by Srushti Kamat
CAMBRIDGE MASS July 28 -As we prepare for another year of WORLDING in partnership with Unity Technologies, the following learnings capture our biggest take-aways in developing an emergent field. WORLDING is a research and development initiative that asks how artists, technologists, climate scientists and humanists collaborate on interdisciplinary projects that sit somewhere in the middle of seemingly disparate industries.
What is our relationship to a “world”? This world? Our world? The world? Add different demonstratives in front of “world” and a new meaning emerges. “Worlding, in the context of real time digital technology, is a verb that unravels these layers of inscriptions and the assumptions of the way “things are’’ to show they haven’t always been,” says Kat Cizek, artistic director and co-founder of the Co-Creation Studio, adding, “There are many worlds to imagine through collective, democratic and artistic processes.”
Paisley Smith, who leads the Unity for Humanity Program and Community, adds: “Worlding combines our passion for social impact storytelling and incredible innovative storytelling. This is an opportunity for creators to incubate their game changing projects and connect with experts across climate, story, and technology. The Unity for Humanity Program is so proud to support Worlding and the space it creates to incubate change, through the power of imagination.”
WORLDING, for the purpose of the incubator, is a term that encapsulates the intersection of climate futures, documentary, land-use planning, speculative modeling and game-engine technologies. The concept is vast. But it is also functional.
The incubator itself brought together a cohort of five teams with projects in early development. The teams met online for an intensive knowledge-sharing week-long program. Each team was composed of land-use planners, place-makers, community members, scholars, and artists/creator technologists who are actively exploring game-engines to imagine and build sustainable worlds and are also exploring the correlations to rendering them possible in real life.
An image from Year 2180 from Studioteka which went on to win the Stars Collective Imagination Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, awarded by the Sundance Institute.
“Now, more than ever, we need to forge shared narratives about the world that we live in today and the world that we want to build for the future. Technology can help us visualize and communicate those worlds,” says Marina Psaros MCP ’06, Climate Advisor and a graduate of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
“A story is a representation. Worlds are all about simulation,” said William Urrichio, founder of the MIT Open Documentary Lab at his lightning talk, a format adapted to encourage quick but deep insight into verticals such as history, practice, philosophy and critique of WORLDING. Together with advisors from Unity, MIT and special guests from around the world, the map of a new field emerged, one that employs 3D game-engines for community-based, cross-disciplinary approaches to both imaginative and tangible climate futures.
Our methodology combined research with incubation, using observational, co-creative analysis that focused both on developing the team projects as individual creative pieces but also as insightful data points in an emerging sector of real-time 3D technology. While research and incubation can often have differing goals, we found that juxtaposition led to the most generative results. The two goals ended up serving each other and strengthened the case for using symbiotic methodology in new media research.
The following findings are by no means exhaustive. Instead, they are expansive and meant to be built on in the coming years.
1] The field exists and is flourishing.
From the top left corner; Roberto Múkaro Borrero, Sachem Hawk Storm, Vanessa Keith, Jon Cohrs, Mint Boonyapanachoti, Hwa Young Jung, Angela YT Chan, Ruth McCullough, Jason Ryle, Marie-Eve Marchand, Chris Lasch, Ash Eliza Smith, Kwakiutl L. Dreher, Tasha Hubbard.
In 2022, we received 42 submissions. Out of the 42, half of the teams had a key creative lead who was from a storytelling/documentary background. 15% were from a land-use urban planner/placemaker background and 9.5% from a technical background. 30% of the second key creatives came from a land-use/planning background. 15% were technologists and 40% were storytellers. The third team member usually ranged everywhere from community leaders to technologists, creators and executives, with slightly more range across fields and industries.
2] When designing for virtual workshops across time zones, limit the hours to no more than four hours maximum.
The 2022 cohort and organizers meeting for a final farewell with pets.
Zoom fatigue is real and it can get exhausting. But there are advantages to working across time zones. In what other realities would teams sitting in China be able to exchange ideas with a team from Australia while engaging with a team from Canada? Multiple perspectives offered renewed lenses on the same problems, pushing both the organizers and participants into deeper modalities of operation.
“While our workshop design was focused on developing and researching these incredible, interdisciplinary projects, we also hope that WORLDING sets an example for similar initiatives across global sectors where distances and varied expertise are not limitations but opportunities to learn from one another,” says Srushti Kamat, WORLDING producer and MIT CMS graduate of ‘23.
