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 III / DIY TWINING FOR THE WIN
My time with the Cyberlocal Dreams experiment had a fever-dream-like quality, constantly shapeshifting. This frenzy spread me thin and ended up not doing the project any favors either. Below is one last meandrous monologue, a final attempt at diving into this project and seeing past what it was to understand what it was trying to achieve.
Alright, rewind to the start where it all began with Gaming the Real World (remember PART I?). That documentary dropped in 2016, just a couple years before the whole parallel universes and multiverse trend hit peak visibility in popular culture and design spheres.
Think about movies like Into the Spiderverse, Ready Player One, and even Bandersnatch, they all came out in 2018. Around that time, Sony, Warner Bros., and Netflix were exploring how to integrate the trend into their respective productions experimenting with multiversal worlds, open-ended viewing mechanics, and coexisting intellectual properties. Meanwhile, the design world was all in too, with books like Design for the Pluriverse hitting the shelves and the founding of Plurality University.
Clearly, the Cyberlocal Dreams project is yet another byproduct of this trend.
I bring this up because in hindsight, it feels like the main distinction between the premise of Gaming the Real World and that of Cyberlocal Dreams was this very notion of pluralization. When I saw the documentary, I couldn’t help but wonder how video games might not only help prototype or simulate the cities of tomorrow (the core value proposition of the documentary) but also how they might pluralize the stories formulated and told today about these cities of tomorrow?
Why does it matter? One wouldn’t be so wrong to skeptically assert that it doesn’t, it’s just a matter of catering to what’s in since pluralizing everything everywhere all at once remains a widespread cultural phenomenon years later, and I’m a product of that hype.
Nonetheless, as we approach the peak of this hype cycle’s enlightenment phase, a compelling opportunity emerges at the crossroads of pluralization and spatial computing (as demonstrated in PART I and PART II of this post-mortem, I hope). My hunch is that this opportunity relates to the challenge that the trend of mass-pluralization aims to address in the first place.
In a day and age characterized by an unceasing succession of crises, met with responses from entrenched powers (often implicated in these crises) in the form of empty, monolithic visions of the future — the futurama exhibit, smart cities, the metaverse — these unimaginative, vacuous concepts, designed to yield profitable self-fulfilling prophecies for financial speculators, insufficiently consider the shared quality of life for those who may be impacted by them in the coming years or decades.
These concepts, often depicted using scaled physical architectural models back in the day, now rely heavily on all sorts of immersive, navigable, digital renderings or simulations to get buy-in from key stakeholders. This compels the evangelists of these uninspired concepts to be even more interested in spatial computing tools, such as digital twins, as they can make what should be sacrificial concepts pass for proofs of concept (much like the real estate developers in the Brüsel graphic novel).
“elevate traditional 3D city models to new possibilities [by] using real-time data and artificial intelligence, digital twins become virtual, living mirrors of their physical counterparts — providing opportunities to simulate everything from infrastructure and construction to traffic patterns and energy consumption.”
This is the kind of statement that establishes direct connections between the application of digital twins, smart cities, and quantifiable objective urban planning, with little to no emphasis on the abstractions entailed in creating these simulations (or at the very least in their coverage or promotion). These tools are full of promise since such simulation engines can always be refined to take new parameters into account (As S+T+ARTS seems to be exploring with their Resilient interspecies urban ecosystem project), or can be designed like Giraffe to be malleable enough for tinkering purposes during citizen consultations. Nevertheless, spatial computing tools and by extension the world of gaming from its softwares, to its pop culture, to its communities, can offer so much more than
simulation for the sake of optimization. Even Anders Logg is shows in this paper he using Epic Game’s Unreal Engine as a “visualization front-end [to] combine two different workflows, one based on the commercial software suites […] and open source code” in his digital twining efforts.
Nevertheless game engines have so much more to offer than spatial computing and real time rendering! Substantial potential lies in leveraging this untapped narrative and communal potential found in the gaming-adjacent spaces to further unpack, reshape, and challenge the stale totalizing visions of the hyper-optimized petroleumscape — frequently used as the default urban system to be optimized by digital twins.
