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Using science fiction to explore business innovation

Key takeaways

  • Science fiction has consistently predicted future technologies and social phenomena.
  • Using similar narrative fictions, organisations can start conversations and spark ideas for their own innovation.
  • Fictional worlds allow new products and their use to be explored without the strictures of money or technological capability hampering creativity.

Star Trek fans understand that future technology imagined in science fiction often becomes real innovation.

Over the years, the series have shown characters using flip phones, natural language queries to AI, iPad-like tablets, smartwatches, universal translators and 3D printing (in the form of replicators). All of which have since become things we can use in the present day.

These objects materialised in reality partly because budding inventors and scientists were inspired by their conceptual attractiveness, how they were integrated and used within an imagined world, and found a way to turn at least part of that future into the now.

Contemplating these possible futures, with their narratives in which new products and services are woven, is a useful tool to begin any kind of digital transformation project.

To boldly go… science fiction’s exploration of the future

While science fiction often envisages possible futures, it doesn’t (usually) set out to prophesy them. That’s a pastime better left to futurists, economists and Nostradamus. Science fiction, while entertainment, does however aim to shed light on the human condition.

The nature of sci-fi is found in its believable, physically possible subject matter, unlike fantasy which operates in a realm of logic unlike our own. This shared reality enables us to examine how innovations might be used and through that, to see their value.

Perhaps then it is not so surprising that many examples from the science fiction oeuvre, from literature to television and film, have unnervingly predicted technology and social phenomenon that we experience today.

Sci-fi predictions come true

In 1865, more than 100 years before the US successfully achieved it, Jules Verne wrote of man’s voyage to the moon in the rather literally titled The Earth to the Moon. In 1888, Edward Bellamy predicted the use of credit cards in his utopian fiction Looking Backward: 2000-1887.

Ray Bradbury imagined earbuds in 1953 (Fahrenheit 451), Aldous Huxley, antidepressants in 1931 (Brave New World), Arthur C Clarke, computer tablets with digital newspapers (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) and of course, George Orwell who, in 1949, when even colour television wasn’t yet being broadcast, predicted the always televised surveillance state in 1984.

On television and the silver screen too, we’ve seen a parade of technology appearing years before its time. There’s a video call à la Skype in Blade Runner, virtual reality glasses in Back to the Future, and holograms in Star Wars.

These stories are thought-provoking and often immensely entertaining, but can we take more from the fact that so many of their imagined objects have come true?

A new way of thinking

Design fiction is a thought experiment, a way of purposefully imagining future societies and the set-dressing that goes with them while dispensing with the shackles of reality – such as technological capability, funding or commercialisation potential.

The method uses fictional future scenarios in order to imagine and examine the use of products. While this could be seen as a form of prototyping, there’s a subtle difference which lies in the expanded universe around these creations.

Julian Bleecker, who coined the term in 2009¹, says design fiction “creates these conversation pieces, with the conversations being stories about the kinds of experiences and social rituals that might surround the designed object.”

Putting humans first

One benefit of a design fiction approach is that it allows businesses to invent things, then examine them for feasibility in a kind of ‘in situ’ future world.

Aspects such as how they might be interacted with, what role they play in amongst other potential objects of the day, their drawbacks, or any other question can be asked of the designed narrative.

In this way, design fiction takes a human-centric approach to creation, similar to design thinking, which aims to solve a problem in the present. By putting the social or human/customer first and technology second, it allows designers to understand the efficacy of the product and discuss its potential flaws.

Star Trek’s communicators inspired mobile phones² not because they were the focus of the show (as they would be if a prototyping exercise) but because of the ease and utility they presented in the daily lives of the fictional characters.

Using design fiction for your business

Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple have dabbled with design fiction, connecting science fiction writers with their developers³.

Of course, tech giants have the benefit of their own engineers to turn fictions into a reality. But while local business might not have the immediate capability to build the objects they imagine, the concept still provides a starting point. The actual development of an object can then approached using other design and implementation methodologies.

Knowing what to design, when you’ve been tasked with disrupting for competitive advantage, can be a daunting task. The good news is that not only is it fun to write a fictional scenario for your product or line of business, it also helps to spark ideas. And then it allows you to explore those concepts, freely and with a blank slate.

By extrapolating today’s sociological or economic trends and imagining a future for tomorrow, businesses can examine potential uses of their goods. This gives them a target product to build or deliver.

How and why people use technology in this future provides the impetus for creating the imagined object.

Create a future based on trends you’re seeing in your line of work, then extrapolate that even further. Fill out the world’s details, add some characters to interact in it and start asking questions. What objects will enable this new world? What needs could you fill from your line of business? What would be the most amazing incarnation of your product or service if money was no object?

Keep asking questions, find the puzzles, then work backwards to something possible.

The reality of fiction

There are still objects from science fiction that are being made real. Warp drive is theoretically possible4, holodecks are coming along with advances in VR and we’ve managed to teleport quantum matter into space5

Uber is creating a design fiction of its own, announcing that it will roll out a network of flying cars by 2020. The company itself cannot make flying cars6. But by creating a vision of a fictional future, it is investing in companies and hoping others will join them to make it real.

Whatever your line of business, product or service, there’s a design fiction that could help you to innovate.

What’s the story of your future? Imagining it will be the first step towards making it a reality.

Image: © muratart –


Dr Amy Gibbs

Amy is the Editor in Chief for Digital Pulse, PwC Australia