Worldbuilding Forever: Bold Ideas for Our Collective Futures
Ryan Madson on the critical tools, methods, and inspiration to build future worlds.
Worldbuilding as a visionary, collaborative practice has come of age. From planetary designs to pop culture, architect Hashim Sarkis, filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki, and the Black Panther universe provide critical tools, methods, and inspiration to build future worlds.
“Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.”—Ruha Benjamin
© MIT Press
Among the most ambitious design books published in 2020 was The World as an Architectural Project by Hashim Sarkis and Roi Salgueiro Barrio, with Gabriel Kozlowski. The book is a compendium of fifty case studies in which “architects have imagined the future of the planet through world-scale projects.” Sarkis’ central thesis can be summarized as a call for architects and designers to reclaim the largest scales of human endeavor and environmental conditions—geographical, infrastructural, the biosphere, the global commons—to create new visions and proposals for the future of the planet.
“Today we need to address a planet that has been intensely shaped by the spatial logics of modernity and that continues to be produced through systems of geospatial control,” assert the authors in the introduction. Canonical projects such as Disurbanism by Mikhail Okhitovich and Moisei Ginzburg (1929-1930), Marine Cities by Kiyonori Kikutake (1958-1975), and Planetary Architecture by Zaha Hadid (1977-1983) demonstrate the promise of a paradigm shift away from the influence of corporations and overexertion of technocrats, towards a world where design at extra-large scales is benevolent, multifunctional, and adaptive.
Recent case studies in the book, such as City of 7 Billion (2015-2019) by Plan B and Geostories (2018) by Design Earth, attempt to address “the spatial, technological, and social processes that are shaping the planet, in order to define types and scales of architectural intervention” that challenge globalization and create counterpoints to a prevailing modernity driven by economic growth and resource extraction.
City of 7 Billion, A300 N-S+Elevation, 2015-2019. Plan B
City of 7 Billion, Enlarged Drawings, 2015-2019. Plan B
The World as an Architectural Project is reflexive and historical rather than megalomaniacal, as might be surmised from the title. Inherent to the imagination behind Sarkis’ editorial intent and selected case studies is the act of worldmaking, or what we will refer to here as worldbuilding—the process of designing and describing fictional, future, or alternate worlds, societies, and cities.
The book emphasizes globally-networked scales of design, featuring projects conceived primarily by architects. This essay explores an expanded scope for speculative worldbuilding, inspired by a reading of Hashim Sarkis and his collaborators’ research project, while acknowledging that architecture and design can offer only partial solutions to global issues and societal problems.
© Harvard Press
My first exposure to worldbuilding as an intentional methodology was at Harvard University, as a graduate student enrolled in one of Sarkis’ New Geographies seminars. The influential New Geographies journal emerged out of the work of doctoral students in these early seminars, which had a buzzy reputation for experimentation and big ideas. Sarkis invited students to research influential precedents of city-worlds as well as geo-design, planetary-scale proposals, and hard sci-fi worlds. My team reported on The Continuous Monument and Fundamental Acts by Superstudio. The ensuing discussions were fascinating and frequently absurd: “What are the materially-constructed qualities of The Continuous Monument?” and “What happens where it meets the ground?” We were left with more questions than answers. So many speculative projects, it seemed, existed to inspire or provoke rather than to resolve anything in particular.
The final group project for Sarkis’ seminar was effectively an exercise in collaborative worldbuilding. We were tasked with imagining a city-world not bounded by political borders and guided by an organizing theme for a future scenario. Several groups imagined dystopian cityscapes ravaged by global warming, another envisioned an ecotopia where natural systems, biodiversity, and people coexist in the post-humanist city. My group, consisting of students in architecture, urban planning, and related design studies, addressed the consequences of extreme socio-economic stratification. We imagined parallel cities of prosperity and leisure, a late-capitalist New Babylon, accessible only through paid subscription. Not wanting to dwell on the darker side of our dystopian city-world, we quietly de-emphasized the spaces where the ninety percent live.
