architecture firm’s PDF proposal, or pre-selected assets from Fortnite Creative. These assets would then be collaged, reappropriated, hacked, through a range of activities aimed at capturing individuals’ experiences, concerns, aspirations, and anxieties, all the while surfacing insights into the local ecosystems they inhabit. These activities were inspired by common design thinking tools like service design maps, or formats like Max Mollon’s design fiction debates, as well as activities adapted from Liz Sanders’ Convivial Toolbox.
Of the three components — CYBER, LOCAL, DREAMING — refining LOCAL remains my most demanding learning curve. When I started this project, I really hoped to more effectively integrate my practice into existing city-making initiatives, providing my services to co-living residential developments, city visioning endeavors, or local activism. The fact that this hasn’t happened to the degree I was hoping for significantly contributed to my decision to retire the project, in the hopes of adopting a more strategic and tactical approach in the coming years.
Yet, this experience has given me incredible insights into the multifaceted ways and settings in which the urban tapestry can be co-crafted (and frayed!). It has also shed light on the frequency with which, in participatory urbanism efforts, the concept of LOCAL can just as easily be invoked to legitimize lining the pockets of existing local fortunes through dishonest application of participation-esque antics, rather than improving the livability of local neighborhoods through collaborative efforts. Especially when dealing with digital tools, so much of the appeal to funders is based on optics, that not being better prepared to negotiate better control over a given project’s direction has left me thoroughly frustrated on more than one occasion.
🡢 DREAMING / BEYOND FUTURING
The bulk of my professional journey has revolved around fostering clients’ suspension of disbelief, all to aid them in capitalizing on future commercial opportunities. This arduous gymnastic, aptly summed up by Raymond Loewy’s acronym MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, not too far from Keep It Simple Stupid), is more commonly and aspirationaly referred to as thinking outside the box.
Time and again, my work involved being asked to be innovative, inventive, and push the client’s expectations, only to collide with their resistance to venture beyond their comfort zones. It’s this very reverence of acceptability and risk-aversion that initially led me toward design fiction, and later expanding into speculative design. Within these domains, the MAYA acronym remained relevant, albeit with a different connotation — a formula to be unraveled, a corporate relevance’s fourth wall to be shattered.
Nevertheless, even design fiction started feeling stagnant, tainted by gratuitous skepticism or superficial virtue signaling. Speculative design works too felt at times too concerned with heralding their own spectacularity to leave room for more nuanced conversations making room for various personal lived experiences.
Hence, the introduction of the term “DREAM” and its myriad narrative forms. By adopting this word, I aimed to dissociate my practice from a linear, product-centric vision of the future. Associating the workshop names to dreaming and stories, helped prompt participants to externalize impressions, extrapolate inklings, and vocalize aspirations, regardless of commercial viability. Along the way, I came across the incredibly refreshing work of Annika Hansteen-Izora on Communal Dreaming and Digital Gardens. It played a central role in setting the tone of the Agoraverse workshops for instance.
Inviting participants to a dreaming exercise rather than fiction, speculation, or foresight workshop, provided a much needed departure from earlier futuring workshops in which participants were more likely to associate the idea of a desirable future to a world with flying cars than one devoid of police violence for instance.
The Cyberlocal Dreaming experiments were focused on trying to craft generative settings which: thanks to their digital nature (cyber), could be easily grounded in a specific context (local) while nurturing rich co-creative moments rooted in participants’ aspirations and concerns (dreaming). The best quote I have found to this day to crystalize this intent is actually the one referenced by Sanders in the introduction to her Convivial Toolbox, itself taken from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality: “People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live […] and to put them to use in caring for and about others.”
Interestingly, it took me quite some time to come across this passage. Even though, from the very first Cyberlocal Dreams workshop I facilitated, I used a scene from the film The King and the Mockingbird that echoed a very similar sensibility. In the scene, a couple is pursued through a neo-classical, white marble castle by the king and his goons on fish-shaped jetskis. As the couple reaches a dead-end, they summon their friend, the mockingbird. He instructs them to hide behind a human-scaled statue of the monarch and beckons a flock of white doves to assemble on and around the statue, magnifying its size and providing a camouflage for the couple. The king, seeing his ego flattered, abandons the chase and applauds.
In this scene, the city (with its technical and infrastructural underpinnings) is designed as a manifestation of the king’s authority, opulence, modernity, technological prowess, and repression (complete with an underground realm that ultimately rises against oppression with the aid of lions). Yet, a subset of the city’s inhabitants, coexisting amidst and around this infrastructure, managed to hack it to shield the couple. Utilizing diverse strategies — mobilization, concealment, flattery, inventiveness, frugality — they subverted the city-system’s intended purpose, repurposing it to protect themselves from that very system.
Only through the kind of fabulatory power (as Makan Fofana often called it) of such images, have I found rich and compelling manifestations of hopeful, equitable, self-aware, incomplete, non-totalizing visions of tomorrows. It is this very essence and sensibility I have been chasing in my little Cyberlocal Dreams vehicle.