Finding the future of civil engineering through experiential storytelling

Alex McDowell is the award-winning production designer behind more than 20 Hollywood films, including “Fight Club” and “Minority Report.”

Now he is bringing his creative genius to ASCE’s Future World Vision, a dynamic new scenario-planning tool that looks five decades into the future to consider potential ways society will advance, how the infrastructure we use every day will develop and how civil engineers must take the lead to find the cutting-edge solutions that will make it all possible.

McDowell talked recently for an episode of the “ASCE Plot Points” podcast about Future World Vision and the power of immersive storytelling.

ASCE News: You’re taking something that is really data driven and deeply researched but you’re also applying this fictional element. It almost seems contradictory. Could you talk about how those two things interplay?

McDowell: My background is in production design, which means I’ve been designing for film for a long time. Film is a complex system in itself. Something that’s been of enormous interest to me for the 30-plus years that I was designing for film was how do you translate what is essentially words on a page, or a script, into the complexity that a film becomes – where sometimes there are 2,000 people having worked on a film before its release.

So I’ve always considered that a design is somewhat of a skeleton, a backbone, in terms of production. We talk about how a production designer’s first job is the production. In that case, the systems part has always been front and center, running in parallel with the storytelling. It’s our responsibility to create a design framework for the narrative. So we are not actors and we are not writers, but we are absolutely creating this container for the narrative.

The other part of that is that although film is fundamentally a linear medium, the designer is never thinking in linear terms. The designer is thinking in holistic terms. In a very practical way, because we don’t know which direction the camera is going to point. So we’re thinking environmentally. We’re thinking about the range of narrative possibilities in a space.That leads to a very interwoven balance of understanding all of the complexities of the people, the equipment, and the technology that has to intersect in this space and the fundamental reason for this space to exist, which is to tell a compelling narrative.

So to address your question, there’s an intersection between system and narrative that I think is actually very natural. It might be a provocation to say this: We equate narrative with fiction, but at the same time, fiction is a complicated word to use in relation to the very grounded work we’re doing at the moment.

Fiction tends to be thought of as a kind of entertainment, as something that isn’t necessarily frivolous but at the same time is not grounded in reality. But in design terms, when we design for a fictional experience in a film, we’re actually grounding it in months of research, so that the world we build is absolutely embedded in, or extracted from, this knowledge base. So what we would call fiction – which is essentially every beat in front of us, every second ahead of us, in the sense that we have no idea what’s going to happen – is suddenly an opportunity to liberate ourselves from trend-following into extrapolating forward and starting to think about story as a future opportunity.

It’s very powerful to be looking into the future, working towards an aspirational future and then threading that back into the present, having established through fiction the possibilities of this aspirational future. That’s very much substantially what we’re doing for ASCE.

ASCE News: Why do you feel that’s so powerful? Somebody can read a white paper, but with this, it seems like it’s more of an experience, more immersive. Why do you feel that’s a more powerful way to convey information?

McDowell: I think to some extent it’s very hard to understand a system and all of the components that we’re developing to speak about the future. There are many, many people who are doing analysis like papers or 120-page documents that represent the analysis of the data that is representing the research that’s been done about the future. The problem for me is that it’s actually not the right medium to deal with the human experience. In any level of what we’re doing, in terms of researching systems, however abstract or technical, we still need to be focused on the fact that the human is at the center. The complex, systemic, rigorous, technical work that we’re doing is all to the benefit of us as a human race.

So we as humans don’t actually work well in a two-dimensional space. It’s not intuitive for us to connect to charts and lines and words on a page. We’re trained very well to be able to extract emotion from literature, but that is because we conjure images when we read. When you are in an analytic space, a space of charts and diagrams and white papers, we can’t extract a narrative from that. It doesn’t help us to imagine the extent of its implications, which is often extremely well-researched and very important.

What we believe with the experiential and the immersive is that we’re placing everybody who intersects that narrative – which is based in systems and based in research – into a space of an intuitive reaction. They can actually connect to that space as professionals and they can analyze the complexity or they can analyze the problems it throws up. They can connect to the system,s that have been developed, but they connect to it as a human as well as a practitioner of their particular craft.

There’s no question, we’ve never had any pushback from any of our clients about the idea that a visual experience is somehow less effective than a list of assets or data and research.

ASCE News: With all the different projects you work on, I’m sure a lot of these things you talk about are essential, but with civil engineering, I would think even more so. It’s got to be exciting, I would hope, to work on a project for such a people profession.

McDowell: I think the Future World Vision continues to be fascinating. On one level, civil engineering is so much about the technical, the solving of very rigorous real-world problems. But as you say, and I think this is essential, the ultimate outcome and responsibility of every civil engineer, and every project that they develop, is to the human. It’s about safety, it’s about shelter, it’s about transportation, and infrastructure.

It’s all about the human in the center. So there is this fantastic dichotomy or balance between that need for precision and outcome that has to be perfectly executed with the knowledge that it has such an effect on the world in its human sense. Again, the project we’re doing right now is really being driven by that central idea of “How do we adapt to changing conditions? And how does engineering take the lead in that adaptation?”

Learn more about ASCE’s Future World Vision.

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