New Babylon, 1958. Constant Nieuwenhuys
As a proposal it was somewhat flimsy and implausible, easy to poke holes in—but fun to critique and discuss. In the final analysis, our city-world’s naïve class consciousness and overreliance on social engineering were indefensible. Nevertheless, each participant in the group project had been able to generate stories and representations for the city-world using our collaborative scenario. Process, not product, was the important thing. The essential lesson was in harnessing collective invention to shape a vision—even a failed one.
Revisiting the materials in The World as an Architectural Project led me to reflect on the relevance of worldbuilding today. Missing from the publication, however, are precedents created outside the design disciplines (with exception of a small number of projects by artists such as Constant and Yves Klein). From an academic standpoint, and given the formidable university press that published the book, this is understandable. The book’s stated focus on “designed worlds, not just represented ones” brings architecture to the fore. Yet, as a participant in the seminar, I had appreciated the inclusivity and lateral-minded approach that Sarkis encouraged, along with varied examples and inspiration mined from architecture and urban design but also from cinema, fiction, gaming, and fine arts.
Perhaps the most salient criticism of The World as an Architectural Project lies in its unstated assumption that architecture can somehow address or resolve issues that are primarily, or exclusively, political. As one reviewer for Art in America wrote, “Architects certainly should not be forbidden to dream,” but after contemplating six-hundred pages of “unrealized and unrealizable projects that attempt to solve world-scale problems” we might conclude that architecture is “simply not the right medium for resolving such huge issues.” Certainly design has much to say, but so do scientific inquiry, the arts and humanities, political science and public policy, and various forms of activism—along with myriad other voices and disciplinary approaches.
Enter worldbuilding, which encompasses an interdisciplinary toolkit of methods ranging from storytelling to design fictions, from extrapolations of social and political theory to imagining future scenarios for testing policies, products, and tech. Many of today’s most pressing problems require rigorous contextual frameworks and visionary solutions, which worldbuilding methods are uniquely suited to provide.
Still from Minority Report, 2002. Steven Spielberg
A collaborative worldbuilding process could be likened to “an enormous story-generating machine,” useful for developing popular media such as video games or cinematic universes. When deployed by corporations, worldbuilding is alternately referred to as “sci-fi prototyping” or “futurecasting,” as distinct from the quasi-scientific practice of future studies or futurology. A recent article by Brian Merchant about the “sci-fi industrial complex” describes how brands such as Boeing and Nike use worldbuilding methods to speculate about futures, trends, and advances in technology, but with a fictive element that distinguishes from conventional modes of forecasting.
“For a fee, they’ll prototype a possible future for a client, replete with characters who live in it, at as deep a level as a company can afford,” says Merchant. “They aim to do what science fiction has always done—build rich speculative worlds.[…] The goal of these companies is generally the same: help clients create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit.”
Worldbuilding as a coherent methodology in cinema was first applied with the 2002 feature Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. Alex McDowell, the film’s production designer, was tasked with creating a future world—a North American city in the year 2054—before the production team had arrived at a finished script. Spielberg wanted a “future reality” rather than a conventional sci-fi synopsis.
Minority Report poster, 2020. Steven Spielberg
A think-tank was convened by the Global Business Network to analyze cultural and technological trends and imagine a set of future technologies. Environmental guru Stewart Brand, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, novelist Douglas Coupland, and architect William Mitchell, among others, contributed to the “2054 bible,” which imagined autonomous cars, facial and optical recognition, gesture-based computing, portable 3D screens, personalized advertising, and nano-drones, all of which were featured in Minority Report and famously anticipated our present-day technologies. The visual world of Minority Report became a sort of proof-of-concept, a reference point for a generation of designers and computer engineers who were inspired to realize the film’s speculative technologies.
Spielberg and McDowell’s methodical approach to worldbuilding was prescient, and made McDowell a sought-after consultant. The Minority Report approach, however, clearly fetishizes invention. Novel new tech—gadgets, computing, transportation—nominally in support of narrative, is the primary outcome. A related techno-futurism with sexy appeal that excites even as dystopia lurks between the lines is broadcast to English-speaking audiences by Wired magazine, representative of Silicon Valley cybercultures. Until 2020, a popular, long-running Wired blog featured sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling as design fiction guru, inspiring a generation of armchair worldbuilders.
