Future Voices — Collectively Imagining the Future through Technology

Co-authors: Hannah Rosenfeld, Meric Dagli, and Leah Jiang

This post outlines a year long exploration into how technology might facilitate collective, community driven design futuring around shared spaces. The project began as a whimsical, urban projection event in a vacant lot in Pittsburgh, and the incredible response by children pushed us to consider how we might scale down the technology involved to bring this activity to students in classrooms. While students spend a lot of time studying and analyzing history, we were impressed by the lack of tools and approaches for educators to support their students in imagining and analyzing potential futures.

Below is a synopsis of the experimentation we’ve done in collective futuring, looking at three approaches we’ve taken: 1) an interaction urban projection in a vacant lot in Bloomfield, 2) a series of classroom based drawing and projection events, and finally 3) a virtual reality based futuring exercise with a group of middle schoolers. While distinct, these experiments were iterative, each building upon and incorporating learnings from the previous. We share these experiments in hopes that it will benefit educators looking to bring more creative, future-based activities into their classrooms. For full details, technological specifications and lesson plans, please consult our instructable site.


Iteration 1 — Collective Projection

For our first experiment, we wanted to test the concept of “urban projection” as a futuring tool. Urban projection, as the name implies, involves projecting images onto large surfaces in an urban environment, specifically the sides of large buildings. In order to test this as an effective tool for collective futuring, we hosted an interactive urban projection event during the First Friday Festival — a monthly street fair held in Bloomfield where vacant spaces are transformed into art galleries and performance spaces.

We called our projection event Future Fridays and set up our equipment in a vacant lot along Penn Avenue, the main street in Bloomfield, and invited participants to draw their visions for the future of that space. Then we would project their drawings onto the side of one of the buildings that bordered the lot and then record their reactions.

Technology

A substantial amount of equipment was involved to facilitate the experience. The setup included a lightbox, sheets of cellophane and a webcam which were all used to capture the users’ drawings in real time. Then we fed the video back into a computer and finally, into the projector. We used a program called Millumin to process the footage and project it onto the surface of the building.

The event would not have been possible without the support of Ali Momeni, Associate Professor of Art at CMU. Ali’s own participatory projection work for the Center for Urban Intervention Research served as a point of inspiration for own project. Those that are interested in planning a similar event should reference Ali’s Manual for Urban Projection.

Process

This event was the result of an extended design and research project looking at how technology might create impact in communities around Pittsburgh. Equipped with insights from our observation, interviews, and exploration into neighborhoods struggling with issues of vacancy, we developed a framework to understand how we might empower community members to take control of their unused spaces. Our goal was to help gather, inspire and empower communities to collectively imagine their own future by providing a concrete, visual medium to express their visions. Urban projection was our attempt to do that, and Future Fridays was our first experiment towards this end.

Learning

The event attracted an audience of over 50 enthusiastic participants. People were excited to see their work projected into physical space, however, most of their drawings were playful self-expressions rather than visions of the future. This perhaps highlighted the limitations of the medium we had chosen, but it also suggested that futuring skills may need to be taught or practiced. If the future is abstract and therefore challenging to imagine, how might we motivate people to imagine a potential future for their communities?

However, we were excited to discover that young children seemed to be naturally imaginative and genuinely excited about expressing their visions for the future. Once we saw how quickly many of them took to this work, we began wondering how we might make this work more accessible for use in a classroom. We partnered with The Makers Clubhouse, an after school STEM program to begin working on our next iteration of this work.


Iteration 2 — Scale Model Projection

With children as our focus, we set out to develop an open-source curriculum for educators interested in bringing accessible design futuring workshops to their students. The goal of the curriculum was to help teachers empower young students with the skills and confidence to imagine futures for their own community. We piloted the first of these workshops with the Makers Clubhouse’s 4th and 5th graders.

The lesson plan we developed broke down into three parts. The first introduced students to futuring concepts and asked them to focus on designing their personal futures. This consisted of a drawing exercise to imagine their first day of work as an adult.