“It’s no accident that ‘weaving’ and ‘fabric’ have a long and ancient history as metaphors for textual activities and building practices all at once, after the Latin ‘textus.’ The language of architecture is already in some way, the language of texts. It’s rarely about what lies outside it, or who lives around it. It rather writes everything into its own narrative or, worse, writes you out, writes you off.”
This passage really helped me make sense of my concern with digital urban simulation such as digital twins which tend to essentialize core values of a system claiming to write everything into them or to become their living mirrors, with limited acknowledgement of their omissions and exclusions.
Hence my interest in zooming out and seeing the exciting blurring of boundaries between gaming, modding, spatial computing, immersive storytelling, virtual performances, and serious gaming, can vastly impact this space. When contemplating the potential of digital spatial computing within the context of participatory urbanism, there’s so much to learn from gaming’s various creative communities, from modding culture and speed-running to lore hunters, they are the engines of pluralization. Despite the gaming industry’s inclination to guard its intellectual property and narratives, there are enough gamers and gaming-adjacent communities whose appetite for transgression and détournement to truly benefit co-creative city-making efforts.
One of the most inspiring bodies of work I have come across at this intersection is Total Refusal’s, especially their piece How to Disappear on deserting from the video game Battlefield. In it, the artists try to run away from the heart of the battle in a seemingly infinite battlefield, only to be shot down by the game for going too far (callback to Truman show reference in PART I), the group then explores other ways of subverting the map to escape the tyranny of war.
Such curiosity and methods can help scrutinize what constitutes the virtual-urban text, game, simulation, matrix, and vision, while simultaneously identifying its edges. This reminds me of Charlotte Perriand’s collages, Guy Debord’s psychogeographic guides, or Gordon Matta-Clark’s cuttings and makes me wonder what they might have done with such tools today…
Six years following the release of Gaming the Real World and a wave of exhausting metaverse hype later, I find it increasingly challenging to disregard the untapped potential of gaming-related tools, communities, and lore. These have the capacity to defy deterministic proposals for the cities of tomorrow. And it’s evident that certain players in this ecosystem, such as Epic Games, are fostering this permeability by establishing what I’ve heard Steve Isaacs, their Education Specialist, term the “gamer to creator pipeline,” a spectrum encompassing their full product portfolio from Fortnite to Twin Motion to Unreal Engine.
While this latest wave of effervescence might have been largely triggered by Epic metaverse hype (and funding), it has propelled this domain very far from any single monolithic vision, and I love it!
The Cyberlocal Dreams project tried to do too many things at once (and maybe so did this post-mortem). That being said, it has given me the opportunity to discover a world made of many other worlds, each more exciting than the next.
Through this exploration, I had the privilege of collaborating with architects and aspiring urbanists, citizen groups, curators, VR entrepreneurs, die-hard open-sourcers and gamers, real estate developers, each with their own idea of what could come of the intersection of spatial computing and city-making.
Interestingly, among these participants, only a select few exhibited an inclination toward gaming or the intricacies concealed within gaming worlds: “I’m not a gamer” was a refrain often heard, while others recognized similarities to popular titles such as The Sims or SimCity. Yet, those who resonated with the essence of the project found themselves animated when getting to envision their neighborhood’s future through references to dino-medieval-cyber-survivalist MMOs like Ark: Survival Evolved, imagining a circular kebab shop in Fortnite Creative, or virtually flying through a 3D scan of their neighborhood in Blender.
This is why I find the the video game medium to be such a wellspring of inspiration. Its immersive qualities, both in visual and narrative aspects, its versatility, its perpetual flirtation with rule-bending, and its allure to potential funders (perfect trojan horse), make it a goldmine for practitioners who want to see cities as multidimensional tapestries.
Through this experience I’ve also become much more sensitive to the perception of different digital tools both as story-making and story-telling devices. The choice between an existing video-game like Fortnite Creative and an online collaging tool like Miro directly informs who feels welcome to co-create, not just in terms of accessibility but also creating a sense of familiarity, awe, or intimidation depending on the audience.
