Shadowed City

︎Film screened at Primer 18 Conference 
︎Role: research, cinematography, motion design

Shadowed City from Yuxin Cheng on Vimeo


Futurists like to use the Futures Cone to talk about futures, and often speak of three main classes of futures: possible, probable, and preferable (Voros, 2017). While everyone is able to imagine and dream about future, we often accepted the future that was imposed on us by authorities and power, be it the future we like or not. Our world is made up of complex systems, but there are techniques and methods for identifying opportunities in existing complex systems and discovering ways to propose vivid, thought provoking alternatives to those systems. Such techniques and methods are called speculative design (Montgomery & Alvarez, 2018).  

︎The Futures Cone


1. Signal Scanning 

We started our researches by scanning signals around us and then use S.T.E.E.P (social/technological/economical/environmental/political) analysis methods to analyze the impacts that these signals might have on our status quo. Signals are incidents that happened could possibly trigger a series of relative incidents and eventually lead to significant events or revolutionary changes. In other words, these incidents might be viewed as fringe today but could become mainstream tomorrow. 

︎Signal Scanning and S.T.E.E.P analysis document

2. Scenario Planning

Our signals were so broad that they included climate change, migration, drones, air rights, national political powers, and so on. In order to focus our efforts, we ran a few rounds of creative sessions including Polarity Maps and Futures Wheels to frame the right questions to ask. 
︎Many rounds of senario planning sessions 

3. Story Boarding

Eventually, we settled on the question: “What would city life look like if the current trends of vertical urban construction continues uncontrolled and uncontained?” Using this question, we constructed a storyline and planned possible hypothetical future scenarios.

︎Story boarding sessions: the far right is the storyline we eventually landed on


1. Challenges

The process that followed was hardly a seamless one. New York City seemed to be the perfect place for us to film extremely tall buildings. However, given that we were developing scenarios that might happen in the next 30 years, we could not only use the city as our stage, we needed to find a way to portray strangely familiar present aspects and weave them into our future scene. In our case, since it was unrealistic for us to vividly depict what the this future city might “look like”, we instead aimed to discover what would be the possible tensions that may exist in this society due to governmental regulations and future lifestyle changes.

2. Final Story

The final major storyline we developed is that there will be a significant lack of sunlight at the street level due to the continuous uprising of supertall and megatall buildings (buildings that measure more than 300 meters). This will result in significant health concerns for city residents, especially those of a relatively lower socioeconomic status who might not be able to afford an apartment in a light-blocking high rise tower. As a result, the city government will execute new policies. One is that all buildings will need to receive a mandatory sunlight level inspection each year. If a building does not meet the minimum sunlight requirement, it will be condemned. Another is that the rooftops of super tall buildings must open to the public free of charge.

If this is the future city dwellers have to accept, what are the tensions we will likely encounter? We decided to reveal the tensions as a way for our audience to further imagine the possibilities as to where the trends of building supertall and megatall buildings might lead us. If this future is not wanted by the majority, what actions should we take to create a more desirable future?

Scene 1
Building is condemned because it does not pass the city sunlight inspection, which means the poor natural light environment of this building is harmful to the health of its residents.

Scene 2
Manhattan Land Coverage Map in 2050, measured by architectural height. The rising of supertall buildings and mega tall buildings will vastly hinder natural sunlight from reaching the street level.

Scene 3
Since the city government has executed the free rooftop policy, out of safety concerns, each building management has also limited number of visitors and visitors’ idling time at the rooftop. Thus, there are Apps that are designed for users to choose the rooftop they would like to go to, based on building location and waiting times.  

Scene 4
The countdown clock for visitors visiting time at the rooftop. The clock will switch from green to red when there’s only 5 min left, that means visitors will have to get ready to leave. Violation of the rules will result in a negative record on their profiles, which can lead to suspension of revisiting any of the rooftops. 


At the 2018 Primer Conference, Sami Niemelä from Nordkapp Studios emphasized this point in his workshop “Building Actionable Futures”. In 2014, UNESCO used future forecasting in their KnowLab “Evaluating and Improving the Use of Foresight in Addressing Societal Challenges” (UNESCO, 2015). In it, participants focused on innovation and taking action while prioritizing underprivileged communities.

Shadowed City approached exactly such themes in addressing power dynamics in a growingly vertical urban future. Who will be the privileged few that continue to enjoy unlimited sunlight at the top layer of the city? What actions might be taken to equally and fairly distribute sun exposure? Furthermore, our film inspires the question: What actions might be taken by the marginalized communities to change and avoid unfavorable futures?

“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet” (William Gibson). We need a wider range of practitioners in speculative design and future foresight. If the privileged elite continue to determine the future, we will be left with a future with a larger wealth distribution gap, a future that is designed for those given the power to imagine what it may be like, and a future that does not consider all included in it.

Team: Yuxin Cheng, Naoki Hashimoto, Megan Willy and Tung Lin Special thanks to Elliott Montgomery and Tamera Alvarez
©yuxincheng 2015-2019