Fiction in Strategy: Calculated or Created?

Fiction in Strategy: Calculated or Created?

One question in strategy work is the value of long-form science fiction.  Leading figures in technology today are cited as taking inspiration from science fiction.  For example, Elon Musk referencing works including Ian M Banks Culture novels and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Science Fiction authors have contributed to think-tanks in the past and some agencies have been set up to connect science fiction authors to strategic thinking and communications projects.

Drawing upon conversations with practitioners in the fields, here are some thoughts on the differences between long and short-form fiction in science fiction, strategic fiction and research.

Science Fiction

Features: Usually developed by solo creators. Near-term future views use extrapolation of the present. Far-term views of the future are much less tethered to limits and assumptions of existing knowledge. They focus on and explore, a single future.  They use long narrative rather than statements and evidence. The narrative emphasises subjective narratives (peoples experience) over objective (context), broad possibility driven.

Strengths: Sets aspirational or critical visions of the future with needing to comply with others beliefs or values. Useful for leadership. Less bounded by limitations of the present day. By the nature of the medium, story structure and desire for resolution of a problem, an audience will give more attention and for longer.  Use of text provokes the reader to vividly imagine a context. Imagery (imagined or supplied) and story structure aids retention of ideas. Emphasises social and cultural change and does not let technology dominate. Can use VERY provocative elements (aliens, space travel etc). Stories lend themselves to broad ideas on vague projections. Can do more than extrapolation alone and describe intended and unintended consequences around projected change.  Interesting and provocative ideas and commentary on the present can be embedded in more fantastical narratives.

Weaknesses: Near-term can be overtaken by reality. Near-term needs technical expertise by the author. Takes longer to absorb and process.Time to create a piece can be long.

Interesting: Technology development has become a dominating power in business. Leaders in technology increasingly refer or are asked to, reveal their science fictional influences. Growth in visual (comic, movie, gaming) forms of expression.

Note that these points are general in nature as there are always exceptions. For example, Science Fiction Author Olaf Stapledon wrote both ‘Sirius’, a book about the experience of being a genetically uplifted a dog and ‘First and Last Men’ about the next 2 billion years of human history.

Strategic Fiction (foresight e.g. scenarios)

Features: Collaborative creator-driven (in workshops). Near-term future views are driven from extrapolation of the present but with provocative divergences to more than one future.  Far-term (where client/audience has given permission) explorations have more creative stretch than near term. Shorter narratives (future backgrounds). A mix of objective and subjective descriptions. Narrower possibility than fiction.

Strengths: Usually has an evidence base as starting point making speculation more acceptable to less-creative minds.  Provocative variations on the near-term future. Requires less imaginative stretch.  Length of written content, usually short pieces, requires shorter-focus of attention (time). Time to create a piece is medium (days/weeks).

Weaknesses: Victim of the crowd (limited diversity in workshop groups). Thoughts of end client may limit the scope of the output (industry level rather than global, technological rather than social or cultural). The business case for strategic work does not always justify rich visualisation/expression.  The audience has a less open attention span for long narratives.

Interesting: Once scorned for fringe interest, science fiction is increasingly a mainstream genre. The is an increasing number of alternate methods of describing the future. For example, visual renderings, films, mock up of artefacts etc. Using ideas directly or as analogies are more acceptable. Can tend towards Dystopias or Dystopian thinking (problematic futures) but not exclusively.  Dystopian views of the future sometimes used for their sensationalist value rather than serious problem-solving.

Research (Forecasting)

Features: Data Extrapolation (graphs). Single futures. Objective narratives dominate. Increasing data availability. Advancing tools to extract value and views from data. New ways to express data not just in graphs but as visualisations/infographics. Less storytelling. Probability driven.

Strengths: Easier to draw a line between projections and the present. Suits risk analysis and calculation based operations and strategies (management rather than leadership). Data lends itself to a few fine points of detailed projection.

Weaknesses: Data selection is a subjective act. The danger of missing out on the broader picture. Social and cultural changes do not follow linear projections.

Interesting: Complexity theory. AI and larger available data sets may produce increasingly interesting projections. Science fiction based on ideas from data extrapolation, e.g. Vernor Vinge exploring the Singularity. Use of Virtual/Augmented reality

The Dystopia / Utopia Dilemma

A topic that comes in in conversations about the use of science fiction is around Dystopia and Utopias. Although I have written about this in the past, referring to Misstopias, I will cover some of the thoughts again here.

An arising question is why do Futurists (working in strategic fiction often with evidence) and Research tend towards Dystopian futures, ones which are problematic?  As they are data-driven, extrapolation will take us to problematic circumstances, for example, climate change and population growth. Another thought is predictable change is easier with externalities, for example, the environment and technology, rather than the complexity of projecting social, cultural and individual choice making.

Human choice-making is where science fiction authors make more of unusual acts of human agency such as limiting habitat destroying acts, propose controversial developments such as robotic companionship and take a stance on the experience of living in a world changed by faster-than-light transport, AI managed societies and genetically modified bodies.  Science Fiction authors also have greater permission, by dint of writing fiction, to challenge the influential political and religious orthodoxies by taking them to extremes.

It would be remiss of course not to note that sensationalist ideas rather than grounded ones, attract broader transmission amongst the general population.  Given the massive use of social media up and down power structures through to the public, consumable ideas that spread amongst many, i.e. populist, attract more attention than complex ones understood by a few (and probably more useful.)

Why is this interesting?

The points above are broad and, like science fiction, vary wildly in reality. The overarching point though is that science fiction is less stigmatised in begin referenced in business and technology ventures.  It may be that you are considering the use of short or long-form written fiction in your strategy work.  Even making references to existing works to help underpin something you have produced.

Interested in more thoughts like this?

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