As a post-pandemic reality ushered in a plethora of hybrid gatherings, WORLDING intentionally chose to be virtual with the key belief that we learn more from one another’s differences than from oversimplifying similarities. To contextualize problem-solving is also to respect that deep, community-based work must happen in real-time. Removing leaders from their environments often hinders the development process more than it helps. Incidentally thematic, WORLDING thus required a type of workshop design that took a serious look at the significance of place, space and action-oriented impact.
3] Featured projects are important because they provide inspiration and add an element of surprise.
A screenshot of the rainforest unfurling in GONDWANA, a multiplayer durational event from Ben Anderson and Emma Roberts.
WORLDING was proud to announce a special engagement of GONDWANA, a one-of-a-kind, multiplayer durational event. For the first time ever, in Gondwana, a rainforest’s life of 100 years will gently unfurl over 7 days online for the WORLDING community. As project producers Ben Anderson and Emma Roberts describe, it is a constantly-evolving virtual ecosystem chronicling the possible futures of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, the Daintree. Powered by climate data, each showing is unrepeatable and speculative, a meditation on time, change, and loss in an irreplaceable landscape.
A special thank you to Jasmine Heyward from MIT Open Documentary Lab for the on-site technical work involved in featuring Gondwana. While virtual design does happen predominantly online, the involvement of game engines and new technologies does bring to light off-line, hardware considerations.
4] The Game Engine provides opportunities for spatial visualization. But story experimentation has to go deeper.
Eleanor (Nell) Whitley, an executive producer at Marshmallow Laser Feast, a UK-based design studio shared her experience of LiDar scanning as a starting point for environmental projects. As she said, “There’s something about starting with a real piece of work where you’re looking at something very understandable. And then we’re taking you inside, going beyond and seeing underneath.”
For local and urgent climate change adaptation, this description of unraveling layers opens up discourse for land-use planners and media-makers to see “through” as opposed to seeing “of.” This seeing “through” is made even more tangible through tools like the game engine, real-time 3D and spatial data.
As Whitley described, “We’ve got what it looks like in the engine, and then the add-on of the layers to the flow of the water cycles on the top left. How might it look under the soil? You’ve got this accurate data from the Lidar scanner in some places, and then you imagine what that looks like. It feels like it’s under the soil.” How do you play with story when there is a three dimensionality to both data and imagination merging in a spatialized context?
5] RT3D can be part of the co-creation process, but doesn’t necessarily have to be the end outcome.
The WILD NATURES team, who were early in ideation for their project shared how the game-engine could be used in the process and not simply the outcome. When thinking about the applications of real-time 3D, the workshop provoked some of the presumptions that game engines must be a part of every exploration’s final output. Since WILD Natures was focused on working with at-risk youth in Northwest England who may not have access to developing final real-time projects, the question of RT3D as a community engagement tool came up far more often.
For projects in early incubation, the organizing team made it a point to include an expert technical perspective. One of the design techniques introduced by Thomas Winkley, Technical Lead at Unity Technologies was to identify the minimal viable product (MVP) “MVP is really a way to scope yourself down to say, what is the least amount of stuff I can accomplish to make this work, and have that engagement work with everybody?” he said. His second step included asking an internal team what three pieces of tech are going to help that project get to that outcome.
The MVP framework offered an individualized road map for each project. In the case of WILD Natures, the team needed to leave room for more analogue outcomes given that the project centered accessibility for at-risk youth. RT3D appeared to be one of the many steps needed but not always the only one to reach a truly co-creative and community-focused outcome.
As WORLDING 2023 continues on, our team is focused on answering the following questions as a means of unraveling an emerging field over a decade of change.
- What affordances do Game Engine technologies provide urban / land-use planners and media-makers to create 3D models in which they can move land use planning into direct action, especially with specific, local and urgent climate change adaptation and mitigation?
- How can mediamakers and urban planners use co-creative iterative design to plan land use for climate change adaptation and mitigation?
- What methodologies facilitate co-creation within communities and across disciplines (in this case media makers and land-use planners) directly in real time within 3D storyworlds created in game-engines? Alt wording: How do co-creative methodologies assist directly in real time within 3D storyworlds created in game-engines?