At the beginning of the quarantine, professor Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay from the University of Oslo published a video on Facebook in which he argued that science fiction fans are rarely surprised by anything, since they have already seen or experienced a scenario as a fictional narrative. It is true that science fiction, horror, and fantasy explore scenarios like the end of the world, alien invasions, and machine uprisings. But despite all the movies, games, and books about pandemics, were we really ready for Covid-19?
The answer is both yes and no. While we have already seen such developments in fiction, watching a movie about an apocalypse certainly does not prepare you for one. Although we all long for technology that can upload kung fu into our brains like Neo in The Matrix, this is not possible -- yet.
In addition to being an artistic genre, science fiction is one of the methodologies proudly situated within futures studies. But unlike futurology or forecasting, science fiction does not require the same scientific foundations. In fact, science fiction is all about speculation and creativity, two qualities that could allow both companies and professionals to remain -- or become -- relevant in the face of our rapidly changing world.
Prototyping "What If?" -- From Imagination to Market
Despite their financial, strategic, or competitive advantages, it was not the incumbent automakers that pioneered the creation of intelligent, autonomous "operating systems," but rather Uber, Waymo (Alphabet), Tesla, and Nvidia. Likewise, it was Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that reframed the meat industry through sustainable food tech, breaking the molds of industry leaders like Tyson or JBS. The same holds true for myriad other industries: It was SpaceX that partnered with NASA for commercial space flights, not industry giants like Airbus or Boeing -- although the latter has sponsored science fiction creations in the past. In other words, it is the players who challenge assumptions and ask new questions that beat incumbents in innovation.
Some companies are coming around to this idea. It's why Hershey's is 3-D-printing chocolate, why Visa uses experiential technology to explore the future of commerce and payments, and why Lowe's combines AR, VR, and spatial computing to enhance its customer experiences while partnering with Made in Space to imagine an additive manufacturing facility for extraterrestrial hardware stores.
Truly innovative players look to longer time horizons, reframing perceptions to explore new products or technologies with few financial or technological barriers to hamper creativity. In "futurecasting," science fiction serves as a powerful catalyst for suspending disbelief. Conversely, incumbents, which often operate as if the world were linear, stable, and predictable, are more likely to use strategic analysis when planning their next steps. Similarly, their shareholders tend to be more prone to preferring measurable, quantifiable returns around predictable investment cycles -- all strategies that undervalue imagination and under-prioritize innovation.
Instead of taking an imaginative leap into the unknown, well-established players typically rely on countless strategic consultants and bottom-up analysis. But this sort of risk analysis has a limit. In our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, extrapolating the future from the past can be terribly inaccurate. It is often more valuable to dedicate time to science fiction--speculating and creatively responding--than to regression algorithms. The former can imagine the unforeseeable while the latter would fail in, for example, a pandemic.
In science fiction, it is possible to imagine and consider not only new perceptions, but also products, intellectual properties, and technologies. Through the creative process, science fiction authors provide a heightened level of systems thinking and recognition of next-order implications, such as:
- Visual prototypes of theoretical designs
- Cultural implications of technology
- The diverse impact of narrative and storytelling
- A platform for ethical debates
Interestingly, professor Philipp Jordan from the University of Hawaii has found that the use of science fiction terms in academic papers has grown exponentially over the past 30 years. MIT has also studied how science fiction was used as a means to drive innovation. In a VUCA world, success comes less from quantifying than from forming an anticipatory, agile, and adaptive mindset, a mindset enhanced by science fiction.
How does one combine the inspiration of this artistic genre with the brass tacks of strategic thinking? As a starting point, remember that neither science fiction nor futurology are designed to predict the future. In the words of Alvin Toffler: "No serious futurist deals in prediction. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers." Similarly, science fiction does not describe precise scenarios that the world need follow step by step. Reality is about diversity, and as William Gibson once said, "The future is already here, but it is not evenly distributed."
One effective strategy is design fiction, a combination of design thinking and science fiction. First proposed by sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, the method proposes the "deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change." In other words, in this creative and strategic process, people are challenged to create prototypes (objects, artworks, narratives, illustrations, films, performances, you name it) that trigger conversation and suspend the audience's disbelief to the point of actually considering these speculative scenarios as real possibilities. Facilitators can also use already-known frameworks like the futures wheel or the Thing from the Future during their processes of design fiction. These strategies open up one's mind to the tangible possibilities that the future will be vastly different from the past.
A number of well-respected labs are already combining the perspectives of speculative design and design fiction:
- SciFutures "accelerate[s] innovation with sci-fi prototyping."
- Imagination of Things "uses design, fiction, and technology to craft meaningful stories."
- UP Future Sight uses design fiction, strategic planning, and trend forecasting to help companies visualize and plan ahead.
- Rito hosts immersive experiences that blend fiction and reality to facilitate views about the future.
- Envisioning maps fictional technologies and connects them to their sci-fact counterparts. It also issues original science fiction stories and interactive narrative games on demand.
M&A and VC Investments: Science Fiction to Science Fact
The gap between science fiction and reality is shrinking everywhere, as even mergers and acquisitions or venture capital investments are themselves resembling what was once science fiction. Cybernetics brain-computer interface (BCI) is one such promising area, evidenced by Facebook's acquisition of CTRL-labs for between $500 million and $1 billion, and by two Israeli cybernetics companies that raised VC money in the past two years: Arctop, which uses A.I. to construct a multidimensional map of real-time brain activity, and CorrActions, which develops noninvasive software to anticipate human intentions. In addition, Mojo Vision (which has raised $100 million to date), is working on augmented reality contact lenses. In haptics, HaptX has raised $19 million to build a haptic telerobotic system to transmit touch feedback to an operator anywhere.
With the convergence of connective technologies (A.I., 5G, IoT, sensors), immersive experiences (AR, VR, and MR), and human-machine interface (BCI, tech + wearables) you'll be able to see, hear, and feel, providing a realistic implementation of digital teleportation or space/time travel. According to physicist Michio Kaku, "Once confined to fantasy and science fiction, time travel is now simply an engineering problem." The same goes for recent developments in Elon Musk's Neuralink prototype: A simplification of the device and the promises it holds could make real what was once seen as impossible fiction.
In Our VUCA World, Science Fiction Is a Mandatory Strategy
Science fiction is not limited to business or venture investors: Governments and institutions could use futurecasting to imagine idealistically, especially as the world begins rebuilding in the wake of Covid-19. Starting in the future and then working backwards, we can scrutinize the results of these new narratives as we develop an inspiring action plan.
Science fiction is also a powerful tool for individuals. It provides agency over our futures with a more proactive approach, suspending our disbelief as we broaden the horizons of our imaginations. It can help us develop aspirational, sustainable longer-term perspectives (instead of our current bias for short-term fixes). Science fiction harnesses curiosity, creativity, and diverse perspectives to go against the grain, creating new combinations in a world where patterns are increasingly difficult to interpret.
Science fiction also helps you taste a broader set of human-machine interactions, experiences that could be tomorrow's reality. Imagine instilling empathy as part of our technological prototypes, in expectation of co-habitating with these intelligent, aware, and social machines. These metaskills will help our society thrive as we envision an alternative set of possible futures. Through science fiction, we can imagine our preferred new experiences--be they on Earth, virtual, or intergalactic, because today's impossible will be tomorrow's reality.