Originally published in AR / VR Journey magazine 

Designing Future Spaces of Belonging

A workshopped exploration of how to design for belonging on the interwebs.

Grooved into the nervous system of anyone who came of age in the 80’s and 90’s, the Web has caught up with the ‘real’ world and is now our second ‘real’ home. I remember the era of MSN, when I used to spend hours a day after Summer to send bubbly messages to my holiday boyfriend(s). It was a place to go to, not be in. You had to sit yourself down, endure the creaking sounds of logging in, and be patient, very patient.

Now, The Machine’s speed blows our mind. The physical world is merging with the virtual, and we are required to live in many places at the same time. And these developments go fast. Imagine being able to travel back in time to an era where the Internet euphoria had just begun and the dotcom boom was in full swing. It’s been only eighteen years. Eighteen years. No wonder my parents can’t keep up with the pace.

Add to that my generation’s love for being always on the go, being a digital nomad, a global speaker, or an eternal backpacker. My generation is a generation of wanderers seeking freedom in moving through space. They want to feel at home, wherever they are. But can they? Does our social contract allow for that?

And if this is just the start: how can we collectively strengthen our sense of belonging, if we can expect to be thrown into virtual realms at greater speed and with greater temptations in the future?

Those were the questions we asked during a Sunday workshop in October in my  studio  in Amsterdam. A gathering of designers, artists, architects and ecosystem thinkers, a collective exploration of how to design future spaces of belonging.

Knowing that this vast universe of virtual experiences is only growing and that it sucks more and more of our attention into the digital atmospheres: how can we design for direction and belonging in the interfaces we create, instead of designing for addiction? How do we prevent that the next wave of tech creates another stratosphere between us and our vocation, our productivity, our place of belonging in this world?

We wanted to look for and learn how to leave behind a mere sense of ‘space’ and nurture a sense of ‘belonging’ into the interfaces we design.

This workshop moved a group of brave participants through a number of awareness cultivating experiences, from a grounding meditation to spatial sound experiences, conscious movement, visualisations and open conversations on where we don’t feel safe (yet) amongst our communities, as data points on the Internet, on the streets, and in the wilderness that is this moment on this planet.

After these experiences we each dived into self-inquiry to create collages and mind maps of what we encountered in the realms of our inner belonging. To then, as a final ritual, share these reflections with the group.

I built this experience around a very analogue journey I made through Mongolia in 2017, where I saw tribal bonds, shamanism, food rituals, and the forces of nature being the glue of human thriving. What can we learn from these near forgotten indigenous cultures to weave a sense of belonging into our increasingly tech-immersive urban lives?

Questions raised:

- what is ‘sense of space’, and what is ‘sense of belonging?’

- who are we when we feel most at home?

- how do our spaces inform our senses, and vice versa?

- what can we as experience designers do to design for belonging and direction for future spaces on the Web?

Answers given, by the participants:

“During the visualisation, when I was still blindfolded and had to wander about the room, I was so afraid to bump into someone I didn’t know. That would be so uncomfortable… In that sense, bumping would hurt. But in this world we have so many rules to control the bumping into one another that we are hurt all the time, not by actual bumping but by outside forces that control us.

I therefore imagine future spaces of belonging to have a new social contract: we can bump into each other, on a personal level, and on a collective level. To work more with the laws of physics and consciousness instead of the laws of society and its rulers. I know I am the one creating the social contract, as is everyone for themselves. Do I first have to transcend my own fear of bumping into the world, to stumble into the unknown? Probably…”

— Maarten

“It came to me that my senses are my home. But when I roam around in virtual space I feel light-headed. I don’t need my senses there. I don’t feel the wind blowing in my hair or the touch of a lover’s hand, yet. As long as I don’t feel those things, I still crave to be in the library smelling the mildew over browsing through my Goodreads stack.

If I imagine future spaces of belonging, those are spaces where my senses are highly activated and intertwined with my experiences the Web. I am in spaces where I can see sound, I can taste the fruits in front of me, and when talking to a friend I can speak in the newest album of my favourite band. I also awaken new senses in the future. I strengthen my intuition to give me greater sense of direction. When going to the supermarket I can unlock doors with my ‘unthinking’. I want to be liberated from my monkey mind. I want to feel my body and incorporate it’s intelligence in the experience I have on the Web, not leave it behind.”

