Initial invitation Building21 McGill: Prototyping Social Forms

Dear Building21 / McGill + Synthesis / ASU Friends of Prototyping Social Forms

I’d like to meet with folks who are interested in prototyping social forms either by bringing a resonating project to be deepened and amplified, or collaborating on one of Synthesis’ on-going streams such as a global connectivity cafe, or movement-based games (playgrounds). 

Sophie Strassmann and Cordelia Dingle are organizing dinners that may draw overlapping circles of people at , 
so may I suggest we organize a common dinner for local folks the week Feb 24-28, 

and afternoon discussions at that week that can include non-local folks via zoom | Skype | zoom. 

Thanks to Sophie for volunteering to help organize the communications and gatherings at McGill — everyone is welcome !

Some dimensions of this will remain academic, but some projects will be opportunities for more public impact.

Nonlocal folks may beam in via my zoom room for video conference .

Here’s an abstract …

Synthesis@ASU: Prototyping Social Forms

The social, economic, and ecological challenges we face are “wicked problems”, resistant to problem-solving approaches.  Divide and conquer approaches to a wicked problem can produce more wicked problems.  The only way to test an approach is to try it “for real”.   Indeed, people with incommensurate values addressing a complex situation like climate change or urban energy practices will reasonably disagree on what is the right thing to do.  And adding facts or data is unlikely to move the conversation.

Synthesis ateliers bring together individuals’ and business’ power to act in the world in a sandbox where impacted people, designers, expert makers, and decision-makers jointly re-imagine and assess social forms.  We build a knowledge enterprise for prototyping at lifescale the lived, whole experience of places, events, or infrastructures.  Combining artistic and engineering techniques for creating augmented experiences, we can prototype homes, streets, parks and playgrounds, together with finance, governance, energy systems to the degree needed to get a sense of what it would be like to actually live with those forms.   Using experiential methodologies the Synthesis ateliers will non-reductively and adaptively assess how people experience technologies, products, services in plausible, live social settings.

Projects range from urban heat infrastructures and steerable weather simulations to movement-based responsive environments, and mating “cafe tables” between Montreal and Phoenix. 

Since we’re all so dispersed, I’ve taken the liberty to invite you

Adrita Khan
Anita Parmar
Brandon Mechtley*
Cordelia Dingle
Damian Arteca
Erik Bordeleau**
Gabriele Carotti-Sha**
Garrett L Johnson*
Matthew Morvan
Rebecca Brosseau
Shomit Barua*
Sha Xin Wei*
Sophie Strassmann
Stanzi Vaubel
Sha Xin Wei*
Todd Ingalls*
Yanjun Lyu*
Yves Abanda

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Sha Xin Wei • Professor + Director School of Arts, Media and Engineering • Synthesis 
Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts + Fulton Schools of Engineering • ASU
Senior Fellow Building21 McGill • Fellow ASU-Santa Fe Center for Biosocial Complex Systems • Learning Alliance
Professor European Graduate School • Associate Editor AI & Society Journal • Founding Director Topological Media Lab

Welcome to Prototyping Social Forms

Executive Summary

Sha Xin Wei | Director Synthesis ASU | Senior Fellow Building21 McGill


ASU’s Global Futures initiative addresses wicked problems at planetary scale. The core wicked problem is that people with incommensurate value frameworks addressing a complex situation like climate change or urban energy habits will reasonably disagree on what is the right thing to do.   Bringing expert know-how from laboratories and experiential arts, together with individuals’ and business’ power to act in the world, we build a sandbox where designers, impacted people, and expert makers jointly vary and assess social forms: an atelier for prototyping social forms.


Exploiting Synthesis’ fusion of art, science, conceptual and experiential methods, the ateliers will prototype and assess how people experience technologies, products, services in plausible, thick social settings.  We will build a knowledge enterprise: ateliers for prototyping at lifescale, the lived, whole experience of social forms, such as places: home, city, street; events: play, meal, learning; or infrastructures: finance, governance, energy.  Scaling our techniques for creating augmented experiences, we will prototype homes, streets, parts of buildings, parks and playgrounds to the degree needed to get a sense of what it would be like to actually live with those forms. 

How does it work

We build a prototyping facility intermediate between the lab bench and the open world.  A client brings a social form to vary. Drawing from a spectrum of low and high tech methods, plus off-the-shelf as well as custom, expressive technologies, our resident expert makers — e.g. artists, engineers — realize alternatives proposed by hosted clients and experimentalists, co-designed with stakeholders from the impacted constituenciesAll participants experience the varied social form, assess the quality of lived experience in the prototype, and suggest variations.  Sponsors and participants share design insights and specific prototyping techniques with the following ingredients:

√ Kit of technologies for building events and environments in which people can prototype, enact, and experience scenarios at lifescale.

√ Techniques for shaping experiences : from non-narrative performance and meal-making, to responsive media and realtime weather / heat models.

√ Expert makers accumulating and embodying know-how across projects, who can train teams or build initial prototypes.