Beyond the realms of tech and corporate futurecasting, worldbuilding opens seemingly infinite possibilities and outcomes for speculative thinking. For example, imagining the future of work in a steady-state economy with greatly diminished demand for consumer goods, or a near-future society freed from our AI overlords where human relationships to technology are healthier and life-affirming while maintaining convenience and mobility, or a more ecologically-balanced post-anthropocene world where non-human persons emerge as important subjects alongside homo sapiens. Worldbuilding challenges us to imagine and invent beyond our present limitations and realities.
Two Speculative Worlds: The Valley of the Wind and Wakanda
Toxic Jungle. Still from the Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984. Hiyao Miyazaki © Studio Ghibli
Across popular media we can identify numerous counterexamples to the Minority Report approach, each with varying degrees of intentionality in applying worldbuilding methods. In Japan, regarded globally for its animation, manga, and video game exports, the concept of sekaikan—世界観, roughly translating as “world-view” or “world-setting”—refers to the perception of a detailed, knowable world that exists beyond the edge of the frame. The sekaikan seems faceted, many-layered, and expansive, although it may or may not be based on our reality.
Anthropologist Ian Condry summarizes a comprehensive approach to narrative in Japan: “More central than the story itself in organizing the collaborative production of anime is a different set of concerns, specifically, the design of characters, the establishment of dramatic premises that link the characters, and the properties that define the world in which the characters interact. This combination of characters (kyarakutaa), premises (settei), and world-settings (sekaikan) generally came prior to the writing of the story.” Sekaikan is an essential characteristic of Japanese popular entertainment and helps to explain the immersive, highly detailed worlds which are associated with iconic works such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and The Legend of Zelda.
Awakening map from The Legend of Zelda, 1986 © Nintendo
Hiyao Miyazaki, a Japanese filmmaker and manga artist, is noted for his imaginative and fully realized story worlds. Miyazaki does not explicitly describe his methods, yet the approach described by Condry is implied throughout his production notes and published interviews. Miyazaki’s films with Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) are considered contemporary classics. They convey a complex, nuanced morality and comfort with ambiguity, both unusual for popular animation. Several films produced by Studio Ghibli embody deeply environmentalist views verging on animism. The film that led to the creation of Studio Ghibli, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), established several of the themes that Miyazaki would return to throughout his career—humankind living in harmony with the environment, imperfection in goodness and redemption in evil, the joys of human flight, and pacifism or non-violent solutions to political problems. Nausicaä also explored non-normative gender roles and featured a complex female protagonist, hallmarks of many Studio Ghibli films.
Nausicaä is set in a post-apocalyptic, far-future world in which the four spheres have been irrevocably altered by human activities. A feudal social structure has devolved where people survive on fragments of habitable land and recycled technologies (the film established a sub-genre called dieselpunk with its gothicizing, retro-machinic aesthetic). The Valley of the Wind, Princess Nausicaä’s wind-powered home country, lies between an acidified sea and a vast Toxic Jungle, formed after a cataclysmic war known as the Seven Days of Fire. Nausicaä’s actions are focused on seeking the ways and means for fractured humanity to live in harmony with each other and the Toxic Jungle and its creatures.
A map from manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hiyao Miyazaki © Studio Ghibli
Miyazaki may have only partly hit the mark with his post-apocalyptic prognosis—a poisoned, war-ravaged planet that reflected Cold War anxieties and proceeded from Rachel Carson’s paradigm-shifting critique of environmental pollution in her book Silent Spring. But his core message of environmentalism—with human societies living in symbiosis with non-human species (even giant mutant insects and killer plants!) rather than continuing to exploit and subdue nature—remains relevant, as civilization in the twenty-first century stares beyond the tipping point of global warming into cascading ecological disasters.
