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SciFly NYC // 85 // Speculation, Prediction & Impact

Weekly Events 7/15 - 7/21

Hey SciFly Readers!

Writing today's post from my friend's house in the UK as I stay up all night before my long flight back to NYC tomorrow. Had a feeling I would be way too jet-lagged to write this on Sunday, so what a better way to spend some time? :D

This week I want to talk about a topic I have thinking a lot about lately, and just encountered again today in a great Wired article "Can Sci-Fi Writers Prepare Us for an Uncertain Future?" by the host of one of my favorite podcasts 'Flash Forward'. If you have ever read SciFly, you probably know where I stand on this, but I feel like this question has been coming up more and more for me as I continue to grow my passion for and experience with strategic foresight, futurism, and speculative practice.

We live in a time of unprecedented technological and social transformation and the pace only seems to be getting faster. As a result, many companies and organizations are turning to science fiction authors to help them to creatively tell stories about the future so they can better predict what is to come, and what steps they should take as a result.

As the Wired article explains, an amazing science fiction author Tim Maughan, who I was lucky enough to catch in NYC for a discussion on his new book Infinite Detail (I also finally read it and it was AMAZING!) was recently contracted by Arup to basically do a series of design/storytelling exercises that could help them think more constructively about the future of transportation, aka user journeys. The article questions whether or not science fiction writers are qualified to predict the future. The point of the article isn't whether writers think they are qualified or not (they usually admit they aren't in the business of prediction), rather it focuses on the growing fascination that companies are having with science fiction as a medium for storytelling that can help us to 'predict the future'.

Now, I personally believe that creative exercises such as personas and journey maps/user journeys can be extremely powerful tools that help us to build empathy with actual people experiencing future scenarios. As part of my daily UX design grind, I have seen over and over again how these types of tools can help partners and stakeholders to better identify with real users, their challenges, and better understand when that often, when they say user, they really mean themselves.

Recently I led our IT department through an emerging technology workshop where we looked at some trends and technologies, journey mapped out the way a business process was undertaken today, and then got creative with user journeys to imagine how that process could be improved using the tech: Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and/or Augmented Reality. I was only able to check in with a couple of people directly (I've been in and out of the office the last month with PRIMER and my travels) but already many of my colleagues have expressed said they really enjoyed the workshop and found it a valuable opportunity to break out of their day-to-day job functions and really think about technology in a new way.

I also understand from experience that there are very strong parallels between these types of design exercises and speculative fiction (it can be a thin line depending on the tech imagined in the journey). When I was in grad school undertaking my first 'speculative' project, a design intervention for NYC in 2050, I accidentally wrote a 40-page speculative short-story in an attempt to journey map some of the trends we had identified through a STEEP analysis. I immediately was reminded of worldbuilding and character development one would use for a novel as I did the STEEP exercise, sketched out the boundaries of the world our project would take place in, and then used personas (or characters) to empathize with what someones paint points, motivations, and goals would be in that future. The user a journey, a culmination of this process, was like writing a plot for the story, trying to highlight several of the technologies used and the opportunities and challenges they would create.

So when I checked out this article and learned that Tim was working with Arup to help them better understand the future of transportation given climate change, I wasn't surprised nor did I question his 'qualifications for doing so'. It seems that since I left school only a few short years ago, speculative practitioners (including myself) have been called upon more and more to help tell stories about the future that others can understand, whether just for fun, to warn about a particular direction we may go in, or even help other's feel like they have more agency over today by being able to better envision tomorrow.

That being said, by no means do I believe that organizations should turn to speculative fiction and design for 'prediction'. As any good futurist would tell you, they can't predict the future, they can just offer a narrower cone of probable ones given some of the trends going on today (with many assumptions). I do believe there is power in narratives that can help everyday people better understand and experience the future, whether that narrative is articulated through writing, film, or design.

The article asks "Can sci-fi writers be trusted to frolic through boardrooms, forecasting the future without supervision?" citing human's tendency to turn towards storytelling and myth during times of crisis. Of course science fiction writers can't predict the future. And they would be the first to tell you that. In fact, Ursula K. LeGuin did so probably better than I ever can in one of her introductions when she said:

"Science fiction isn't predictive; it is descriptive. Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists."

