Is World Building the ultimate constructionist toolkit?

Recently I had the pleasure of a couple of Zoom meetings with Alex McDowell.  He is an academic, a film production designer and a world builder. Together with a small group from Hyper Island we met him after an introduction from Jakob Widerberg, one of my closest collaborators; Jakob until recently had worked for a large car company who had hired Alex to world build for them.

I was blown away by the similarities in our constructionist approach to teaching, problem solving and making and Alex’s ways of bringing future or alternative worlds to life.

Alex is probably best known for his production design for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). He lead the design of the world in which the film is set, building on themes and ideas from Philip K Dick’s original book. This is much more than just adapting the book and listening to Alex describe the process of designing a world first and then allowing the stories to emerge was inspiring.

I think I’ve always been a world builder (although I have never called myself one).  My first published software was a adventure game generator (written in Prolog), I helped design immersive whole city Wide Games for kids (while running summer camps for Colony Holidays) and my approach to teaching is to design open ended problems (such as a recent data driven murder mystery) in which learners need to construct solutions.

I have also taught systems thinking, causal loop modelling and used scenario planning in our Master’s courses using the well tested approaches developed by Peter Schwartz when he was at Shell.  There are many similarities between scenario planning and world building although they come from very different roots: scenarios from management and business strategy and world building from science fiction, games and story telling.  It is this juxtaposition of two apparently completely different disciplines that makes this such an exciting space to have rediscovered.

These approaches to learning all fit under the Constructionist Paradigm in which learners make – prototype, construct, program, design, model – artefacts to imagine solutions to complex problems and use reflective practice to connect what they have made to the underlying ideas and lessons they are learning.  I came away from our meetings with Alex convinced that his approach to World Building pushes my thinking further into storytelling, visualisation, gaming and film making.

Alex has developed a course and a set of tools to help others learn world building. Among these is the Mandala which graphically demonstrates the complexity of any world illustrating the systems and perspectives that can be drawn together by a team.  It is beautifully simple and fiendishly complex at the same time.

Over the next few posts I will try and set out to explore the world of world building in more detail.  I’m inspired to bring more of these ideas to my students and to my work for clients.  I hope that Alex realises what an inspiration he has already been and that he will accompany us on our journeys to make the future.

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