Have you ever heard of a short story called Dial F for Frankenstein? Chances are you haven’t, as it is a minor story within the prolific oeuvre from the British author Arthur C. Clarke, a man most often remembered for having co-written the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, would you believe me that such a brief tale was more influential than Kubrick’s film will ever be?
That might sound odd, but that’s until you learn that the decades-old story was paramount for the invention of a little thing called the World Wide Web.
The relation between the story and Berners-Lee’s invention becomes crystal clear as soon as you start reading Dial F for Frankenstein. The story focuses on a tech crew discussing the ramifications of their latest tech breakthrough: linking the world’s telecommunications system through satellites. Today, that might sound like an unimaginative story written by a ranting newbie. But in 1961, the story packed so much power that it impressed young Berners-Lee, who thought: “What if?”
Reading the story right now seems surreal. While we haven’t seen the global chaos described in it, the impact of such a network anticipated the internet’s prominence and ubiquity across all human activities. How could someone think of a story that accurately describes our life decades after? Simple, my friends: through the power of imagination.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself: “That’s nice and all, but what does that have to do with business growth?”. Incredibly enough, more than you can imagine.
The spark for innovation
How innovations come to be? While there isn’t a recipe, there is a general consensus that innovation results from a multi-step process that involves acquiring knowledge, exploring subjects, formulating hypotheses, trying and implementing solutions, and finally distributing the final product. The starting idea for the innovation, however, doesn’t come out of a procedure. That seed often comes from an unexpected bout of inspiration, a chance discovery when looking for something else, or after considerable exploration.
In the case of Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, it’s clear that the spark for innovation came in the form of a short story. And it wasn’t the only case where that happened, mind you.
Jules Verne’s stories spawned numerous inventions, including the submarine and the helicopter. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired the development of IBM’s Deep Blue and Google’s Deep Mind. The Metaverse came straight out of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash. Even Star Trek has been recognized as an inspiration for an impressive list of products, including mobile phones, MP3s, and 3D printers.
These are just a few examples of world-shattering innovations coming to life out of sci-fi stories. There are plenty more out there, and I’m pretty sure that there are many more to come. Why? Because experts, futurologists, researchers, and companies still look to science fiction for inspiration. Does that mean you need to start reading Sequoia Nagamatsu, Adrian Tchaikovsky, or Matt Bell? Well, you definitely should, as you never know what you’ll get from them. But I’m signaling to something beyond sci-fi itself
The power of storytelling
Sci-fi is just one of the many ways in which we tell stories to one another. We are constantly telling each other stories not just through books, TV shows, and movies but also through the narratives we build through our attitudes and behaviors, both in “real life” and in digital channels (primarily social media). That’s hardly surprising. We are hardwired to do so to survive in our societies.
As Jonathan Gottschall, the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, said in a PBS interview, “Little children come into the world, and they learn to make up stories, to tell stories, to live inside stories, and then make believe by nature, but not by nurture. It’s as natural and as reflexive for them as breathing.”. That’s how we end up educating ourselves, socializing, and even dreaming through stories.
When you put it like that, stories and storytelling have an immeasurable power in our daily lives, as they guide and build our different cosmovisions and roles in societal life. But what’s more important for businesses is that stories can also provide us with new horizons we can explore. In other words, certain types of stories can “suggest” paths forwards in a way akin to futurology. Martin Cooper, the cellphone inventor, said it best when recognizing Star Trek as a source of inspiration for his invention: “That was not fantasy to us, that was an objective.”
The power of storytelling, then, isn’t just reserved for the world we’re living in right now but also for shaping the future we want for ourselves. By imagining and telling ourselves new stories, we can devise different futures and start turning them into realities today. In that context, design fiction begins making a lot of sense, even for businesses.
What’s design fiction?
According to Wikipedia, design fiction is “a design practice aiming at exploring and criticizing possible futures by creating speculative, and often provocative, scenarios narrated through designed artifacts.” That’s a useful (albeit a little lifeless) description of what design fiction is, as it also implies what it can do for society and businesses in particular.
If you read between the lines, then you’ll see that design fiction allows you to create fictional stories about futures that don’t exist just yet. Then, you can use those fictional stories to define the new horizons you can lead your business to — just like Martin Cooper and Star Trek!