The second session shifted the focus away from the individual and toward the community. Students were asked to visualize the future for a vacant space in their neighborhood. To keep the exercise relevant to the students, they were asked to imagine the future of a building that was recently purchased by The Makers Clubhouse. This building was set to become the future home of their afterschool program.

The workshop culminated with a presentation of the children’s work during The Makers Clubhouse year-end showcase. The students’ drawings final drawings were animated and projected onto a scaled model of the program’s new building. Just like our Future Fridays event, the use of projection proved to be a powerful way to engage people. The students were delighted to see their drawings brought to life. They spent time huddled around the model identifying their own drawings and the drawings of their peers.

Technology

The primary challenge we faced in designing this iteration of our exploration was scaling down the technology required for the impact of urban projection. To accomplish this, we created a wireframe template of the building that the students were set to move into. Then we had the students draw their future visions within that template. From there, we scanned the drawings, added some animation in After Effects and then projected those designs onto a scaled model of the building. These projections were displayed during the program’s year-end showcase event. We once again used Millumin to map the drawings onto the surface of the model.

Process

The curriculum we designed for these students was based on our findings from our initial research and the learnings from our first urban projection event. Since the children we observed tended to be naturally imaginative, we targeted our efforts on helping these students develop design thinking and futuring skills. By doing so, we hoped to harness their natural creativity towards creating a vision for their future and the future of their community. Our partners at The Makers Clubhouse assisted us in defining the focus of the workshop, a specific building they had recently acquired to house the after school program. We continued to work closely them while developing the curriculum, obtaining their feedback and iterating a couple times before piloting the activity with the students.

Learning

We walked away from the workshops with several key learnings. First, we found that the most effective way to engage the students — and give them a clear idea of what “futuring” is — was through storytelling . For example, at the beginning of the second session, we showed the students a few movie clips that were set in the future (e.g. Zootopia, Wall-E, etc.). The students were very engaged with the content and we used this as a starting point to discuss what it means to imagine the future and the differences between utopian and dystopian futures.

Next, we discovered that introducing the concept of futuring in stages– beginning with creating a vision for oneself before moving to one’s neighborhood — was also critical to the process. It was much easier for students to imagine their own future as opposed to imagining the future of a particular space. But once they grasped the concept of creating a personal vision, it became easier for them to create a vision for more abstract concepts (e.g. a space, an entire community, etc.).

We were surprised to note that some students had a difficult time expressing themselves through drawing and illustration. These students preferred to write or verbally describe their ideas, feeling they weren’t “good enough” to draw. This pushed us to consider which creative tools might be most appropriate to support more self-conscious or less naturally expressive students.

We also discovered that providing students with an artifact of some sort after each exercise was a powerful motivator to keep them engaged and excited about the work. For example, after the students sketched themselves in their future profession, we created ID badges for them with their name, future job titles and images of the students in those roles. The students were excited to receive these badges the following session, some even showed us the ID cards in their wallets when we returned for subsequent workshops.

Finally, we discovered that although the projection mechanism provided a novel and engaging way visualize the students’ concepts, it did have some limitations. Despite being simplified, it would still be difficult to find the resources, time and technical know-how to replicate the setup. In order to make this curriculum more accessible we needed to find a different set of tools for visualizing the students’ work.


Iteration 3 — Virtual Reality

Following our experiments with projection as a futuring tool, we set out to find something that would better fit the constraints of a classroom, but still provide a clear sense of scale and impact. Furthermore, we needed a solution that would be easy to setup.

Though at first it might sound like a surprising choice, we landed on virtual reality as an accessible futuring tool. We piloted the next iteration of our curriculum with a group of 6th — 8th grade students at Assemble, an after school STEM program located in Bloomfield. The two-hour workshop started with a discussion around futuring, framed specifically around utopias, dystopias and why we might imagine futures in these two different ways.

After a brief tutorial on CoSpaces, the students were asked to imagine the future for the street that their afterschool program is located on. To ensure that the exercise remained place-based, we had students work from a template that we created which modeled the Assemble block. Additionally, to help guide their thinking, each student was given a prompt. Example prompts included “imagine the Assemble block if kids ruled the world”, “if we grew our own food” and “if it flooded all the time.” Students could either create a utopia or a dystopia, however, they had to share why they chose to do one or the other.

