University Researcher / Co-founder of Next Future Laboratory
Nicolas Minvielle holds a doctorate in economics from EHESS and graduated from Kyushu University and IEP in Strasbourg. He was in charge of Philippe Starck's brands before becoming head of the Specialized Master in Marketing Design and Creation at Audencia Business School. Passionate about issues related to creation, innovation and foresight, he’s the author of eleven books on these themes. He is also a co-founder of Making Tomorrow, a collective specializing in design fiction.
Science fiction and imaginary visions have been used by firms, and more generally, by organizations, for a number of years now, in a manner that nearly paralleled the development of science fiction, and the feedback loops between science fiction, research, and industrial or other applications have been widely demonstrated.
The most striking example has been that of the atomic bomb in the military domain, recounted by British historian Lawrence Freedman. H.G. Wells is known to have outlined, in 1914, in a novel entitled The World Set Free, the very first concrete description of the use of a nuclear weapon during wartime. The idea he envisioned was that of a bomb dropped from an airplane during a hypothetical conflict involving the British, French, and Americans against Germany and Austria. The novelist did not “invent” the concept; he simply made real a suggestion made by scientists, specifically Frédéric Soddy, a student of physicist Ernest Rutherford. Soddy, as opposed to his professor, believed in the possibility of controlling atomic energy. This was a fringe idea at the time, yet nevertheless used by Wells to construct his tale and invent the concept of a nuclear weapon. This story is only complete if we consider the influence of this work of fiction on the following generation of researchers, including Hungarian Leo Szilard, who invented the chain reaction in 1934. The concept of the nuclear bomb was thus made not only possible, but plausible, which the geopolitical context of the late 1930’s would make clear to the protagonists of the era.
Within organizations, science fiction and the imaginary visions it generates may thus play a threefold role that can be summarized as follows:
By capitalizing on “scientific facts”, science fiction allows us to move onto “thought experiments”. In other words, by extrapolating from scientific elements, it becomes possible for an organization to produce imaginary visions that will serve as tests. Whatever the chosen format (video, comics, etc.), they make currently non-existent uses and practices tangible, thus making them subject to debate.
The Chroniques de Muxie (Chronicles of Muxie), created by EDF, presented and projected into the future the potential uses of the Minitel and of distance work, at a time when society was still in the nascent phases of technology. This work, conducted at the end of the 1970s, enabled the firm and its ecosystem to understand the social consequences of telematic technology. For the authors of these chronicles, “the dissemination of utopias are only an initial stimulus that should be quickly followedby other systems that are better integrated into the operational procedures of the organization, thus ensuring Moxie’s return to reality” (quoted by Michaud T, La stratégie comme discours : la science-fiction dans les centres de recherche et de développement, 2010, p.135). This use of fiction (The Chronicles of Muxie) thus allows us to deviate, envisioning the habits and uses of tomorrow based on nascent technologies, which would therefore allow us to make changes to our organization today.
Such approaches are used extensively by the armed forces of several countries, notably English-speaking ones, and by France. The most famous case of this was the partnership between SF authors and the American army post-9/11. The implication here was that the attacks were not predicted due to a lack of imagination. In the same way, Canada called upon JKarl Schroeder in 2005 to work on a short story that presented urban conflict and the use of drone-style technology. In France, it was the launch of a Red Team composed of science-fiction authors that marked a critical step in the assimilation of this type of approach.
As defined by Thomas Michaud, “science fiction is an imaginary vision, an ideology, and a set of representations of utopian technologies that participate in the crafting of strategists’ future visions” (Michaud T. 2010). Thus, visions from popular culture are a laboratory that generates new ideas “for free” and, through their spread, provide a way to test their cultural appeal, what anthropologist Grant MacCracken calls culturmatics**.
They also constitute a formidable vehicle for debating technological choices and engaging in a dialogue between the lab and the marketplace, enabling rapid and efficient innovation in each field. This is clearly linked to the permeability that exists between the world of research and that of writers and creators of imaginary visions, as illustrated above in the case of the nuclear bomb.
From this standpoint, imaginary visions and, in particular, their tangible forms (stories), have a unique power: that of questioning, in a profound and convincing manner, the limits of our future visions. For an organization that wishes to identify new drivers of growth, being able to think about one’s environment in a different way, collectively, with conviction, is a potent and essential weapon. The ability to question one’s fundamental principles, and to bring to life futures in order to then discuss them and decide on the alternative that seems most preferable, is extremely powerful.
In this case, design is no longer an end in itself, nor a process, as in design fiction, but rather an effective tool to suspend judgment on possible futures and identify new ways to see oneself within them. A mutual insurance company thus worked on a preferred future where the organization would take intelligent advantage of developments in IA and robotics. This translated into an immersion into imaginary visions dealing with these themes, then into a selection of interesting practices or, on the contrary, problems (the case of the film Elysium, where the hero is not able to pay his insurance when faced with a robot, is a good example of this). Once this was done, stories were written presenting the offers that could exist in a not-too-distant future. These fictions were presented by agents to current clients and allowed the firm to define what would be acceptable to or preferable for users.
The final way that organizations use fiction is the one that the public is most familiar with: marketing. The names used are many, but they all underline the aspirational dimension that storytelling conveys: dream stories from France Telecom, dream products in apparel, or future visions for Sony or IBM.
These concretizations are thus particular in that they present technology or practices within situations that are “descriptive”; it is the experience offered that is presented, and the real concerns are never represented. As in certain works of science fiction, “you never have to reboot your technical thingy”, explains Geneviève Bell – an anthropologist at Intel – in an article in the New York Times. The aspirations of the organization are thus presented in an idealized and perfect fashion, without taking into consideration the complexities to come, nor any unexpected consequences.
One example of this is a story like “A day made of glass”, offered by Corning, which presents a vision of the future where glass is intelligent and omnipresent in the lives of its users. The family we see benefits from fluid, gentle interactions, perfectly calibrated information, etc. By the measure of what we’re experiencing today in our everyday lives, using digital tools, the capacity of these types of tools to deliver this level of promise is extremely low, insofar as software glitches or hacks would suffice to limit this hoped-for fluidity.
This marketing role thus seeks to generate aspirations by staging near-perfect worlds where specific technologies or practices demonstrate their potential. This practice is key for an organization because it allows for an orientation of the vision, and it generates desire. Nevertheless, it does not allow firms to adopt a critical posture, which the two other approaches do highlight.
In conclusion, organizations produce fictions mainly to (i) make hypotheses on the future of certain technologies or habits and to test them, (ii) define preferable options, or (iii) communicate idealized visions of the world of tomorrow. These three approaches differ, but are not mutually exclusive, with some firms starting with the first approach, then finally ending up using the third approach.