The Minamata Bay mercury contamination disaster in the 1950s also inspired the polluted world of Nausicaä. Miyazaki, in his environmental essay “On the Banks of the Sea of Decay,” explains that human attempts to shape and control the environment are doomed to failure. He writes that all ecosystems, even polluted ones, will eventually become “more complex than we can imagine,” such that Nausicaä’s Toxic Jungle presents an ongoing, lethal threat to humans while simultaneously harboring internal mechanisms for its own regeneration—an underground realm of purifying soil and water. Unbeknownst to human interlopers, the giant insects of the forest endeavor to protect the source of its renewal.
Miyazaki continues: “The idea that nature is always gentle and will give birth to something like the Toxic Jungle in order to restore an environment polluted by humans is a total lie. I believe that the idea that we should cling to such a saccharine worldview is a big problem.[…] The question then becomes, what is hope? And the conclusion I’d have to venture is that hope involves struggling along with people who are important to you. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I think this is what it means to be alive.”
In the Nausicaä manga (1982-1994), which expands the narrative beyond the timeframe of the film, Miyazaki’s worldbuilding is more detailed, the socio-political intrigues of the warring kingdoms—the Tolmekians and Pejites—more plausible in their motivations. Nausicaä’s exploration of the Toxic Jungle is shown across numerous episodes, compared with only two sequences in the film. The manga communicates natural history and deep time more convincingly. Landscapes, human settlements, and aeronautical retro-tech are rendered in vivid detail across 1,100 pages of manga, a truly immersive sekaikan.
Nausicaa’s secret laboratory. Still from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984. Hiyao Miyazaki © Studio Ghibli
The Valley of the Winds is depicted as a resilient community avant la letter. Its inhabitants practice permaculture, they sparingly extract water from the deep, clean springs beneath the Toxic Jungle, and they harness the wind for mechanical purposes. Other kingdoms battle for power and treat the Toxic Jungle as an enemy that must be vanquished. Their kings and queens are autocrats who resort to violence to protect their own self interests and increase their territories, based on a narrow view of what the future may hold. They risk destroying the earth with their selfish insularity and short-sightedness, what we might refer to today as extreme nationalism and the politics of isolationism.
Nausicaä, however, has studied the Toxic Jungle and understands its restorative potential. She brings various species of toxic flora to a secret lab in the Valley of the Winds and discovers that she can grow non-toxic versions of the same plant species. She realizes that the world’s supply of groundwater has been filtered through the subsoils of the Toxic Jungle, becoming clean and potable in the process. The only hope for humanity’s survival is peaceful coexistence, working in partnership to protect the Toxic Jungle so that it might slowly detoxify and continue to purify the groundwater.
Does Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind offer insights to solving climate change, or are its lessons merely cautionary? The United Nations’ Secretary-General was recently quoted in the press with an epochal warning: “Humanity is waging war on nature. Nature always strikes back—and is already doing so with force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Human activities are the root of our descent toward chaos. But that means human action can help to solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the twenty-first century.” Miyazaki speaks to his audience less directly yet with similar urgency, showing, by way of imaginative worldbuilding and Princess Nausicaä’s moral determination, how we can dare to hope for our long-term survival by working together and protecting the environment.
Another powerful example of narrative worldbuilding, and one that has involved multiple collaborators and authors over more than fifty years, is the world of Wakanda and the Black Panther. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics, the Black Panther character first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966. Black Panther, notably, was the first black superhero in mainstream comic books.
Birnin Zana, the Golden City. Still from Black Panther, 2018
The Black Panther stories have had a long and complex evolution following their 1960s origins in response to the dearth of Black characters and Black-centered narratives in American comics. Starting with a run of books in the 1970s, numerous Black creators including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reginald Hudlin, Nnedi Okorafor, Christopher Priest, and Brian Stelfreeze have contributed to the stories and art of Wakanda. The 2018 film Black Panther was led by a team of Black filmmakers—writer-director Ryan Coogler, production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth Carter, and a cast of predominantly Black actors.
