Features | From Pivot Magazine

Why companies are hiring sci-fi writers to imagine the future

Businesses are finding novel ways to keep pace with innovation

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Spock holding a cell phone on blue backgroundNike, Google and Apple, have all enlisted the services of sci-fi writers, commissioning conceptual futuristic narratives to help them imagine the worlds in which their products, services and strategies might very soon exist (Getty)

If you want to peer into the future, put down the Magic 8 Ball and pick up a work of science fiction. Thanks to the uncanny prophetic ability of their authors, classic sci-fi tomes have long predicted the ubiquity of everything from cellphones (Star Trek) to earbuds (Fahrenheit 451) to antidepressants (Brave New World). It’s no surprise, then, that businesses and other major governing bodies—which rely on forecasting and trend analysis to not only stay afloat, but ahead of the curve—have turned to the sci-fi world for answers. In 2015, Microsoft commissioned and published an anthology of sci-fi stories on topics ranging from quantum computing to machine learning. Jeff Bezos, who made a cameo in Star Trek Beyond, lifted the concept of the Amazon Kindle almost note for note from Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age.

“Sci-fi prototyping” has become big business. In recent years, major multi-national companies like Nike, Google, Apple, Ford and Visa, and governmental bodies like NATO and the French army, have all enlisted the services of sci-fi writers, commissioning conceptual futuristic narratives to help them imagine the worlds in which their products, services and strategies might very soon exist. 

In fact, entire businesses have been built around the usefulness of what technologist Julian Bleecker dubbed “design fiction” in 2009. Take SciFutures, a Los Angeles-based operation founded by Fortune 500 consultant and self-described sci-fi nerd Ari Popper. For a negotiable fee, Popper’s team passes on client concerns (e.g., the future of payments for Visa) to a team of sci-fi writers, who churn out helpful, future-minded narratives, ultimately delivering insights to the client from several stories. For an extra fee, SciFutures can also produce videos, graphic novels and even physical or “experiential” environments. (For Visa, SciFutures built a “living room of the future” to demonstrate how customers could make payments from the comfort of their homes using only their voices.) 

“Ultimately, we’re not trying to predict the future,” says Popper, who came up with the idea for SciFutures in a creative writing class at UCLA. “Most businesses are working on a linear scale, innovating incrementally. Storytelling allows us to speculate where the world could be in five to 10 years to ensure the futures we build will bring new advantages to our clients. We look at how technologies could intersect, as well as consumer behaviour. To put it in Canadian terms,” he adds, “we’re helping them skate to where the hockey puck is going to be, not where the puck is today.”

Eliot Peper is one such skating coach. Peper is an Oakland-based author of eight sci-fi novels—including the Uncommon series, which centres on a tech start-up hell-bent on dismantling an international financial conspiracy. He has independently consulted and produced stories for several Fortune 100 firms and given talks at Google and Qualcomm.

Peper started in venture capital and worked for a number of tech start-ups, “which was helpful in getting me to wrap my head around why a management team would ever [hire sci-fi writers],” he says. For starters, says Peper, contemporary times are “terrifying.” While the history of civilization has always seen a steady trickle of innovation, from the cotton gin to the internal combustion engine, disruptive technologies have come at a breakneck pace in the last century. “If you’re in charge of a large organization, that’s an incredible challenge, which explains the ambient anxiety I see among upper management,” he says. “By presenting a world different from the one we live in, sci-fi is like yoga for the brain. It asks you to consider how the world might be different, which is a huge competitive advantage. It’s a hedge.” Madeline Ashby, a futurist and sci-fi writer based in Toronto, agrees: “We can surface tensions and ideas and problems that maybe the institutional culture doesn’t want to talk about.”

Peper points to another reason why firms may seek the input of fiction writers. He cautions that just because CEOs have access to more data than ever doesn’t mean all this information will necessarily be useful to an organization of the future. “If you look at a McKinsey or UN trend report or any highly corporate white papers that talk about what to expect in 2050, they’re just extrapolating from the status quo,” says Peper. “The firehose of data that management teams now have at their disposal can provide a lot of insight, but it doesn’t tell you how and when the world is going to change.”

Whether a company is Nike-sized or a more humble operation, Peper insists that even the most innovative firms are much better off relying on the time-honoured custom of storytelling rather than impersonal data banks or trend pieces. “Sci-fi doesn’t just explain how our systems and institutions might change—it forces us to imagine the depth and richness of what these futures might feel like to people, and how it will impact their behaviour, which is ultimately all that matters to businesses,” he says. Or as Ashby puts it, “It digs into the human.”

ONE STEP AHEAD

The world is rapidly changing, as is the accounting profession. Learn more about where it’s possibly heading with insights from CPA Canada Foresight: Reimagining the Profession initiative’s report, The Way Forward.