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From science fiction to design fiction: harnessing the myths of our future

As a futurist and huge science fiction fan (not an unusual combination in the professional foresight community), I take great interest in seeing how ideas that originated in sci-fi are subsequently (and over increasingly rapid timescales) made real. I still recall my delight at the similarity in design between the Motorola flip phone I was using in the ‘90s and the communicator carried by Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise in the original Star Trek of the 1960s.

From myths of the future…

I have always found it helpful to think of science fiction as our ‘myths of the future’. Through its narratives, sci-fi creates a shared idea-space of concepts, design and language that articulates our hopes and fears for the future. What’s interesting is how science fiction, alongside more established tools of strategic foresight such as scenario planning, are now being co-opted by organisations to inspire future visions, create future-focused dialogue and catalyse innovation through the concept of ‘design fiction’.

…to design fictions

Design fiction creates imaginative narratives about the future that explore the intersection between society and technology. These narratives aren’t necessarily written plans. Often, they take the form of videos, graphic novels, artistic performances and, increasingly, physical artefacts. They spark “what if?” questions and playful, creative engagement with the future. We use the technique here at PA, and I always enjoy working with graphic artists and comic book illustrators to bring to life our imaginings of the impacts of technology on the future.

Sparking imagination with physical artefacts

Engineering future artefacts to prompt thinking about alternative future worlds is especially interesting. By creating what Manchester University’s David A. Kirkby characterised as diegetic prototypes – design fiction objects that provoke expansive thinking about future change - it’s possible to suspend disbelief about change. This is extremely valuable for organisations looking to break out of short-term thinking, which often assumes continuity, and explore possible alternative futures for their market narratives. 

Design fiction for all – harnessing the power of foresight and storytelling

Perhaps one of the most ambitious uses of design fiction is Dubai’s Museum of the Future – a project to inspire visitors about how technologies such as AI and robotics might reshape society through the use of diegetic and physical prototypes. Your organisation doesn’t have to be as ambitious as this, although some have already begun to experiment with creating their own artefacts of the future. Concept cars have long been a favourite way for automobile manufacturers to display their future visions, and now we’re seeing organisations in other sectors experimenting with speculative prototypes too.

That’s because design fiction is easily accessible. Organisations can engage professional futurists who can lead foresight processes to develop narratives about the future, or they can work with authors and creatives who specialise in storytelling and imagining the future.

We know that many of our most successful and revolutionary technological developments have been inspired by science fiction. Their creators have often told us so. In a world of breathless and accelerating change, perhaps your organisation can use science fiction and design fiction to frame explorations of the future and inspire and engage people in the development of your new products and services.

Contact the product design and engineering team