Using Science Fiction Prototyping To Break Through The Consensus Innovation And Get Big Things Done Barrier

One of my favorite science fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, has written an article titled Innovation Starvation, in which he discusses how science fiction can be used to spur scientists on to make big breakthroughs. I want to extract a few comments from his article before exploring the exciting world of Science Fiction (SF) Prototyping.

Neal worries that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy…

Yet fast forward to today and where are we? Neal uses the example of energy:-

We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35 year old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.

Frustrated by our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff, Neal has turned to the tools of his trade – science fiction writing for a panacea. He believes that science fiction as hieroglyph-maker has relevance in this area:-

Good SF supplies a plausible , fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and (another of my favorites) William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs – simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Neal continues to define the problem and how SF can address it:-

Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more and more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem.

I agree that this ‘specialisation’ is an issue. However, I also believe that a culture of consensus is greatly affecting our ability to focus on and get big things solved. Much research is being driven by consensus innovation – academics are recognized and rewarded for publishing highly cited papers. Controversy does not increase citation count, nor does publishing in areas that fall outside the scientific vogue of the day.

Neal notes that many researchers and engineers have a fondness for SF, which reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision.

The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments.

This meme that we should all be working on solving big stuff that matters is something of a bug bear for me. I’ve written, for example, ¬†about harnessing the power of social to solve big problems like the obesity pandemic. Others are echoing this – Tim O’Reilly recently tweeted:

…someone else makes the appeal for entrepreneurs to work on stuff that matters…

He pointed to an article in which Alyson Shontell picks up on the meaningful innovation meme over at Business Insider. She writes that young founders seem to be enthralled with building fun but meaningless apps. She quotes VC Mark Suster as saying, “The auto industry alone is a $1.6 trillion industry, and you want to f*ck with bars and restaurants?”

But how do we inspire researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs to break out of the consensus innovation mould?

This is where SF prototyping as a means of exploring Hieroglyphs and providing inspiration for big products to solve big issues can come to the rescue.

Just as Neal Stephenson is calling for SF writers to think big and bold and inspire generations of researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs to tackle projects that can allow us to escape our current problems, so SF prototyping provides a useful tool to harness science fiction, the playground of our imaginations, tethered to science fact to both imagine our future and enable the development of new technologies and products.

Intel futurecaster, Brian David Johnson, has written a book on the interesting arena of “Science Fiction Protyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction” in which he explores the use of three publishing genres to create SF protyptes – short stories, movies and comics.

For anyone involved in exploring the boundaries of possibility and charting the trendmaps of the nextnow and the distant future, SF prototyping can be an extremely useful tool. I’ll be writing more on this area in due course.

Think big, think ahead and let’s solve for the future.

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