Future Voices: Imagining the Future of Vacant Spaces


Urban Projection as a Design Futuring Tool 

An interactive experience designed to activate unused and underutilized spaces around Pittsburgh by crowdsourcing community visions for the future and projecting them into vacant spaces.


  • Collaborative Project with Monique Smith, Meric Dagli and Leah Jiang
  • Interaction Design Studio, Fall 2016 (Instructor: Austin Lee)
  • My Role: Design Research, Concept Development, Event Design + Management, Envisioning Future Work
  • Credit: Visual Identity + Sketching by Leah Jiang; Technology Design by Meric Dagli with support from Ali Momeni

Project Update

Based off the overwhelming response to our first Future Voices experiment, particularly that of our youngest participants, we have partnered with the Bible Center Church's Maker's Clubhouse STEM program to co-develop and pilot an open-source digital toolkit. This toolkit will include a design futuring curriculum, tools to facilitate its execution and a community engagement guide to help educators identify resources and engage their students in experiential, community-driven design futuring projects.

The Urban Projection Experience

After extensive research exploring how technology might create impact in Pittsburgh, my team and I became interested in urban projection as a whimsical way to invite community involvement into the process of imagining futures for unused and underutilized spaces around the city. To test this idea, we hosted an interactive experiment during the First Fridays festival, a monthly event that brings art, music and foot traffic to vacant spaces around Garfield, a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. With a van's worth of equipment, we took over a vacant lot and invited the public to share their visions for the future of this rapidly changing neighborhood. The response was overwhelming and pushed us to consider how we might scale down the technology involved to make design futuring through projection more accessible to a wider audience, particularly to children.


Designing the Interaction

The Future Fridays experiment was a complex orchestration of people and technology. In addition to considering the event's technological interactions - between computers, webcams and projectors - we structured the physical space to facilitate rich, human interaction. The public was invited off the street by the animated projection, the enticing prompt, "Draw your vision for the future of the space," and our team members positioned at the street. Participants gathered to wait in line and interacted with passerbys. Dynamic and lively conversation filled the space, further activating this vacant lot with people, ideas and an optimistic energy.


The Technology

We were fortunate to have the guidance of urban projection expert Ali Momeni in designing our Future Fridays set-up. The technology involved included a computer running Millumin software that was connected to a lightbox and webcam where video footage of participants' imagined futures were captured. Footage from the webcam was fed into Millumin, where it was inverted and projected onto the building as looping video. 


The Impact

Projection proved to be a powerful way to engage the public, and participants were delighted to see their drawings brought to life. We did, however, identify a few significant limitations of the experience. While some people stuck to the prompt, many of the responses we got were more playful self-expressions than specific visions for the future. While this may have been a problem with our framing of the content, it also highlighted the learned nature of design futuring and the need to teach it.


We were excited to see that children were some of the best at imagining the future in this way. This pushed us towards the second phase of our project - a Future Voices Toolkit, which we will be co-developing and piloting with a partner organization over the next semester.


The Future Voices Toolkit

The next phase of this project will be the development of an open-source, digital toolkit to support educators in conducting hands-on design thinking workshops. The curriculum will be unique in its emphasis on design futuring as a tool to encourage grassroots activism. In addition, rather than hypothetical design prompts, Future Voices will take on relevant issues and familiar spaces within the community as material for applied design projects.

Experiential Curriculum

Though it began as an exploration of design futuring through projection, we've envisioned Future Voices as a more comprehensive curriculum that will reflect the research, ideation and evaluation phases of the design process. The first module, Discover, will teach students to capture stories from their communities, document existing realities and unearth opportunities for change. Future will help them transform those opportunities into imagined futures and bring them to life in physical space. Finally, Reflect will ask students to consider the impact of those futures. Each module will be associated with the construction of a tool to encourage tinkering and support the module's primary, community-based design project.

Because of our extensive work in the area of design futuring through projection, we will begin our curricular pilot with the Future module, followed by the development and pilot of the Discover and Reflect modules. Future will take on the issue of vacancy and ask students to imagine the future of their community through drawing, writing and storytelling.


Accessible Technology

We've experimented extensively with making projector technology more accessible for inclusion in the Future module of our curriculum. In reality, the technology that makes a projector work is incredibly simple - a glorified flashlight and magnifying glass. We've built functional projectors from materials like flashlights, camera lenses, aluminum cans and office supplies using open-source instructions and downloadable files. We will aggregate these into a Tools + Templates section of the Future Voices Toolkit to support the construction component of our curriculum.

