'Minority report' image. © DW Studios L.L.C. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

+ The entertainment industry’s world building workflow creates a robust fictional world from which narratives can be extracted and used across different media. 'Minority Report' image © DW Studios L.L.C. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

I think our industry has a lot to learn from the way the entertainment industry works.

Since the turn of the millennium, a new workflow known as world building has transferred from the videogames to the film industry. It was driven by the transition from analogue to digital, which in turn has radically shifted the design process from linear to non-linear. 

Previously, the film producer would choose a story, then a storyboard would be created, and from the storyboard the camera and music would be developed. Finally the sound and cutting would produce the film. 

In contrast, this new entertainment workflow involves creating a robust fictional world with its own rules or logic. You can then use this world to create coherent narratives across different entertainment media such as games, films, TV series or even a theme park. It was Alex McDowell who first brought world building to cinema as a set designer for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

Enabled by new design tools, the world building method produces coherent stories faster and cheaper. Thinking ahead about how the world might manifest across different media ensures that when the opportunity occurs there are no surprises, which one might have when starting from a film story that won’t manifest in say a game or a theme park. 

For our industry to adopt the tools of the entertainment industry is nothing new. To take one example – successful studios such as Zaha Hadid Architects used Autodesk’s Maya design software, the workhorse of the entertainment industry, for years. This is the same tool that James Cameron and Framestore studio used to make box office hit Avatar.

However, despite using entertainment industry tools, the workflow processes are a black box with minimal input from stakeholder and users. The rules are implicit and their consequences aren’t tested until the buildings are opened to the public, a process often carrying a considerable risk. Traditional processes might be appropriate for designing private buildings that are never experienced by the public at large, but they often fall short in the design of public spaces – including cities.

Would adopting world building help our industry shape a better world? Should built environment designers use world building to create and test the rules of future cities? Should they co-envisage with citizens the consequences (or stories) and then publish them in a visionary film and/or game? Could this help to inspire and constrain the design explorations of real cities’ futures?

One can imagine a group of likeminded organisations joining forces with Arup’s domain experts. Together they could use the rules proposed by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to world-build a generic resilient city with aspects common to many cities, such as the waterfront, and then extract coherent and resilient stories that can be effortlessly communicated in multiple media.  

What are designs other than stories? In the past the best websites were designed and optimised for the PC, nowadays any decent website is multiplatform, for PC, mobile, android, iPhone etc. I think we have a lot to learn from how the entertainment industry has embraced world building, and I think it’s time we started to explore the possibilities.