SEP-DEC 2022
Peoples' Vertex

New Sun Rising wanted an experiential futures for the Pittsburgh community to envision vibrant communities. We responded with an immersive installation called Peoples' Vertex that had 40+ attendees.

Speculative design

Nila Gao (Physical prototyper)
Graana Khan (Physical prototyper)
Victoria Nguyen (Physical prototyper)
Sachi Bafna (Digital prototyper)
Arin Pantja (Digital prototyper)
Adam Cowart (Faculty advisor)
Keith Webster (Faculty advisor)

The client
New Sun Rising (NSR) is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization with a mission of creating vibrant communities within Pittsburgh. We worked directly with the Executive Director Scott Wolovich and their consultant, Michelle Walker. We met on a weekly basis for feedback and brainstorming, and did update presentations to a larger group at NSR every month.

Mentioned in:
My role as the team lead and a digital prototyper

When I first became President of the CMU Futurist Club, I already knew my aspiration was to lead a client project for the club. So in summer 2022, I sourced our client, New Sun Rising, and scoped the project with them. In Fall 2022, I put out an application and selected 5 teammates from diverse backgrounds to join me.

I set the team goals and coordinated our deadlines to ensure smooth transitions from research to design ideation to prototyping. and I oversaw all aspects of the project including:

  • physical prototyping (laser cutting, spray painting, room partitions)
  • digital prototyping (poster design, interface design)
  • branding and marketing (social media posts, event advertising)
  • budgeting
  • client relations

I also designed and prototyped a police tracking screen projected on the wall.

Takeaway: creating something out of nothing

Figuring out project management from start to finish was a very exciting challenge for me. As the sole leadership with no prior examples, there were a lot of times I felt lost and didn’t know what to do next. It was through those moments that I learned a valuable lesson that I don’t need a rulebook; I can create my own starting points.

I started with a completely blank slate, generating my own client leads and reaching out to various faculty to advise this project. I was responsible for directing my team to do something I’ve never done: researching and creating an immersive futures experience. This project brought out the best sides in me because it required the most self direction, discipline, and trust in myself and my teammates than ever before.


Research question:
What is the future(s) of vibrant communities?

New Sun Rising was curious to explore the idea of vibrant communities in the future. Specifically, how do nonprofits play a role in that vibrancy and how can communities evolve to support one another?I made it clear that an experiential future is not predictive in any way. Any ideas we design are for the purpose of sparking dialogue and getting community members interested and proactive in shaping their own futures.

The Final Installation: Peoples’ Vertex
Peoples’ Vertex is an underground gathering space that exists in a future where nonprofit work has been become unsanctioned in the face of big company monopolies. Community members share resources and donate services that are published in a “menu of services.” Patrons can receive the service by scanning their non-traceable ID given to them at the door. As participants walk through the space, they find nuggets of information about this future from the posters dispersed around the walls. A police tracking screen is projected behind the bartenders to alert if police are approaching Peoples’ Vertex and escape measures are necessary. In the corner there was a photo booth where patrons could get printed headshots with to use on their resumes.

6 research interviews, 2 futures frameworks analysis

I led my team through 1 month of research, 1 month of design ideation, and then 1 month of prototyping to create the final immersive installation. We met frequently with our clients and faculty advisors for feedback.

Research analysis
We did 6 semi-structured interviews with nonprofit leaders in the Pittsburgh community. We wanted to know what success means to them and what are the factors holding them back today. We synthesized our research with an affinity mapping to identify signals and drivers of change based on the interviews.  We then used 2 futures frameworks (futures ladder and futures wheel) to examine plausible futures.

Creating an immersive environment
We didn’t want participants to step into an experience about the future. We wanted them to truly be in the future to individually connect with it.

To bring this idea to life, we mocked up 50+ posters that gave insight into what has happened in this new world. Posters ranging from reminding you to turn off location so you don’t get caught at Peoples’ Vertex, to joining the “Solar Punkers” rebuilding Pittsburgh. The menu of services was the main attraction to highlight that helping each other was something now done in secret. Services ranged from data hacking to AI counseling. We didn’t explicitly tell participants they were supposed to be in the future, so our choice of wording was vital.

Each team member had a different role on the night of the event (eg: bouncer at the door, bar tender, photo booth operator) and had to stay in their character in the future to help immerse participants.

Post-experience reflection
One participants left Peoples’ Vertex, they were asked to do 2 activities and discuss with the people around them. We really wanted to spark dialogue and encourage people to view the future not as something that just happens to them, but as something they can actively work together on in pursuit of vibrancy.

Wrapping up

The responses from our post-experience questions was handed off to NSR to add to their ongoing data collection project. The results are up on their Community Voice dashboard, and they are working on creating data visualizations for it in their Vibrancy Portal.

The team also recorded a presentation for NSR going in depth on our process because they hope to replicate this experience in other Pittsburgh communities.


I learned so much about what it truly means to lead a team and trust in them. This was the first time I felt so overwhelmed by our aspirations, but I didn’t let my worries hold me back. I put full trust in myself and my team to figure out the direction of this project and execute it.

Epidemic X
Serena Wang © 2023