May 23, 2024

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Science It Works

A brief history of using applied science fiction contests to design the future

Science fiction readers are often amazed at the ability of their favorite writers to “predict the future.” Most of those writers, however, would argue that they’re terrible at such a thing, and really only good at reacting to the world right now. When concepts from sci-fi seem to come true, it’s less about clairvoyance and more about inevitability.

Still, the idea of using imaginative science to drive fiction can be exploited to help guide the future by helping people envision new possibilities. Write enough about interstellar travel, and sooner or later, you’re going to inspire someone to build a functioning space craft. The Chinese government has invested in science fiction for this specific reason—to inspire engineers. Even the Obama administration had a strategy for using sci-fi as a foresight tool.

You might call this “applied science fiction” — stories specifically designed to expound upon existing scientific concepts in order to shape the future. Over at Medium, writer and lawyer Kevin Bankston has rounded up a brief history of this sci-fi-as-foresight ideas, focusing mostly on themed contest. He looks at fiction submission calls to “imagine the future of X,” as well as the trend of “design fiction” anthologies that use stories to crowdsource ideas around specific policies or problems.

Bankston touched on the topic in a piece for Slate back in 2017, too:

Great dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, in the words of one defender of dystopian fiction, can serve as self-defeating prophecies helping us to recognize and prevent the dark worlds they depict. Put another way, The Handmaid’s Tale actually is an instruction manual, meant to teach us what we must fight to avoid. But hope can’t live on dystopia alone. It requires positive visions, too.

[…]

The trend of science fiction being used as a prototyping tool is not new. What is new, however, is that so much sci-fi prototyping that used to be done in the privacy of the Pentagon or the corporate boardroom is now being done in public. Indeed, there’s been an absolute explosion of sci-fi prototype publishing in just the past few years. MIT Technology Review‘s reporting has formed a foundation for its Twelve Tomorrows” series of anthologies. Microsoft’s “Future Visions” anthology spins out the implications of the company’s latest research. When Brian David Johnson was at Intel, he launched the Tomorrow Project sci-fi prototyping story contest and related anthologies. Design software company Autodesk has published a set of stories generated by its strategic foresight division. The Institute for the Future has a collection of stories about “The Coming Age of Networked Matter,” while Scifutures has published a collection of science fiction that prototypes “The City of The Future.” Truly, there’s never been more corporate-driven tech scenario–building available to public.

Unsurprisingly, there’s already a great looking post-pandemic futures sci-fi anthology on the way:

Examples of Applied Sci-Fi: Design Fiction Story Contests, Anthologies, Practitioners, and More [Kevin Bankston / Medium]

Prototyping a Better Tomorrow [Kevin Bankston / Slate]

Image: Public Domain via Needpix