Today: science fiction. Tomorrow: reality.
For centuries mankind has dreamed about the future; dreamed, and speculated, and invented. Science fiction is the meeting between scientific reality and fictive speculation, but it has real value when it comes to understanding how people view, understand, and relate to their future. By now a venerable branch of literature after at least 200 years, the tricks and tools of the science fiction writer have become useful for more than just entertainment and diversion. These methods offer powerful ways of understanding the immediate and long-term future for a business or an organization.
In 1818, two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in London. The novel reflected on scientific discoveries – that electricity was somehow tied to muscular movement – and speculated whether it might be possible to use electricity to create life. From there, the genre called “science fiction” took off. Future society would be marked new technological innovations, from railroads to submarines to nuclear weapons to space shuttles, and science fiction authors were often among the first to make predictions about what consequences these innovations would have on human society, human relationships, perhaps even human nature itself.
So if science fiction has been a constant companion to technological development and scientific innovation, what can the science fiction of today teach us about the world of tomorrow? Naturally, science fiction writers are no oracles – they are frequently wrong in their predictions – but the methods they employ, and the questions they ask, are increasingly relevant for all kinds of organizations. Technological innovation moves at a breakneck pace and science fiction, even if it may not have the answers, can help us ask the right questions.
Living in the future, living in the present?
What, then, is the “science fiction method”? Rather than imagining a future based in the present – one that starts in today, and then proceeds with some innovation or event in a linear fashion – the science fiction writer, by dint of writing fiction featuring characters, must instead imagine a present. That is to say, to imagine a future from the point of view of someone who lives in it. Just as we understand our world today, not by thinking of its history, but by interacting with technology in the context of our society, science fiction seeks to explore a future from within. This is important, because it allows the author to consider the practical use of some new innovation, or the implications of some social change, on a wider scale that may be easily missed. For example, we today understand text messages as a mode of communication; they were originally developed as network notification systems, to be used exclusively by the network carrier. A linear reasoning would perhaps assume they would become more advanced and sophisticated notification systems; but it would hardly be able to predict that text messaging would shape the language of a generation.
Seven tips for thinking like a sci-fi writer
1. Think wider, not farther
It is usually not helpful to continue down a pre-selected linear path; the future is seldom so obvious. Rather, try to understand the future in a broader context. When predicting a course of action for your organization, try to understand how it might interact with the world in the future – how your strategic choices fit into the context of your immediate surroundings.
2. Live in the “present”
We don’t understand our own present by looking at a chain of historical events. We won’t understand the future by doing so either. Instead, to understand some future scenario, try to imagine living in that present. How would you relate to this technology when it’s “always been there”? What does your daily life look like? What new challenges have appeared that might not have been obvious in the past?
3. Think what, not how
Scientists and engineers need to worry about how a given innovation works. Leaders and science fiction writers alike need to worry more about what it means. A given story may be based on outdated or faulty premises, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful in creating insight. Even if a given innovation doesn’t exist in the market today, it might tomorrow. It pays off to speculate about what the consequences might be.
4. Dare utopia
Being “reasonable” in imagining the future is often aiming too low! If we base our predictions on what seems reasonable today, we often make assumptions that might one day no longer be valid. Utopian scenarios allow us to account both for the reasonable and the unreasonable futures, and to remember that the unreasonable might not always stay that way. After all, today we carry powerful computers in our pockets!
5. Utopia can go wrong
Science fiction also allows us to see the downsides of new developments. Often, it can issue warnings about unintended consequences of some new innovation or change. Dystopias are not usually made on purpose, but come about as a result of lacking foresight. Here, by describing the worst of worlds, science fiction can help us avoid dangerous pitfalls that might turn our dream world into a nightmare.
6. The future is a foreign country
It’s easy to think of the future as inhabited by people like us, but nothing could be further from the truth. Societies and values change over time. In understanding the future, we need to use the same methods as we do to understand foreign cultures. Even the generation after us will not think and reason like we do. For people far into the future, we might need to step outside our own viewpoint and our own comfort zone even further.
7. The future is unevenly distributed
The future is here tomorrow. Except not quite. Technology doesn’t simply appear and then dominate the world – what’s common in one area may be uncommon in another, and what’s been around in labs for thirty years might suddenly become a commercial success overnight. By paying attention to the world around us, we may be able to discern parts of the future that have already arrived – just not yet on a big enough scale to be easily noticed.
Can your organization keep up with the future?
Your engineers and service designers can predict what an innovation will do, but they cannot predict how it will be received. By thinking like a science fiction writer, you can design and implement a broader strategy that isn’t just hinged on a single linear change. By imagining the world as a “present future”, organizations can get more holistic overviews over future situations – and by daring to rely on science fiction, they can be the first to question what seems “natural” or “immutable”. Almost every part of our daily lives today has at one point been science fiction – mere fantasy, complete impossibilities.
By combining science fiction with well-designed, flexible strategies, your organization can become better prepared for the (im)possibilities to come. How will you prepare your organization for the wonderful and terrifying world of tomorrow?