Using science-fiction stories to direct society and business

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Neat piece from The New Yorker, on a man who has set up his corporate consultancy, SciFutures, based on science-fiction writers doing stories for clients. However, there are limitations to what can be explored. An excerpt:

About five years ago, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company. “It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.”

Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other—corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, moved to a smaller house*, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and nato. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged. The authors’ stories, she added, which range in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, are “not just marketing pieces, but sometimes we have to pull back or adjust to accommodate a brand.”

She and Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters. Phillips mentioned one story that initially featured a kangaroo running amok in a major North American city. The client, a carmaker, asked that the marsupial be removed.

More here. Part of our agenda at A/UK is to take advanced tools from the business world - like scenario-planning and forecasting - and make them tools to awaken and enliven citizens and communities (see our Futures category). Nesta has done some amazing work here - see papers from Georgina Voss and Jon Turney, as well as this short story commission around infectious futures.