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 II / THE CYBERLOCAL PLAYBOOK
In this installment, I will focus here on detailing three key categories of tools employed during Cyberlocal Dreams workshops.
Each workshop presents a different attempt at exploring the creative possibilities between the CYBER realms (video games, digital collaboration tools) with LOCAL contexts (lived experiences, local necessities, historical background). This pairing aimed to infuse participants’ perceptions of their own urban environment with newfound flexibility. Another guiding principle for these experiments was to prioritize the creative misuse of freely accessible virtual platforms such as Miro or Fortnite’s Creative Mode, with a preference for platforms that could provide a nearly endless spatial or material availability, and the ability to create curated templates and kits of parts.
And finally, each new iteration of the approach informed the other: using Miro for example was in direct response to the limitations of assets provided in Fortnite Creative, however I still used Fortnite for other purposes and started creating machinimas from the Fortnite footage to clarify the associations made by participants during workshops to a wider audience, and now that now Epic Games released Unreal Engine for Fortnite I’m likely to revisit it for a couple more experiments…
After some quick calculations, it appears I organized 20+ distinct workshop variations, many of which were conducted on multiple occasions, under the Cyberlocal Dreams initiative. I have also been able to openly share these tools and approached through collaborations with Humankind, Stadslab, Festival System D, and the European Turfu Project.
For the sake of clarity I’ve organized these workshop encounters into three overarching clusters, loosely categorized based on the digital platform employed: In-Game Collaborative Creation (Fortnite Creative Mode, Minetest), Collaborative Assemblage (Miro, Mural), Online Spatial Computing (Mozilla Hubs, WondaVR, Spatial.io, Gather Town).
The following section is as cursory as possible, if you find in it anything you’d like more insight into, please feel free to reach out.
I. Sandbox games:
Using games like Fortnite Creative and Minetest to organize urban futuring social dreaming workshops in which participants could prototype new relationships to their built environment.
1 / Digital Bunkers: A series of role playing sessions hosted online Fortnite Creative during lockdown on the future of semi-autonomous living using (project microsite).
2 / La Banlieue du Turfu: A series of worldbuilding workshops and installations organized over the course of two years using Fortnite Creative to prototype what a wondrous reinterpretation of the french Banlieues might feel like (presentation of the project for Serious Play 2022 Conference).
3 / UNEJ Collab: A collaboration between La Banlieue du Turfu and the Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation’s UNEJ (Urbanité numérique En Jeux) project in which we invited young participants to imagine what their neighborhood might look like if all the highways surrounding them had turned to water bodies. This was done in Minetest using GIS data and switching the “asphalt” material to “water” to aid in the fabulatory immersion.
- Ease of onboarding / 🦑🦑🦑
Varied but manageable, many participants joining workshops had never played Fortnite, this meant dedicating a good 15 to 20min to getting people set up. That being said, I facilitated most of the Fortnite Creative workshops from my smartphone, which cannot be said of other online workshop platforms. Also Fortnite Creative was incredibly heavy as a game requiring downloading a day in advance in low-connection areas. Minetest was much lighter but a little less straightforward to get into.
- Ease of adaptability / 🛠️🛠️🛠️🛠️
Fortnite Creative offers (and limits you to) pre-created assets however those are very playfully designed, bordering on caricature making them easy to repurpose (for instance deciding a squid tentacle is now a hookah pipe). However many assets were created using a very western, Hollywoodian, set of cultural stereotypes making it a creative constraint when it’s not downright offensive. Minetest on the other hand is very adaptable, due to its voxel worlds (which means you also have limited prefab assets and need to install custom mods which may cause complications to your server), and has a very active modding community.
- Ease of immersion / 🔮🔮🔮🔮🔮
Both Fortnite Creative and Minetest have integrated building (pick axe, smartphones) into their UX making the experience all the more immersive and engaging. Both are also 360 worlds that can be traveled and explored adding to the immersion. Using audio during role-playing sessions also added to the sense of community during sessions.