It inspired a raft of articles discussing everything from Black identity and Afrofuturism in the film to the representation of Birnin Zana, the Golden City of Wakanda, with its vibrant streetscapes, futuristic mag-lev transit system, and intriguing hybrid architectures. Black Panther’s social milieux and high technologies appear to be more rigorously conceived than the typical superhero fare. As a lesson in worldbuilding, Wakanda is perhaps most significant as an exemplar of Afrofuturism: it establishes a convincing yet radical (political) vision for a Black-centered society.
Wakandan worldbuilding, however, relies on a leap of faith into technofantasy. Vibranium, a fictitious, superpowered metal that stores energy and enables many of Wakanda’s advanced technologies including Black Panther’s responsive costume, is also the source of Wakanda’s wealth. Vibranium can be read as a metaphor for the precious metals and rare earth minerals found in Sub-Saharan Africa, which global supply chains require for the manufacture of specialized electronic parts and expensive jewelry. Corporations and political elites typically control these resources, which are obtained by exploiting human labor and destroying the environment. Wages from most mining companies are low, work conditions are often atrocious, and communities, which see few long-term economic development benefits, suffer at the expense of short-term profit.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, is endowed with natural wealth worth trillions of dollars. Deposits of precious resources such as cobalt, diamonds, gold, and tantalum generate wealth which flows upward to the Congolese elite, and especially to the international mining companies, while the population suffers from crippling poverty, violence, and social unrest. This systematic theft of Africa’s wealth—the tragic, horrific legacy of exploitation colonialism—is given a dramatic and optimistic reversal in Wakanda. Vibranium, rather than being kept for private gain, is managed as a state resource to create employment, drive industry, and maintain national wealth and prosperity. A thriving Wakanda thus promotes equal opportunity for all Wakandans and enables Black people to reach their full potential.
In everyday usage, the Afrofuturist label often evacuates social consciousness and political commentary in exaltation of any and all Black-centric art, literature, and music that exhibits futuristic imagery or sci-fi/fantasy tropes. Yet Afrofuturism inherently criticizes colonialism and oppression through the positive formulation of its opposites—decolonization, political sovereignty, cultural self-determination, and Black-centric modes of living and being. Afrofuturism also exceeds the limitations of the white imagination, which consciously or subconsciously reproduces existing power dynamics while privileging white subjects.
The world of Wakanda presents a vision of an African nation and people who have never been colonized or enslaved, who are economically independent, and who have built a more-or-less just society with a full complement of basic services including world-class health care, education, digital connectivity, and public transportation. Wakandans enjoy a blend of tradition and high-technology in their everyday lives which seem fantastical at first glance, but actually represents various parallel threads of culture and progress. Indeed, within the Marvel universe, Wakanda could be considered the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, Birnin Zana the most equitable and livable of capital cities.
Among the on-trend opinion pieces that accompanied the theatrical release of Black Panther is a thoughtful viewing guide by the Wakanda Dream Lab collective, with particular relevance for speculative worldbuilding. The authors observe that Western cinema, in its depiction of blackness, tends toward thematic representations of oppression and struggle. Black cinema in the West, they write, is “about black people escaping slavery, escaping poverty, shifting narratives, defying stereotypes.”
Yet Black Panther, a Hollywood film based on an American comic book about a fictional African nation—and not without controversies around cultural appropriation via its Western gaze—provides a counterpoint to conventional narratives of blackness. The Wakandan technologies and sci-fi cityscapes, the Afrofuturist couture, the social diversity and subcultures, all emerge from a first principle: that of a comprehensive vision for a Black Utopia. “The world of the Black Panther is so intriguing because it invites us to imagine a normal where Black People have NEVER BEEN OPPRESSED,” write the Wakanda Dream Lab. “It shows that.[…] we would be shining beacons of technology and brilliance.”
Wakanda is an example of iterative, narrative-based worldbuilding created by multiple contributors in dialogue over time, beginning with comic books and reaching pop culture apotheosis with its big screen treatment. Black Panther has generated enduring cultural currency and continues to inspire audiences with its liberating vision of a utopian near-future.