+ Physical space big enough for groups to prototype activity at scale, walking, bicycling…

+ Team of makers, experts, impacted community delegates, backed by Synthesis experts

Benefits include

  • Plausibly lifescale, “in vivo”, rescaled to collective experience in controlled space.  Get usable empirical insights from “in vivo” holistic, field study.
  • Sponsors gain heuristic insights generated in atelier.  In place of delivering tech in exchange for support we produce empirically-refined heuristics, technique, experience studies, design thinking and creativity as common IP.
  • Space for creativity. For large companies that have mastered the productivity curve, creativity is the angle on sovereignty.  Creativity is also the angle for really small companies looking for opportunity and disruption.
  • Develop and retain polymath talent: Companies send their talent to work outside IP walls, carrying their company’s interest but in field setting.  They bring insights back from fieldwork.  Know-how internalized by employees is far more effective knowledge transfer than reports, patents, licensed technology.
  • Student apprentices perform as interns in the atelier (no employee cost to sponsor), synthesizing skills from their studies, learning how to navigate, assess and improve complex social forms condensed from life.  Sponsors do not have to apply narrow competence filters (like a programming test) for entry-level candidates and then retrain for open-world skills like problem aikido.   Instead, working shoulder to shoulder with hosted researchers and interns, corporate externs can identity students with technical skill and supple imagination and growth potential in the atelier’s practicum setting.

What’s Novel?

  • Lifescale prototyping means living in a working version of the social form plausibly enough to get a sense of what it’s like to live under given conditions.  We use computational and poetic methods to scale large systems (like weather) to the human.  We use artistic means to sketch that which we cannot or should not explicitly engineer.
  • Participatory navigation of ecosystems. The open world’s complex geopolitical technocultural dynamics usually exceed available models and data.  So, complementing walls of data and charts, we provide adept makers fused scientific and expressive tools and techniques to create experiences, together with experts who can articulate and assess whole experience, from anthropology, experimental performance, and phenomenology and process.
  • Enaction: We cannot presume the narrative is known in advance, so in place of telling prefabricated stories, our scenario makers create constraints and conditions in the social form, and equip participants to make their own sense of the experience, to assess and articulate variations legibly to expert designers or makers.
  • Atelier studio: we agnostically use whatever tools are apt: low-tech, high tech, off-the-shelf, purpose-built. This enables ad-hoc tinkering with techniques ranging through movement, role-playing, body-scaled architectural mock-ups, mobile apps, augmented / mixed reality, gestural media, realtime simulations, responsive environments.

Project Outline

(See slides.) We envision three modes of work that can run in parallel according to funding.  Each genre of social form has its business model.

Mode 0: 

• Host exemplary projects at Synthesis and partners

(1) Global Connectivity Cafe: Augmenting social dining / refreshment:  variations and animation of furniture, cuisine, habits and etiquettes (interior design, industrial design, mechatronics, computational media systems, comparative anthropology, culinary arts, experimental performance, affect studies…)

(2) Participatory Steering Complex Adaptive Systems: Group articulation of understanding and intent, blending steerable simulations in realtime with whole-body interaction, dense media, poetic and live performative representations: e.g. steerable weather simulations (NCAR), heatscapes (Phoenix, Buffalo, LA), India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam.

(3) Alter-Eco: Alternate Economies & Ecologies: Economic and ecological infrastructures alternative to present-day algorithmic technologies underwriting computational finance.

• Show exemplars to potential sponsors

Intel Research, Alphabet Research, Arup, Starbucks; [China] (Sha)

Entertainment, VR, esports, film, online, [LA], [Korea] [China] (Marinelli)

Interaction design, robotics companies (Faste)

Mode 1: Externally sponsored social forms

Host social form for variation, along with desiderata, proposition, designed with external sponsors and stakeholders

Non-exclusive corporate sponsorships so no sole interest

Impacted community as equal design and assessment partner in in atelier

Revise financial / business model with these sponsored projects.

Mode 2: Scale to more sites according to genre of social form

  • Montreal (McGill University, emerging media and culture industries, Learning Alliance)
  • Dartington: Place Labs (Learning Alliance)
  • Los Angeles | Montreal | Phoenix: Global Cafes + Ambient learning
  • Malta  (Alter-Eco, finance experiment, EGS)


  • Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts
  • Fulton Schools of Engineering
  • ASU Grad College. Build the pathways for graduate students across ASU to find their way to the experiential studies in context of, for example the parts of Mesa City Center spearheaded by Synthesis-hosted prototyping social forms.   Collaborate on seeking external funding for this initiative.
  • McGill’s Building21 Host for open inquiry. As Senior Fellow, Sha will build teams of ambitious students and projects between McGill (all disciplines) and Synthesis @ ASU, instantiating prototyping social forms as a mode of learning.  Theoretical / conceptual work at B21 + Synthesis; Experiential studio at Synthesis@ASU.  Endowment-supported funding from McGill for exchanges, including Synthesis leads.
  • Dartington. Workshop facilities and residences. 8 blackboxes, dance and music studios, with £5,000,000+ (pre-Brexit GBP) worth of renovation and technology, + inexpensive rooms for up to 200 students in short courses and summer workshops designed by Synthesis.  Experimental art, music and ecology, and radical pedagogy.
  • European Graduate School (Saas-Fee, Malta) International convening power.  Synthesis + EGS “Science Colloquia” drawing influencers from technology and finance.Allies

ASU Global Futures Laboratory

ASU Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative