April 15, 2024

From the Futures: experiments in collaborative art & collective wayfinding in a time of ambiguity

From the Futures: experiments in collaborative art & collective wayfinding in a time of ambiguity

A rich media moodboard with video, animate gifs, photos and more — created with Miro

Cursors frantically dart across the screen like a swarm of ants. There is a level of confusion at first as everyone attempts to get their bearings. Over the next 20 minutes, participants will be working together in silence to shape a number of possible futures. It is a symphony of chaos and friction as over 120 people from around the world attempt to map uncharted territory.

Welcome to From the Futures, a bi-weekly series of virtual gatherings with skill-based workshops sprinkled in between sessions. A collaboration between Columbia DSLFake ArtistsMinkowski and Beautiful Seams, the initiative explores prototyping futures in order to make sense of our present. The effort is an ongoing experiment in speculative design, experiential futures, collective sensemaking, storytelling, play and digital placemaking. Structurally speaking, From the Futures is a global sandbox for learning, doing and sharing.

The following are details related to our second virtual gathering on April 9th. Below you’ll find materials from the event along with key takeaways that are intended to assist individuals and organizations that are attempting to move their physical programing, events and/or gatherings online.

Our next From the Futures gathering will take place on Thursday, April 23rd at 1:30 pm ET. The theme for the session is “Food Futures — taste, tech, design & accessibility.” To date over 600 people from more than 40 countries have joined the project. To sign up click here.

An emergent process in an attempt to embrace ambiguity

Finding a Structure

Similar to the in-person meetups that we’ve hosted at Lincoln Center over the years the structure of From the Futures is designed around three foundational pillars — Learn, Do & Share.

From the Future April 9th session structure

The following deck provides an overview of the session that we ran on April 9th. We utilized it both internally and as a front-facing informational source for participants.

Mouse over the image to move through the pages of the deck

The presentation was created with Paste, a simple tool that enables users to collaborate around slides in real-time. Due to limitations with various video conferencing solutions (ie. Zoom breakout rooms) we’ve found it valuable to establish a back-channel of communication in order to assist with quick instructional guidance for participants. Of particular value is the simple rich media embeds and the fact that Paste makes it easy to change/update slides in real-time. Altogether, we use Zoom, Miro, Paste and Slack.

Connect — “What should we carry into our futures?”

The From the Futures session structure includes exercises that are designed to encourage meaningful conversation and connection between participants/collaborators. For the April 9th event we crafted a “Discovery” exercise based upon the first step in an Appreciative Inquiry. The goal of the activity is to surface insights by identifying the “best of what is.” In our case, everyone was asked to consider an object that they felt held some meaning and/or value for the future and why. Through sharing the objects and the stories associated with them the group was then asked to derive a handful of principles for a desired future

Exercise: “What should we carry into our futures?”

Approximate running time: 20 minutes

Materials: Pen and paper, access to a physical object, or if not possible, participants can envision the object and draw it.

Image from “Forming new futures through appreciative inquiry” by Cathy Sharp, Belinda Dewar & Karen Barrie


“You’re going to have 2 minutes to find an object that represents something that you want to see carried into the future. It’s not just about the object itself but also the meaning associated with it.

Once you have your object please return. Keep the object out of view and please don’t show it as we want it to be a surprise.”


Groups of 3 to 5 people were sent into Zoom breakout rooms

Please take turns sharing the objects that you each chose to carry into the future and why you selected them.

Interview each other about the objects and what meaning they hold for the future. Keep in mind the following question — “Why is this important for our future?”

The goal of this exercise is to work as a group and come up with five essential ingredients/principles for the future.


Before your breakout room closes please take a screengrab of everyone holding their objects up to camera.

Make sure that you EACH write down your team’s five ingredients/principles for the future as you’ll need them in the next step of the activity.

Collaborators share the objects they chose to carry into the future. Through conversation, they surface meaning and craft principles that they feel are critical for our collective futures.

Zoom chat from April 9th From the Futures meetup

To the left are examples of some of the principles for the future surfaced during the April 9th gathering. These insights stemmed from stories, memories, and emotions associated with objects in each of the participants’ homes.

“regenerative, versatile, empathic, sustainably iterative, future IQ (combo of the unused parts of brain + social/emotional/creative/etc), humanity, trust, connection, embodiment, instinct, rigorous imagination, radical inclusion, structured curiosity, collective individualism, reflective futures, support, tangibility, openness, and love…”


One thing that we work to bring into virtual events are moments that are playful and performative. These are small actions that participants can do individually and collectively. Here are a few moments from the above exercise to demonstrate.

  • Everyone pulls away from their seats leaving empty frames until they begin to return sporadically
  • Each person is asked to keep their object hidden from view which builds a level of anticipation
  • Everyone is asked to close their eyes and raise their objects into the view of their camera
  • On the count of three everyone opens their eyes and together they discover a mosaic of objects

These at first might seem like superfluous details (especially since meeting software has mostly up until now been seen through the lens of utility and productivity) but they set the tone for, and dictate the possibilities for what can be created within that space. After all, a digital environment is still a built environment.

Experiential Futures

When the “Connect” exercise was finished the session moved to a talk by Dr. Stuart Candy, an Associate Professor at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. The talk was designed to setup the exercise that would follow as well as foreshadow things that we will explore over the course of the From the Futures project.

Stuart presented a lecture on Experiential Futures and the theory behind the “Three Dimensions of Foresight.”

Dr. Stuart Candy is an educator, artist and designer whose practice amplifies social foresight using media, games and live interventions. He develops approaches and tools to make design more foresightful and foresight more designerly, and brings them to learners, leaders, and audiences around the world.

View Stuart’s presentation slides here.

View Situation Lab’s work — a collaboration by Stuart and Jeff Watson

Co-create — Moodboards for the Future

Sped up view of April 9th “From the Futures” meetup consisting of object gathering and collaborative work around moodboards for the future

The nature of our events is purposefully experimental; that experimentation spills across methodologies, activities, technologies as well as how we design and facilitate the events themselves. We believe that From the Futures as a whole is an emergent piece of art powered by experience design and anchored within learning, doing and sharing together. In other words to quote Marshall Mcluhan the “medium is the message.”

One of the challenges of online collaboration is finding solutions that move at the speed of thought. Miro is a tool that Columbia DSL uses for projects and within our Digital Storytelling classes at the University. The platform is a real-time collaborative canvas/board that enables large numbers of participants to brainstorm and co-create. If you are from an academic institution you can apply for a free license that includes unlimited collaborators, boards and projects. Miro also has a free version that includes three boards and unlimited team members.

Exercise: “Moodboards for the Future”

Approximate running time: 25 to 35 minutes

Tech considerations: Access to a web browser and internet connection


Groups of 5 to 6 people are sent to breakout rooms

This breakout session is focused on co-creating moodboards for the future based on the principles each team derived earlier.

Each breakout room has been assigned a Miro collaboration board to work within.

Together you’re going shape your futures’ moodboard silently — meaning that you should not talk.

Please make sure to leave your mic live as the ambient sound connects you to the other members of your group — in other words, do not mute.

A rich media moodboard with video, animate gifs, photos and more — created with Miro

Moodboards from collaborators co-created during the April 9th “From the Futures” meetup


Sit silently and look at the moodboard that your team has created.

Consider the ingredients/principles for the future that you used to inspire the moodboard.

Come up with a title for the moodboard. Give your moodboard a title that captures the feelings evoked by the board composition


Doing the activity in silence forces you to let your intuition, your emotions speak through your hands (it avoids endless debate and premature negotiation/editing).

Futures are just as much about emotion as they are about cognition (if a future doesn’t trigger an emotional reaction, it will never be realized).

Research has shown that silent brainstorming (writing down design questions for yourself first) is more effective than doing it out loud together as the diversity increases. It also gives a chance for more introverted voices to be heard. You can think for hours on a good question, but timeboxing it helps to get to directionally sound results faster.

Iteration — Moving at the Speed of Thought

At Columbia DSL we bring what we discover through our massive collaborative experiments directly into the classroom. We are constantly testing and breaking in an effort to improve the way we teach. Bringing emergent technology into online experiences is challenging unto itself. There is no one solution or a magic bullet. Platforms force you to work within their constraints and often an engaging online experience requires one to weave more than a single solution together. It is a constant tension between creative execution and the logistical realities of working with a platform/platforms. On top of that many of the gaps that could derail you can not be discovered until you are actually running the experience. Taking that into consideration we have discovered the following after a lot of trial and error.

  • Give participants an opportunity to play with the technology not just prior to your program/event/gathering but also build time into your experience. Giving time for participants to experiment is critical. Having them do it together in a fun and playful way can also lift some of the support burden off of you and your team.
  • Embrace the chaos — let your participants know when you’re attempting to experiment with something. Tell them that it could break and make sure to make contingency plans.
  • Fill the voids: when anticipating a lag in action during the course of a transition from one platform to another, insert something to fill the air (whether audible instructions, a simple task and/or music) in order to break the discomfort of the inaudible shuffling of each participant.
  • Let the people and companies behind the platforms that you’re experimenting with know what you are doing and/or attempting to do. During this unique moment in history, there is an opportunity to shift the way that solutions for connecting, learning and working are built. In other words, the use cases for the technology are moving beyond their initial intention.

From the Sandbox to the Classroom

Directly after facilitating the April 9th meetup, I zoomed into Dr. Stuart Candy’s Experiential Futures class at Carnegie Mellon University.

Teams at CMU use Miro’s collaborative platform to create moodboards around four Futures Scenarios

As the class worked silently together their moodboards began to emerge. Through a blur of activity, images appeared as cursors danced across the screen negotiating their placement within the boards. The exercise provided a needed pause for the class — one away from previous sessions where discussion and debate had helped to formulate their initial ideas. The silence and flow established by the creative nature of the exercise presented a unique opportunity for the students to tap into their intuition and feelings as they started to sculpt a shared vision of their potential future scenarios.

Feedback from a student at Carnegie Mellon University

As the students present their moodboards they come to life. Each team digs deeply into the reasoning and feeling behind the future scenarios that they soon will turn into immersive experiences — what the class refers to as time machines.

After I’ve said goodbye and signed off I find myself wondering how the future will reflect back on this COVID19 moment we find ourselves in. Will we shift our course? What will we learn and do as a result of this unique pause in time?

Collaborators Wanted

From the Futures is looking for collaborators in the following areas…

  • Research
  • Documentation
  • Creative Technologists

If you’re interested in joining the project please contact us.

About Columbia DSL

Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab (aka Columbia DSL) designs stories for the 21st Century. We build on a diverse range of creative and research practices originating in fields from the arts, humanities, and technology. But we never lose sight of the power of a good story. Technology, as a creative partner, has always shaped the ways in which stories are found and told. In the 21st Century, for example, the mass democratization of creative tools — code, data, and algorithms — have changed the relationship between creator and audience. Columbia DSL, therefore, is a place of speculation, of creativity, and of collaboration between students and faculty from across the University. New stories are told here in new and unexpected ways.

Join Columbia faculty and industry innovators as we explore the current and future landscape of digital storytelling.

Want to collaborate with the lab?

Join Columbia DSL’s global prototyping network

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