Prototyping Social Forms


Addressing complex multi-scale problems like sustainable urban development and climate change means connecting problems that are hyper-local to problems that are regional and global. The wicked problem at the core of any initiative that connects the hyper-local to the regional and the global is the fact that different individuals, communities, and institutions that live in different locales and that act on different bio-socio-geographical scales will possess incommensurate value frameworks and will reasonably disagree on what is the “right” thing to do.

Synthesis@ASU’s ateliers for prototyping social forms are uniquely suited to addressing this core problem. We connect designers and expert makers to communities and institutions impacted by multi-scale problems to help them work with and through their differing value frameworks and jointly vary and assess social forms at lifescale.


Synthesis@ASU’s ateliers create prototypes and assess how people experience technologies, products, services, and infrastructures in plausible, robust social settings. They accomplish this by exploiting the Synthesis@AUS fusion of art, science, conceptual and experiential methods and by scaling up techniques for creating augmented experiences.  We prototype events (play, meal, learning), places (home, street, city), and infrastructures (energy, finance, governance) to the degree needed to get a sense of what it would be like to actually live with those forms.


We build a prototyping facility that fills the gap between the lab and the open world, where our clients can experiment with the social form that they want to vary. Drawing from a spectrum of low and high tech methods, plus off-the-shelf as well as purpose-built technologies, our resident designers and expert makers — e.g. artists, engineers — realize alternatives proposed by clients and experimentalists, co-designed with stakeholders from the impacted constituencies. All participants experience the varied social form, assess the quality of their lived experience of the prototype, and suggest further variations.


  • Lifescale prototyping means living in and through a working version of the social form plausibly enough to get a sense of the different forms of life that it enables and disables.  We use computational and poetic methods to scale down large systems (like weather systems) and scale up small systems (like metabolic systems) to the human scale.  We use artistic means to sketch that which we cannot or should not explicitly engineer.
  • Participatory navigation of ecosystems. The open world’s complex geopolitical, technocultural, and biogeochemical dynamics usually exceed available models and data.  So, complementing walls of data and charts, we provide fused scientific and poetic tools and techniques to create experiences, together with experts in the fields of anthropology, experimental performance, phenomenology, and process philosophy who can articulate and assess the experiences.
  • Enaction. We do not presume that narratives are known in advance, so in place of telling prefabricated stories, our scenario makers equip participants to make their own sense of their experience with a social form and to articulate their sense-making process to expert designers or makers.
  • Atelier studio. We agnostically use whatever tools are apt: low-tech, high tech, off-the-shelf, purpose-built. This enables ad-hoc tinkering with techniques ranging through movement, role-playing, body-scaled architectural mock-ups, mobile apps, augmented and mixed reality, gestural media, real time simulations, and responsive environments.


  • Plausibly lifescale. Get usable empirical insights from “in vivo” field study.
  • Heuristic insights.  In place of delivering tech in exchange for support we produce empirically-refined heuristics, techniques, experience studies, design thinking and creativity as common IP.
  • Space for creativity. For large organizations in thrall to the productivity curve, creativity is an angle on freedom and sovereignty.  For small organizations looking for niche-making opportunities, creativity is an angle on disruption.
  • Develop and retain polymath talent. Organizations send their talent to work outside IP walls, carrying their organization’s values and interests into a field setting.  They bring insights back from fieldwork.  Know-how internalized by involved participants is far more effective knowledge transfer than reports, patents, licensed technology.
  • Scout polymath talent though apprenticeship. Student apprentices perform as interns in the atelier, synthesizing skills from their studies, learning how to navigate, assess and improve complex social forms condensed from life. Working shoulder to shoulder with hosted researchers and interns, externs from client organizations can identify students with technical skill and supple imagination and growth potential in the atelier’s practicum setting.

Research Group Coordinator

Related Streams

Alternate Ecologies | Economies

Navigating Uncertainty alternate reality role-playing simulation


Prototyping Social Forms Techniques Workshop 1: Enacting and Sensing Process, Anticipation Conference 2022, ASU (video)

Prototyping Social Forms Techniques Workshop 2: Enacting and Sensing Body, Anticipation Conference 2022, ASU (video)

Prototyping Social Forms Curated Panel: Un altro mondo è possibile, Curated Panel, Anticipation Conference 2022, ASU (video)