Can Science Fiction save your company, and help it survive and succeed?

Gautham Shenoy March 23, 2019 5 min

In late 2017 one of the world’s largest management consulting companies, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published an article, ‘Using science fiction to explore business innovation’, recommending the genre as one effective way in which organisations can start conversations and spark ideas for their own innovation using science fiction-inspired narrative fiction. Meanwhile, in Harvard Business Review, Bandwidth-author Eliot Peper wrote a popular piece titled, ‘Why Business Leaders Need to Read More Science Fiction’ on the usefulness of science fiction; why it is invaluable to the ambitious; and why companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple have brought in science fiction writers as consultants.

Over the past few years, there has been a wave of corporate interest in science fiction. Intel had its Tomorrow Project. Microsoft has its own anthology of science fiction short stories written by authors such as David Brin, Elizabeth Bear, Seanan McGuire and Greg Bear called ‘Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft’ whose fiction explores the future of quantum computing, real-time translation, machine learning, and more. As part of its Strategic Futures project, Autodesk’s Applied Innovation Group, came out with FOUR, a collection of short stories set in the future. The writer and editor, Brian Merchant calls this growing trend of companies – including Nike and Boeing – using science fiction, the ‘Sci-Fi Industrial Complex’.

From the graphic novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, A Cop’s Eye, set in 2028, in Microsoft’s Future Visions anthology.

So, why are organisations turning to science fiction so? Because science fiction allows us to see ourselves in a new light, in the light of a new future, on that is not our own but reflects directly upon who we are and where we might be headed. In the words of writer, technologist and futurist, Brian David Johnson, “Science fiction gives us the language so that we can have a conversation about the future”. The term that best describes most of narratives and scenarios mentioned above is Science Fiction Prototyping, and Johnson is the person who – literally – wrote the book on the method.

Science Fiction Prototyping is an approach based on a simple premise: What if we could use science fiction based on science fact to not only imagine our future but develop new technologies and products, and what if we could use stories, movies and comics as a kind of tool to explore the real world implications and uses of future technologies, today?

Also read: India needs to read more science fiction to imagine and to create

Left: cover of ‘Science Fiction Prototyping’ (from Morgan & Claypool Publishers). Right: Brian David Johnson

So, what is a science fiction prototype? In his book-cum-practical guide, Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Johnson writes, “Stated simply, it is a short story, movie or comic based specifically on science fact for the purpose of exploring the implications, effects and ramifications of that science or technology’. The goal of science fiction prototypes is to start a conversation about technology and the future and not to predict the future (because well, you can’t).

An essential read for anyone interested in future casting, the book is a practical guide that breaks down the SF prototyping process and lays out the five-step process, telling you How to Build Your Own SF Prototype in Five Steps or Less:

Step 1: Pick Your Science and Build Your World

First, you pick the technology, science or issue you want to explore with the prototype. Next, set up the world of your story and introduce us to the people and locations. You can answer very simple questions like who are the main characters and where the action will take place. You will also want to begin to explore an explanation of the technology in your topic.

Step 2: The Scientific Inflection Point

The introduction of the “science” or technology you are looking to explore in the prototype.

Step 3: Ramifications of the Science on People

Explore the implications and ramifications of your science on the world you have described in Step 1. What effect does technology have? How does it change the lives of people? Does it create a new danger? What needs to be done to fix the problem?

Step 4: The Human Inflection Point

What did we learn from seeing the technology placed into a realistic setting? What is needed to fix the problem? Does the technology need to be modified? Is there a new area for experimentation and research?

Step 5: What Did We Learn?

Explore the possible solution or lesson learnt from Step 4 and its human implications.

Cisco’s Two Days After Tuesday, a science fiction prototype dealing with supply chains, written by Brian David Johnson as part of Threatcasting Lab

The book doesn’t not just expand on these aforementioned steps with practical advice, but also provides a wealth of wealth of background and context drawn from the world of science fiction and its history thereof – from H.G. Wells and Asimov to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, amongst many others, looking at popular movies and comics as SF prototypes, with many enlightening and illuminating insights from journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow, Chris Warner and Sidney Perkowitz, to name a few. Apart from discussing in detail the ways of putting together a short story with plotting approaches to serve as a science fiction prototype – including the approach set forth by Doctorow and the futurist & science fiction writer Karl SchroederScience Fiction Prototyping also includes illustrations and concrete examples of SF prototypes that have influenced the field of AI and robotics.

So, if you’re looking at forecasting what the future may hold for your organisation or the technology that your company is working with/on, look to science fiction. And look at Science Fiction Prototyping – both, the book and the method – for the tools you need to begin designing the future, with science fiction.

Live long and prosper!


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