When the students were finished, they were given a chance to view their future worlds in virtual reality. They also had the opportunity to explore the worlds of their classmates. The session concluded with a brief reflection period. The goal here being to encourage students to critically think about their decisions and also help them think through how their ideas may or may not fit into a real world context. This debriefing process included questions like: What is it like to walk around in a world someone else has designed? If “X” happened, how would you have done things differently? How would you go about working together to make a future that you both enjoy?

Technology

The workshop centered around CoSpaces a free browser-based application that allows you to build 3D spaces. After building a space in the browser, it can be experienced in virtual reality through the mobile application on a headset like Google Cardboard or in augmented reality directly from a mobile phone. To run the workshop each student, or each group of students needs access to a laptop, a smartphone and a VR headset.

Process

After settling in on VR as the primary visualization platform (largely because of its accessibility through low cost tools like Google Cardboard), we needed to find a tool that would help students to create visual artifacts for VR. We knew we wanted to avoid anything that would make the student feel self-conscious about their creative capabilities. We also had to avoid anything that required expensive or complex software to limit the learning curve for students and teachers.

After extensive research on VR design software, we selected CoSpaces as an appropriate tool. The software comes with a large library of pre-designed objects (e.g. cars, rocket ships, mountains, clouds, etc.) that can be dragged-and-dropped onto a “VR canvas.” Additionally, the software is browser-based, which means there’s no software to download, install or configure.

Learning

This experiment provided us with a number of new learnings, some of which could help guide future iterations of this exercise and curriculum.

We observed that by using a digital platform for both design and visualization, we could create a faster feedback loop and dramatically reduce the time needed for students to experience their work. Without prompting, a couple students began testing and iterating. They would add something to their design, view it with their VR glasses, and then go back into CoSpaces to make changes. This also gave their teachers an opportunity to engage in discussion and reflection right on the spot — as opposed to waiting days or weeks, at which point the child may have forgotten why they made certain decisions.

We also found that due to the immersive nature of VR, students felt motivated to go far beyond the scope of the project. Instead of simply imagining the future of the street their school was located on, they reimagined the entire world around it. The simplicity of CoSpaces created opportunities for students to add new objects to the street (e.g. new buildings, new city streets, etc.), but it also gave them the opportunity to change the very nature of the world itself. For example, we observed students changing the color of the sky, the physical characteristics of the planet (e.g. a desert vs. lush green mountains) and some even added mythical creatures to their worlds (e.g. unicorns). We found that the bigger and richer the canvas, the more imaginative and ambitious the students became with their designs.

One of the unanticipated consequences of their unrestrained creativity was that it became increasingly difficult to keep the visions grounded in reality. The project may have been to reimagine the future of their school’s street, but few students “colored inside the lines.” Therefore, going forward, one of the key challenges will be to think through ways to ground students in reality without hindering their raw creativity.

We made an attempt to help facilitate this process by gathering the students into a group and asking them questions about everyone’s work. However, we found that the students became less engaged once we switched over to a facilitated group discussion. However, when we allowed them to interact one-on-one — primarily by exploring the VR worlds created by other students — they were more open and interactive. While we didn’t have the time to try this, one possibility could be to have the students ask one another a set of pre-defined questions as they explore each other’s VR worlds. By engaging them when they’re already in an open and interactive state, we might be able provoke more critical thought around their designs. Perhaps this could help them maintain their natural levels of creativity while also creating more practical ideas.


Key Takeaways

While some of our attempts were more fruitful than others in achieving our goal, they all did succeed in engaging stakeholders (adults, children, educators, students) in dialogue around the future of their spaces and communities. Learnings from each attempt were different, but some patterns emerged across our experiments that we feel represent universal truths about what makes some futuring activities more effective than others.