The Maker's Clubhouse Pilot

We're particularly excited about our partnership with the Maker's Clubhouse STEM program, and our pilot of the Future module, because its content is especially relevant to the students we will be working with. We will ask students to imagine the future of the vacant building that has been purchased as the future home of their afterschool program (right). The church's administration is thrilled by the potential of this workshop to generate ideas for renovation. Further, the site's familiarity and relevance to the students will, we hope, encourage investment and ownership over the space and its future.

Engaging the Community

We'll wrap up our pilot of the Future module with an urban projection event showcasing the student's work and inviting community participation through interactive projection. We hope this will activate the building with crowdsourced ideas and elevate the site as a place of significance for the community. We'll include learnings from this event, as well as other helpful resources in our toolkit to support community engagement around issues and spaces central to the Future Voices curriculum.


Design Process

Our process was not exactly linear, but throughout our twists and turns we remained rooted in learning and insight from research. We began with a broad project brief, to explore how technology might create an impact in the city of Pittsburgh, but quickly narrowed our focus. After a round of exploratory research, we defined a design question, synthesized learning and crafted principles to guide our ideation. We developed initial concepts, took them into the field for evaluation and iterated upon our ideas to arrive at our final concept, which we prototyped during our Future Fridays event. 

Future Voices_Process.001.jpeg

Exploratory Research

We immersed ourselves within Pittsburgh's diverse communities to identify challenges and opportunities for technological intervention. We interviewed designers, community activists and local residents. We attended community events and spent a day wandering through the neighborhoods of Wilkinsburg and Homewood, both struggling with vacancy and contending with rapid development. 



Our exploratory research highlighted vacancy, the struggles of local business and supporting grassroots development as opportunity areas that we might address.  After a lengthy research debrief and synthesis session, we settled on vacancy as the most inspiring challenge and began brainstorming how we might employ technology to create impact in this area. We crafted a design question and developed principles to guide our ideation and concept development.

"How might we use technology to activate unused and underutilized spaces,"

Gather - Bring people together to support local business, exchange ideas and challenge conceptions about safety and community.

Inspire - Visualize possibility, make abstract futures concrete and inspire people to build stronger, more vibrant communities.

Empower - Give local residents the tools and knowledge they need to take control over their spaces before investors and real estate developers do.


Developing Concepts

With our design principles to guide us, we developed sacrificial concepts. These served as stimuli for evaluative research, each reflecting an extreme design solution to test the limits of our ideas and stimulate conversation with experts and potential users. 

Light Your Own Way

Light your own way is a series of concepts that explores how light might activate unused space. The first iteration (left) is a concept for a motion-sensing light installation that would both draw attention to underutilized spaces as well as make them feel safer and more welcoming. The second iteration (right) takes this concept one step further exploring interactive light boxes with embedded projectors. In addition to providing light and seating, another significant issue with vacant spaces around the city, this concept explores activing unused spaces with community ideas to encourage ownership and empower residents to make their voices heard.


Crowdsourcing the Future

To push the idea of crowdsourcing community input about the future, we developed a series of concepts for both physical and digital interventions. The first (left) is for a physical installation that invites the community to build their visions for the future of a space. The constructed structures would attract attention and provide seating, while a mapping component would legitimize these efforts into a digital archive. The second crowdsourcing concept (right), which was the impetus for our exploration of urban projection, is for a digital kiosk that would collect community responses to a prompt and project them into physical space. This iteration touched on many of the ideas represented in our earlier concepts including the introduction of light and the activation of space with community input. 


Evaluation + Refinement

We took these concepts to community experts to get feedback on what they thought would work, what wouldn't and where they saw interesting opportunities for further exploration. The participants we spoke to were excited about the use of light and projection to activate unused spaces and responded well to our concepts that involved crowdsourcing community input. It was at this point that we concretized our desire to explore urban projection as a collective design futuring tool and began planning our prototype at the Future Fridays event.

Next Steps

We have begun working with our partner to develop the first of the Future Voices modules. We plan to pilot the Future module in early spring, 2017, afterwhich we will begin developing the remaining modules. We hoped to have the Future Voices Toolkit up and running as an open-source resource for educators by May 2017.