DIY Twining refers to all of this, the creative possibilities of making your own urban digital twin in Blender using 3D scans from Google Maps (See PART II), but also the rules and activities one can use to turn any game into a peer-learning collaborative experience. This medium offers fun opportunities to subvert participants’ expectations as to what it means to reflect on a neighborhood’s development, shared futures, local governance mechanisms…
Since retiring the project, my focus has gravitated towards video game modding and customization. My latest collaboration with Pedro Gil Farias: the whatamess.city archives dives into this topic. Furthermore, my collaborations with Makan Fofana on La Banlieue du Turfu are coming to a close but have nonetheless led to a final project that will wrap up in 2025 and an incredible ongoing collaboration with Kaoutar Boustani in Brussels, to make the tools shared in PART II more easily accessible to their creative research community.
The road ahead remains nebulous but I have so much optimism when I see the incredible projects appearing in this space. To name a few, here are some of the incredibly talented practitioners I’ve come across and tried to learn from over the past couple years: Jose Sanchez, Anticiplay, Bianca Carague, Alice Bucknell, Kid Cadaver, Jean-Froncois Lucas, Three Hit Combo, UNEJ, Tobias Revel, Sahej Rahal, Annika Hansteen-Izora, You+Pea, Forensic Architecture, Fabbula, Total Refusal. Each of these practitioners and organizations’ work have helped be make sense of this corner of the spatio-digital world and have heavily nourished my excitement and dreaming-capacity.
I hope to continue being part of it by collaborating in close proximity with playful individuals and the rigor of academic circles. In the near future I will be attending the Embedded Design masters program at Gothenburg University’s HDK-Valand where I hope to take more time to strategize how to best contribute to the participatory urbanism scene. I am convinced that these tools and their respective communities can truly help fray the convenient seamless depictions of the cities of tomorrow (whether they are called smart city or eco village).
I’d like to leave you with two images. To the left, a caricatural scene from the TV show Billions (S06E04), in which Mike Prince, a hedge fund manager with a soft-spot for impact investment, uses a dazzling digital double of his vision for the 2028 NYC Olympic bid in an attempt to win over a key telecoms partner and have them provide free (but low-grade) wifi to the whole city for the duration of the games. While his interlocutor flies over the render in VR, Mike Prince says “I told my guys ‘leave nothing to the imagination.’” This caricature exemplifies the use of spatial computing for shallow marketing purposes, misleadingly equating 3D immersive spaces with being informative, strategic, or perhaps even equating a risk-free investment opportunity. Totalizing, shallow, uninventive, empty, status quo.
The second image depicts the work of Riwad Salim and Giacommo Gilmozzi from the IRI (Institut de Recherche Industrielle) and their UNEJ project. Since 2020, they have been working using Minetest (an opensource version of Minecraft) with students living in the neighborhoods that are currently being renovated to host the 2024 Olympic Village in Paris. This project was designed to work with the same handful of public schools in the area over the course of six years, from when the students are twelve to eighteen. In the program Riwad and Giacommo not only facilitate participatory urbanism exercises (having students redesign their respective schoolyard, then school building, then neighborhood) but also explore questions of local server hosting, opensource culture, experiment with the difference between creative worldbuilding and strategic futuring, and openly train other practioners (like Praticable who’ve done a beautiful job at documenting their work) on how to replicate their efforts. And this work is directly informed by earlier experiments by Three Hit Combo their RennesCraft project, and the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler (founder of the IRI).
Two examples of related spatial computing tools, used with completely different communities, timelines, intent, sensibilities. The latter in my opinion shows some of the most interesting promises of digital twins, and that’s because the innovation here has so little to do with the tech itself. By turning to a more DIY and opensourced approach, Riwad and Giacommo are commiting to fostering long-lasting communities of practice and care using the digital medium as the campfire to hang out around more than the messianic solver of all urban woes.