Productive Constraints

Though it may seem counter-intuitive while asking a student to imagine the future, constraints can make the otherwise daunting task feel accessible and approachable. Constraints can come in the form of specific prompts to design for or specific technologies or tools, but some limitation can be incredibly helpful. Imagining the future visually is already a lot, but starting to do so from a blank piece of paper or an empty screen can make it just too much

One of our more successful workshops, the Virtual Reality based futuring activity, was such a success because we not only let the students pick prompts to design around, but also created a template for them to work within. Compared to our drawing activities — both the interactive urban projection as well as the future of the Maker’s Clubhouse drawing based workshop s — the solutions designed in Virtual Reality were more concrete and realistic. While the other two exercises did get people thinking about familiar spaces in new ways, the ideas they generated were more fun self expression than meaningful images of the future.

Based on our experience, the best constraints are those that are far enough outside reality to push the limits of the imagination but still place-based and familiar enough to ground student work in the realm of possibility. This can be a hard balance to strike and will likely take a few rounds of practice to arrive at the right prompts for a specific design exercise. In addition, a well-considered debrief at the end of the activity is helpful in regrounding the work and making sure students understand these as imagined futures rather than alternative realities.

Place-Based

As a possible constraint, place-based activities work well for students when being asked to imagine the future in new and interesting ways. Picking spaces, topics and ideas that relate directly to things they are familiar and comfortable with is a great way to get them to push the boundaries of their thinking in other ways. When constrained to work on a vacant lot in their neighborhood, a building they see everyday or a place they spend a lot of time, students are freed to consider possible futures that are both wildly imaginative and also firmly rooted in the needs of that community.

Scaffolding Futuring Skills

And finally, our last big learning from this experimentation was around the need to scaffold student exploration — both in terms of tools and technologies as well as ideas. For example, starting students off imagining their own futures through drawing and storytelling is a good first step. From there, they are primed to move onto futuring around bigger and more complex things — like their schools, their communities, their cities. In addition to taking on bigger ideas, students can then be moved onto doing so with new tools — projection or virtual reality. At each step, templates are helpful in getting students started and keeping them focused on building realistic futures.


Future Work

These experiments have been a great first step in our exploration of collective design futuring for children, but we’re eager to put these ideas out into the world to see how others use and improve them. While we are, of course, happy for anyone to use these ideas in ways that suit their educational goals, there are a few areas we’re eager to explore further.

Virtual Reality

Because of the success of virtual reality in engaging students in the act of futuring, we’d be eager to see how other educators incorporate this into futuring workshops. We used CoSpaces as an accessible tool for building in virtual reality, but we’re curious what other tools or technologies are out there for use in the classroom.

Preserving Creativity

We’d love to explore how this type of work can preserve creativity from childhood to adulthood. In many education systems, students age out of creative, play-based subjects, and we’d like to see how futuring can be a serious way to preserve more creative and open-ended ways of working.

Curricular Integration

All of our experimentation has happened outside of traditional school settings — at public events and after school STEM programs. We understand that these programs operate under different constraints than educators in more traditional school settings and we’d love to see how someone might integrate futuring based activities into a state mandated curriculum. Which subjects might these type of activities support? What grades would be best suited for this type of work? How might it be modified to suit younger or older groups?

Developing Prompts

As mentioned above, building appropriately constrained prompts are one of the most important factors to the success of futuring based workshops. While we’ve taken a stab at defining some prompts to get started (a list of prompts can be found in our instructable), we’d love to know what other prompts work in engaging students in collective futuring around community spaces. How big can the prompts go? How do you ground them in reality? What types of discussions emerge afterwards? How do you facilitate debrief to make the most of student learning?

Building Distinct Modules + Combinations

And finally, we’ve taken an iterative approach to developing these futuring based workshops, but it would be great to imagine a series of distinct modules that could stand alone or fit together to build a robust futuring curriculum. How might these workshops become strong enough educational tools to stand alone? How might they be combined to build on one another towards a longer, more in depth project?


Conclusion

While this represents a big chunk of work we’ve done exploring futuring for educational settings, it’s just the start. We by no means present this as finished work, but instead as an invitation to use, improve and publish bigger, better and more effective ideas. This, in conjunction with our Future Voices instructable page, is intended to be completely open source. We encourage you to build upon our ideas, but ask that you republish your work for other educators to use. It is our hope that this will be of some use, and we’d love to hear if it is!

-The Future Voices Team

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