— Lisanne

“My compass in this world is my heart, now and in the future. If I follow my heart, I know I will belong. I transcend space, if you will. I follow my body’s expansion, my bliss, and welcome pain on the way. I become less vulnerable to the temptations of the Web if I have my compass always in hand. Allowing myself to grieve and heal my wounds, I grow an internal sense of belonging that is so strong that I am infinitely trusting in the future.”

- Fleur

“When imagining the future I don’t need my sense of space. I only need my sense of belonging. It is not a linear road from here to the future. The future is now, it just is. I can write down what the landscape of the future looks like, but that is like dancing about architecture. It just doesn’t make sense. What does make sense is to look at my current reality and recognise the things that limit my sense of belonging.

I drew a dot with a very messy spider web around it. Those are my limiting beliefs. The ‘I am not good enough’s’, the fears, the low-points in my memory, the family entanglements, the pleaser in me, my shame and my guilt. Those make that I don’t feel I belong. Nothing external, no technology, no multi-sensory virtual library can solve that. My journey to the future therefore is not a road through space, but a state in flux. From feeling that I belong, to not feeling that I belong. From feeling love. To feeling fear. My only intention is to be present in all those states and allow them to be, this is where I will find my sense of belonging.”

— B.

I molded the exercise into: what would I put on a T-shirt if I had to summarise my insights? Those were the quotes that made it to the fabric: “Belonging only becomes a stress, when it is about survival.” That is: when we are not surviving, we are thriving, we belong no matter what. “Survival is an illusion, and pain can be managed.” This was my liberating insight that basically we don’t have to fear. We can grieve and have pain and still belong. We don’t need to hold back in life. Hence my third and conclusive quote: “I belong everywhere ❤︎” :)

- Marco

“Our generation has roots, but many have no current geography related to those roots. When the question of where we belong is not answered with a location tag plus the name of our tribe, maybe it’s found in the answer to: what is our vocation? Or, which things are we naturally drawn to? The sense of belonging that we have to nurture is therefore more than ever related to our essential nature, which is a privileged question to be able to answer. This is then also where our personal future is connected to the wider whole. Our shared future is where we experience tension that we have to overcome. Only if we give everybody rights to claim their truth, we can find an extended future that is collective.”

- P.

I imagined I don’t need my body in the future. Will I be egoless if I don’t need to protect my body or feel bad about its imperfections? Could the future therefore be egoless?

Also, as I was blindfolded I found myself so much more creative. Maybe the future should also be eye-less! Future spaces of belonging may have been designed for other ways of communication, sound-based emotions, kinetic architectural structures. I questioned: may there be a benefit in designing for a non-visual world? Will we awaken more expansive senses?

- R.

If there is a cohesive conclusion to the insights of this workshop, it would be that designing future spaces of belonging needs a lot more work.

Oh, have we been doing it wrong?

The answers to that are personal. But if we look at the philosophy of designing human systems, it is clear that we have been primed to believe that people have individual goals and social goals, and that we can rationally form agreements to control that we are working on those goals together. That is our conditioned prerequisite for belonging.

This is an outdated model that doesn't fit the future. These contracts cannot hold truth in all realms of reality, for all people. With new virtual dimensions being added to our lives every day, our anchors are found in guiding principles that have to be internalized first, before they can result in some form of social contract. And they may take a different form in each dimension of reality.

As you could read: different people hold different belief systems. The current social design model is thus based on a misunderstanding of human beings as representing monoculture. Because of this, with the Web thus far we have inherited a miserable freedom to float around in space without feeling we belong anywhere; plus, we are still pursuing the wrong kind of wealth and a pale sort of entertainment and knowledge.

The good news is: each of us can discover, within ourselves, what society and the interfaces of the Web are lacking. I hope that our experiences showed you that as you wish to move forward into designing and living in future spaces of belonging, you need to emphasize the neglected parts in yourself first. What drives you, how do you truly connect to people beyond the social construct, and how can you incorporate non-technical, more intuitive, multi-sensory awareness in your design processes?

Only if you dare to explore the unknown parts of yourself, we can collectively design new social systems on the web that truly feel like spaces of belonging.


Jan. 2019, Ibiza, Spain


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