Why use design fiction?
The general goal of design fiction is to foster debates around wild futuristic ideas, so it expands the boundaries of what we perceive as possible.
Thus, you can use design fiction in any aspect of life to put different possibilities on the table and explore them. With enough imagination (and effort), you can end up defining a roadmap you can follow to get to that future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
Before that, it’s important to understand that design fiction shies away from using data for predictive analysis, as it doesn’t focus on whether those futures are plausible or likely. Design fiction uses data but only from weak signals of the world around us, such as emerging trends and technologies. Stepping on those foundations, the design fiction process extrapolates the data to build unexplored future scenarios that question and challenge our current assumptions about how we see and engage with the world.
This can be incredibly useful on a business level, as you can imagine future services and products (aka, different ways of doing things) that can inform your product development strategy. I’m basically saying that design fiction can help you imagine a disruptive product that might change everything. That’s precisely what Meta (nee Facebook) is doing with the Metaverse: the company saw that a Ready Player One-like future could be something huge and started working towards that goal. It became such a priority for the tech giant that they even changed their name!
How to use design fiction for business growth
So, how can you make design fiction work for you? The process might differ depending on your organization, available resources, and strategy. However, you can take a series of steps to get to a viable designed artifact you can focus on.
The first step is all about crafting scenarios for the possible futures you can imagine for your company on many levels. The best way to go about this is to think outside the box and consider multiple sources of information. Remember that you aren’t trying to predict what the future will look like. Instead, you want to create an alternative story that allows you to look at the future differently. It’s not about utopias and dystopias: it’s about how different the future could be by considering the mundane.
You should use multiple resources to craft that artifact: foresight tools, current trends, analogous situations, science fiction works, and even interviews with stakeholders and disruptive minds. The biggest question that will guide this whole process is the same that led Berners-Lee like a north star: what if?
Using the data gathered from all those sources, you can start creating different stories that recount a wide range of scenarios and versions of the future for your business. For instance, you can tinker with the idea of the seasonal behavior of your customers changing radically. Or with the notion that increased automation renders humans almost useless in your industry. Sounds extreme? That’s precisely what you’re aiming for.
Exploring new horizons
After you have diverse scenarios, it’ll be time to decide which ones you’ll focus on.
Try to pick an assortment of possibilities that range from the most believable to the most outrageous so you can cover an exciting variety that can bring wildly different ideas. Once you have those scenarios, it’ll be time to round up team members from across your company to discuss them. Inviting people from all levels of the organization is very important, as they’ll bring fresh perspectives that only a person in their position can provide.
Form small teams to discuss possible future scenarios and encourage them to reflect on how the company could behave when faced with them. How would they overcome the challenges associated with that particular scenario? Do they feel like there’s something that might help them in that process? How do they see themselves if that scenario happened tomorrow?
These and other questions can provide appealing arguments and components for your design fiction. In fact, design fictions emerge as a result of the discussions around the questions you ask the group.
The resulting design fiction will then serve you to build design artifacts such as short videos or fictitious news stories. Using those artifacts, you can create a roadmap for the strategic transformation needed for your company to become that future version you’ve just imagined. This is the climax of the whole process, as what you get here can completely change your company’s mission and vision — just like it happened with Facebook when it became Meta on account of their bet on the Metaverse.
Future growth starts today
As you can see, design fiction can help you see things you might be ignoring, which can be highly beneficial (or detrimental) to your business’s growth. Through design fiction, you might uncover that you can transform a particular product or service of yours into a different beast. For instance, the entire automation of your industry scenario might give you the roadmap to get into another field where your human talent can excel, opening the possibility to branch your business into another profitable venture.
I know that design fiction might sound futile and even laughable to some of you. I don’t blame you. Putting ourselves in the shoes of sci-fi writers and futurologists might not feel like the best use of our time. However, many past experiences with design fiction have proven how effective it can be to reimagine your company and create new and exciting products.
It’s not an easy journey, though. You must keep your mind wildly open to any and all possibilities you can think of and you need to get a lot of people involved in the process. You need time and effort to properly create your design artifacts. Yet, if you allow yourself to do all that, you’ll see that the power to share a more desirable future for your company lies in your hands. And that quest towards business growth can start today!