- Ease of dissemination / 🖼️🖼️🖼️🖼️
I mastered video production only once I had a powerful enough computer to run Fortnite on it but started making videos from Fortnite worlds very early on. The aesthetic can feel limiting at times since it makes all the projects look alike, however they bring a welcome cohesiveness to the worlds created in the sessions.
II. Digital collaging:
Using Miro (could be done with Mural, or Figma) to cocreate digital dioramas and facilitate workshops on the future of cities.
1 / Ahmedabad2050: A 5 day futuring workshop during which industrial design students from Anant National University were challenged to explore what sustainability meant to them and how a strengthened commitment to sustainable practices by those shaping the city of Ahmedabad could shape its development (project microsite). All the building and city assets were created by the students using Magica Voxel and then rendering them as isometric PNGs.
2 / Cyberlocal Dreams: A compact 3 hour workshop format during which participants imaged hospitable, desirable, hopeful cities using a city-concept-generator I had created, and then bringing to life the visions proposed using premade isometric assets in Miro (workshop output video)
3 / Co-creating the Central Innovation District: A series of workshops organized for Leiden University’s Urban Studies Masters program in which participants were encouraged to challenge the proposed vision for an upcoming urban redevelopment project. This was done in Miro using isometric assets and elements extracted from the architects’ vision proposals (project microsite)
5 / Mythologies x Agoraverse: Several Banlieue du Turfu workshops were facilitated in Miro, but one I especially enjoyed was organized in collaboration with Yanis Ratbi aka Synchretical, using a mix of his visual creations and carefully picked video game captures to imagine the quests and adventures faced by the inhabitants of the Agoraverse, an alternative TURFU-inspired metaverse (you can find the Miro board here).
6 / Team Virtu/e Solar Decathlon: A series of workshops organized with Technical University Eindhoven’s solar decathlon team to imagine how their housing system might adapt to different geographical contexts and lifestyle needs using Miro (Miro board here).
7 / As the City Speaks: A half-day workshop template created with Rinke Vreeke for STRP and Kunstloc Brabant. The workshop invited 12 to 16 year olds to co-design their neighborhood from three different perspectives: the activist’s, the urbanist’s, the parakeet’s. Each workshop started with a short audio narrative written and produced by Rinke that introduced each character, followed by a collaging activity based in Miro. Each workshop used a render of 3D scan of a different location chosen by educators that students could then collage “urban interventions” over.
8 / Rotterdam mobility intervention strategy: A 2-hours creative workshop co-created with the Humankind team to bring various stakeholders from the Rotterdam municipality. This was an efficient way to collect insights and ideas, make professionals put the experience of citizens first, for example exploring various ‘citizen journeys’, and co-creating possible street-level interventions in one visual language (project page).
- Ease of onboarding / 🦑🦑🦑🦑
Miro was a great tool to use because it wasn’t intimidating, however it can take quite a bit of time to use intentionally when collaging (managing layered visuals, rotating elements, creating arrows and other artifacts by mistake) which can cause more frustration than I originally expected. However the near infinite space it provides also allows for the creation of very guided and structured environments that let participants go at their own pace which I really enjoy as a facilitator.
- Ease of adaptability / 🛠️🛠️🛠️🛠️
Miro was the perfect place for me to explore different kit of parts, I’ve used renderings of 3D objects in isometric view, cut-outs of images found online by participants, or created in Stable Diffusion as well as hand-drawn elements. Each elicited different reactions from participants and had their own effect on the nature of the creations.
- Ease of immersion / 🔮🔮🔮
The immersion is always mediated by symbols, schematics, and their respective implications. This meant that it can often feel more like playing with pieces on a chessboard, than building with unlimited Lego bricks. However there were plenty of fun moments repurposing assets to make them suit the needs of the story.
- Ease of dissemination / 🖼️🖼️🖼️
As is, the boards often feel a bit dry or unruly to anyone who hasn’t been part of the exercise, compared to other platforms, I have found ease of dissemination to be this format’s weakest attribute, except for the fact that they can easily by linked in a website and reveal both outcome and the experience blueprint, unlike a Fortnite map.
