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Science Fiction as a tool for planning (the view from 20 years ago)

I originally wrote and published this article on June 4, 1999 on this very site, villamil.org, more than 20 years ago. I’m reposting it as-is, including some very dated references.

This is an idea that is gaining a great deal of currency lately, as many business leaders and entrepreneurs point out the key role of science fiction books and media while they were growing up.

However, I did receive a very interesting comment on this and other pieces, which is worth highlighting. While traveling in India in 2001, I met a group of Spanish civil servants on vacation, and I shared a link to this piece in its original form. They read it, and their response has stayed with me: they basically said that I was clearly very passionate about the subject, but all my essays skewed towards pointing out the monetary value of things. If I enjoyed something, that is enough – I didn’t need to justify it by using it to make money.


Image by David Revoy / Blender Foundation – Obra proprie, CC BY 3.0

Recently, my friend Nick attempted to describe my job: he said he thought of me as a sort of “arsey clerk”. After an awkward pause for reflection, it occurred to me that he had intended to compare me to Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer who invented/predicted geostationary communications satellites. (For the sake of our friendship I’ll continue to assume this interpretation.)

By comparing me, a strategy consultant, to a science fiction writer Nick was making an interesting point: in many industries, science fiction (or the science fiction approach) is potentially an extremely valuable way to approach the challenge of planning for an uncertain future, and exploring possibilities which may uncover new opportunities.

It is important to understand what “proper” science fiction is, and how it differs from the rest of literature. The best science fiction has at its core a key idea, which is explored through the story. This idea is frequently expressed as a “what if”: what if computers became intelligent, what if computers had been available 100 years ago, what if people could no longer lie to each other, what if chopsticks carried animated advertising, etc… Characterization, description, plotting are secondary in all but the best. There are other books and films classified as science fiction that are simply conventional literary genres dressed up in spacesuits and rocketships. I would class these as fantasy.

The best science fiction builds our understanding of issues affecting us today: the writers of the 50’s and 60’s explored ideas around global government, space travel, and later on, psychedelic experimentation and the nature of consciousness. Robert Heinlein’s writing career spanned all these areas.

A new crop of writers is writing very good fiction around the growth of the internet, invasion of privacy, impact of market economics and how all this affects perceptions of life, society and reality. Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ian Banks and a host of others are exemplars of the ‘net aware generation. Not coincidentally, the issues they deal with have far reaching consequences for managers in practically all industries today.

Often there is enormous value in the details of their books, not just the “big idea”: in “Holy Fire“, Bruce Sterling explores the impact of ageing population on medicine, arts, society and youth culture. However, the background of the book includes shareware distribution models applied to hardware, enhanced intelligence for pets, and a description of 21st century building techniques of considerable interest.

In “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, the key theme of central vs. decentralized systems and their power is developed further through concepts of social organization, nanotechnology and cultural values. It also explores ecosystems, Confucian justice and the future of personal armaments. Also some interesting ideas on how to bring up children.

Should a manager today read science fiction? Absolutely yes! Trying to understand the business environment by reading about what has already happened in newspapers, magazines and the internet will never give the perspective that can be gained by speculative thinking about key trends. William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in “Neuromancer” in 1984, and tapped into the aesthetic of the Internet generation years before it surfaced. The virtual world of Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” has had enormous influence on the development of Internet communities like GeoCitiesand Tripod. I have been involved in various future visioning and scenario planning projects, and the value of participation by a speculative thinker is enormous.

A key challenge for today’s business leaders is to tell a compelling story about the future, in order to persuade the customers, employees, suppliers and the markets that their organization will play a part in it. Many of those compelling stories are being written, and it behooves us to understand them in order to lead effectively.

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