Out of the Past, Into the Future: Lance Weiler and the RE:START Lab

BY Cody Daniel Beltis , October 26, 2020

Out of the Past, Into the Future is a bi-weekly series that aims to chronicle a limitless scope of work by Columbia filmmaker’s representative of the past, present, and future. This series investigates how Columbia film projects, and the bespoke stories therein, are enmeshed with tales of history and experience, and harbingers of what’s to come. 


This week we sat down with Associate Professor Lance Weiler to discuss RE:START, an immersive lab that will help participants start anew within paradigms emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. 


With a global pandemic and rising political tensions, many activists and thinkers are collaborating to envision pragmatic ways forward, perhaps through technologies like artificial intelligence synthesized with speculative design. Newly formed at Columbia School of the Arts, as part of the School's Digital Storytelling Lab, the RE:START Lab—scheduled to take place December 16-17, 2020—is an immersive lab that aims to equip participants with the creative tools of futuristic thinking, speculative design, and narrative theory to brainstorm a collective and cooperative future. 


Leading this operation is Associate Professor Lance Weiler, a storyteller, entrepreneur and thought leader who develops new methods and technologies to tell stories and reach audiences in innovative ways. Weiler is a Founding Member and the Director of Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab (DSL), where he leads activities and helps to shape its enduring vision. The mission of the DSL is to explore new forms and functions of storytelling, while encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration. 


“Our teaching is woven into an interactive framework, and a lot of what we do is based on experience design,” said Weiler during an interview. “Sometimes it will be a presentation format, but for the most part it is highly interactive. The labs are always very immersive and the mix of theory and practice is really important.” 


The RE:START Lab, now accepting applications through November 1, 2020, is a multiway lab that will bring together diverse perspectives from around the world. Those accepted will learn from each other, using methods to plan, plot, and examine what could be possible in a synthesis of cross-industry insights. Designed to help navigate uncertainty, RE:START leverages storytelling, design thinking, and speculation in its curriculum


The DSL has run similar labs with the School of the Arts, as well as for the World Economic Forum, UNICEF, the US Department of State, Museums, and sundry community organizations. Labs have also been developed to help the hearing impaired in Warsaw, as well as a community in South Los Angeles to rebuild their neighborhood. 


“A lot of our work makes use of a variety of different technologies,” Weiler said. “We have projects that use virtual reality, artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, and augmented reality, and the internet of things. There are many types of emergent technologies. This always starts by exploring the human side of the human experience. Once we have an understanding of the human experience, we start to weave in the technological experience, either by using existing technologies or ones we are coding ourselves. This might be something that allows us to walk in somebody else’s shoes or model future scenarios or speculations around some core challenge.” 


A project that the Digital Storytelling Lab recently did with foster care children allowed them to create a narrative about the experience of growing up in foster care, and what aging out of foster care is like for youth, using wearable technology. Similarly, the DSL has done projects that revolve around incarceration and juvenile justice. The Lab has also looked at innovation in the city of Los Angeles, and helped to build collaborative models with citizens and city employees. 


Jorgen van der Sloot, an instructor with the RE:START Lab and founder of Minkowski, an agency that helps organizations to translate future possibilities to action, said the lab will run on Zoom and make use of Miro, as a collaborative workspace. “The RE:START Lab will be a dynamic and virtual immersive experience.” van der Sloot said. “We would like to enable people to create prototypes of the future, and reflect back on the present. There is a unique opportunity with people going through COVID, and how they have been affected and a diversity of perspective is important to create a meaningful and realistic path forward.” 


Rachel Ginsberg, a supporting instructor who has been a member of DSL for four years, and is founding director of the Cooper Hewitt Interaction Lab described the goal of the RE:START Lab as tackling the big questions that face us all—identifying how future practices can support risk management practices, addressing granular and existential risks like climate change.


“The idea is that the lab is a collective for folks who are everywhere from artists, NGOs, to industries,” Ginsberg said. “This type of innovation can come from the humanities as well as emergent technologies. This global pandemic has accelerated things we cannot deal with, and it is clear that a lot of systems are not working for many people. We want to ignite the imagination of folks and allow them to manage collective and existential risk.” 


Most recently, the DSL has implemented a digital literacy initiative that uses different technologies to explore the edges of narrative possibilities for learning, mobilizing, and entertainment—a facet of what the RE:START Lab aims to do. This digital literacy initiative includes a project entitled Frankenstein AI, which reimagines Mary Shelley’s seminal work through the lens of a naive, emotional, and highly intelligent “life form”—an AI. Frankenstein AI brings participants into a simulated world where the AI recognizes the need to understand humans. The multi-year project prioritizes the needs of humanity within the larger conversation around Artificial Intelligence.


“I think that design is where we start,” Weiler said, “because we use it as a way to get to the why. Within storytelling, you have a character in a traditional screenplay, and there is something that that character wants, but over the arc of the story they come to realize what they truly need. After doing a shared ethnography of something, and examining the challenges of a variety of different perspectives, we implement emergent technologies. We get as many diverse perspectives as possible, which starts with empathy and inclusivity.” 


You can learn more about the RE:START Lab, meet the instructors, and review the program structure here.