III. Online spatial computing:
I have facilitated far less workshops using online spatial computing platforms, but all built insights derived from the previous experiments, while informing their use. To this day, few of these platforms offer smooth in-situ collaborative experiences for spatial prototyping. Most function as passive navigable dioramas.
1 / Black Friday Foundry: Imagined in an attempt to come up with a maker-friendly counter-narrative to Black Friday, the Haul Earth Ledger project was a short design fiction collaboration with Pedro Gil Farias during which participants were invited to virtually hack products in Miro. The creations were then brought to life in Mozilla Hubs using Spokes and Blender (so the co-creation among participants did not happen in Hubs).
2 / Agora Jam: A two day game jam-like event using the platform Wonda VR to bring to life various corners of the Turfu imaginary. The workshop was designed to bring together as wide a variety of backgrounds as possible including age range, professional activity, socio-economic background, and craft an experience mindful of each teams’ creative sensibility (sound production, drawing, 3D modeling).
3 / The Digital Firdaws: A single afternoon session inviting participants to create an online time capsule in which they planted / added / hid important samples of afrocyberfeminist culture and thought for the generations to come. This was done using Gather.town, a 2.5D spatialized video chat platform with an amazing creative community (visit the Firdaws here).
3 / Convivial City: An afternoon-long session created for Eindhoven’s Stadslab imagining what it takes for a neighborhood to be convivial in light of upcoming socio-ecological challenges using the NRE neighborhood as their starting point. The whole session was facilitated in person with each group working in one corner of a shared Spatial environment.
4 / La Cité de L’Image: A virtual space created to document the co-creative process used to define the programming vision of the Cité de L’Image, a new digital culture hub in the south of France. Also created in Spatial, but this is a purely demonstrative piece, no cocreatoin was hosted in it. I did however get to try a few fun tricks, the skybox is taken from the exact location of where the building with be using Google Street View 360, and in the space, there is a scaled model of the area created using the MapsModelImporter which I then animated in Blender.
- Ease of onboarding / 🦑🦑🦑
Depending on the platform this part was more or less arduous, but the immersiveness of the tool is always a source of awe and excitement for the participants. These platforms have been fairly demanding from a computational standpoint and consume a lot of bandwidth.
- Ease of adaptability / 🛠️🛠️🛠️
Both Spatial and Wonda seem to expect the curation to have happened prior to consultation, meaning that visitors of the platforms are expected to have limited intervention on the space. In Spatial, although 3D objects can be added, it was much easier to prototype by using 2D images laid out in 3D space to avoid saturating the connection.
- Ease of immersion / 🔮🔮🔮🔮🔮
Very visually immersive, most of these platforms also are VR compatible makes can make for some pretty incredible surprises. However the limited adaptability of the spaces make them feel more like storefronts thank collaboration hubs. And unlike user experiences like Fortnite that have integrated building mechanics into the storytelling of their experience, here, most interactivity relies on limited drag and drop or point and click dynamic.
- Ease of dissemination / 🖼️🖼️🖼️🖼️🖼️
Very appealing and enjoyable to explore for visitors who haven’t been part of the workshop.
Most of these projects were just about coming up with bespoke co-creation recipes for each collaborative platform that caught my eye. I think I enjoyed this exercise because it felt so cathartic to playfully misuse the platforms to loosely emulate industry-grade architectural softwares. The hope being to see if the premise of Gaming the Real World could be replicated with any other game environment, or collaboration platform, and what could be learned along the way.
But one question remains… What does a five star rating on everything look like? Ease of onboarding, Ease of adaptability, Ease of immersion, Ease of dissemination…
For me, it could be called something like DIY Twining: an easily replicable process (a little Github repo hidden on a corner of the web) through which one could create twins of their neighborhood(s) using a mix of satellite-captured 3D scans + generic game assets + immersive sim game templates.
Then they could throw phygital block parties in and around them (play outdoors from the location you scanned?). It would be developed in collaboraiton with nearby gaming cafes and libraries through a series of hackathon and LARPing events. The whole thing would be like a mix of Fortnite Creative + Giraffe + City Skylines + Common’Hood + Mutazione.