A Plurality of Worlds: Notes on Collaboration
Neck of the Moon, Geo Stories, 2014-2020. Design Earth
Worldbuilding is perhaps most profoundly instrumental as a tool to create collective visions, designs, or strategies for addressing the future of our planet. Diverse teams of creator-participants can assimilate contributions from a broad range of disciplines and genres including architecture and urban planning but also the sciences, information technology and programming, science fiction, gaming, industrial design, critical theory, and more.
Historical precedents featured in The World as an Architectural Project are primarily the work of individual (male) authors, while a handful of projects are collaborative and include women and non-Western voices. In the book’s afterward, Sarkis reflects on the necessity of multiple viewpoints in worldmaking: “A main premise of pluralism is that there should no longer be one source from which to seek guidance about how to live and how to organize the world. Multiple incomplete viewpoints are replacing the singularity and comprehensiveness of an ideological position. The main political questions are now located in a variety of areas outside of politics, architects included.”
Not everyone is a futurist, designer, inventor, scientist, or science fiction novelist. But everyone can contribute to shaping a vision. Those who possess useful tools can help to empower others, to give contours and form to a shared vision, to connect the dots from future worlds back to our present reality via policies, prototypes, narratives, and representations.
A truly collaborative approach to worldbuilding might yield unexpected results. Contradictions and complexities inherent in co-creation could more accurately reflect the imperfect and lived-in world(s) of the present moment. Through the prism of pluralism, internal inconsistencies and information gaps become assets rather than flaws—contradiction as an opportunity for reflection and reconciliation. A richly conceived social milieu for a future metropolis, for example, should be expected to accommodate vastly different sub-cultures and group identities, political and religious views, aesthetic preferences, and so forth. Collaborative worldbuilding thus encourages difference, tolerance, and dialectical exchange.
Worldbuilding allows participants to speculate about future scenarios and alternative worlds of varying scales and scope—cities, regions, nations, continents, political and economic systems, environmental conditions, outer space, extraterrestrial worlds, and others yet to be imagined. Sarkis’ research into world-making at planetary and territorial scales provides readers with numerous precedents that point to new possibilities. “Worldmaking is different today,” concludes Sarkis. “The crucial challenge that stands before us is no longer the incomprehensibility of the scale, but rather the inhumanity of the global and how we need to imagine it otherwise, to question the boundaries that still divide it, and to reduce its pervasive inequalities.[…] Our optimism no longer needs to envision futuristic scenarios; it needs to intervene critically upon the futures that are being deployed in the present.”
Gli Atti Fondamentali, Educazione, 1971-1972. Superstudio © Toraldo di Francia
There is an abundance in print (a small library of titles published, for example, by Polity, Repeater, University of Minnesota Press, Urbanomic, and Zer0—the latter co-founded by the late Mark Fisher whose Capitalist Realism is an ur-text in the genre) about the critical theory behind futurist thinking, and hand-wringing about the lack of political agency in our present inability to imagine new worlds after capitalism. A few titles, such as Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase, Futures and Fictions by Repeater Press, and The Xenofeminist Manifesto by the Laboria Cuboniks collective, dare to outline propositions or describe scenarios for tomorrow. The leap forward proposed by Sarkis and his collaborators is to acknowledge past successes and failures of speculative design while encouraging us to get on with the actual work of collaborating and worldbuilding.
Finally, worldbuilding as discussed here may have much in common with Henri Lefebvre’s politics of the possible and his demand for “experimental utopias.” In place of austerity politics and laissez-faire economics (or, rather, the rigged economics of “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” that pervades regardless of ideology), a participatory, ground-up, solution-driven, and sometimes visionary approach to public policy and urban planning, in combination with more direct forms of democracy and accountable representation, has the potential to emancipate society from its control by technocrats and corporate elites. The catastrophic failures of neoliberalism will not be reversed by the same powers who have led us to the edge of an abyss—our twin predicaments of climate crisis and extreme inequality. Better and bolder ideas, with a plurality of compelling yet concrete visions for our collective futures, must prevail.
Ryan Madson is a writer and urban planner who lives in Savannah, Georgia, United States. He teaches architecture, preservation, and urban design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he also leads multidisciplinary projects with partners including Google, Hewlett-Packard, Adobe, Nvidia, Disney Imagineering, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.