She goes on to explain that "...our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists." and she is absolutely right. Now, this isn't to say that I don't believe that speculative practitioners have nothing to offer companies, they absolutely do. They can help shed a light on emerging signals and trends today, they can help companies to empathize with the needs of a future person in a radically different situation, they can sound a clarion call to take a particular action now order to avoid a set of futures that is absolutely not preferable for those involved. And as we have seen, they can also serve to inspire some of the most interesting innovations we have today.

As the article states, "It's important to distinguish between prediction and impact." This is a case of chicken before the egg. Did Star Trek predict cell phones naturally occurring? Or did engineers who were huge Trekkies go on and create cellphones because they wanted their own communicator. Most likely the second. As I have written about in past articles lot's of technological innovations have come out of science fiction novels, and that is why we need more diverse people writing and getting inspired by them. But at no point would I say that speculative practice predicts the future through writing or any other means and I am a bit concerned that organizations think it can.

So what, in fact, is the point of speculative practice then?  Just to speculate? Or to create impact? These are questions we hear a lot in the futures' community, and a well-founded one, given that the more and more I learn, the more I realize that the time, education, and networks for constructive speculation is 100% privilege (you need the time and money to have that time in order to get imaginative).

Here then is my small contribution to this debate illustrated through an inspirational example from my travels. Last week I was invited to a get-together in Warsaw to work with a group of talented people from all over the world who all shared a similar vision for a future of that is based on distributed manufacturing. While each of us was there because of a unique piece of research or tech we brought to the puzzle, one thing we all had in common was a desire to create real impact today by creating the necessary shared language and systems so this future could be possible. But getting consensus about what that future looks like can be hard.

As one of the designers in the room, I frequently chose to journey map and diagram to help myself get creative about how some of the ideas might work and what steps should be the first taken towards this future. I also started to notice that those of us who had read speculative fiction about futures in where this type of manufacturing was happening, even if different spins on the topic, were much better able to envision what we might be trying to accomplish and had the language and storytelling to get others on board, or to use the stories as ways to check on consensus.

For example, I met an incredible individual who shares a love of science fiction and explained to him how my contribution to this idea, a graduate thesis I did with my good friend and design partner Audrey Fox called UNUM, was very much inspired by the aforementioned accidental speculative short story (even though I didn't know what a blockchain was at the time) and he shared a similar story about how he got inspired. Several times throughout the workshop, when people got stuck, we both were able to use books like Cory Doctorow's Makers and Walkaway, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, and William Gibson's The Peripheral to bring us back to our shared passion for what this future could look like, add context to existing ideas, and help translate concepts to some of the developers and makers in the room. 

So, while I agree with the articles point that world-building can often be super aspirational, but then nothing happens, I don't think that has to be the case.

I have found over and over again while working for nonprofits and mentoring Social Impact Entrepreneurship students at The New School that my speculative diet of fiction, articles, designs, and other projects helped me to work with them to understand just exactly what the future would look like if their impact came to pass. It gave me the language to help them explain their impact and to imagine what the world would look like if their idea was fully implemented. For this reason, I actually think that both reading sci-fi and doing speculative practice are some of the most powerful tools an organization can leverage when writing the last step of their theory of change (the future state they imagine) as well as selling this idea to stakeholders today (since graphs and charts aren't very exciting).

Anyway, it's finally 4 am and time to leave for the airport, so enough on the topic for now. I also suggest you check our Malka Older's short story int he anthology A Peoples Future of the United States edited by Victor Lavelle for a riveting and entertaining glimpse of where the futures' community might go in this regard as things like science fiction, speculative practice and strategic foresight become more mainstream and necessary for anyone who is trying to map their way to the future they desire.

Thanks for listening and curious to hear your thoughts on the Wired article as well! 

Please read on to see this weeks events and subscribe if you want to receive future editions!


"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 7/15

Tuesday | 7/16

Wednesday | 7/17

Thursday | 7/18

Friday | 7/19

Saturday | 7/20

Sunday | 7/21

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

A People's Future of the United States
Multiple Authors, Edited by Victor LaValle

Can Sci-Fi Writers Prepare Us for an Uncertain Future?
by Rose Eveleth

This 'Artificial Muscle' is 60 Times Stronger than a Human One
by Victor Tangermann

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Join the NYC Speculative Futures meetup, a group for those interested in Critical Design, Speculative Design, Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Futurism, Science Fiction or any other incarnation of the approach which involves using Design to speculate about alternate futures. We'll be hosting speakers, workshops, and more!
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