Countering dystopian science fiction’s ‘wet blanket effect’ on innovation


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A crackteam of futurists, engineers and writers has come together to inspire the next wave of giant leaps of innovation, countering the dark visions of the future portrayed by a lot of contemporary science fiction

“The future is a verb, not a noun,” says Liam Young, referring to the idea that we create the future rather than passively receive it. “And science fiction is an extraordinary storytelling medium that can help the audience realise that we are active agents in shaping our own futures rather than the victims of the default dystopias that often seem to be the modus operandi of future thinking.”

Young is a London-based independent architect, futurist and critic, who last year brought together a think tank of science-fiction writers, illustrators, scientists, engineers and technologists to curate the Under Tomorrow’s Sky project, with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) as one of the main collaborators. Their eerie-looking design for a post-oil city of the future was unveiled last year at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven. The CSI, itself launched in September 2012, brings together the same mix of creative collaborators and technologists in an attempt to recreate the optimistic “moonshot” thinking that they believe has disappeared from an American society more interested in the zombie apocalypse.


Now, almost a year later, Young is about to unveil the next stage of the project at the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Biennale. Future Perfect will zoom into five districts of this fictional city with the creation of five full-sized immersive installations for the audience to experience. These installations are intended to be “visions of wonder rather than cautionary tales”, provoking by exaggerating the present rather than “saying how things should be”.

For Edward Finn, director of CSI, the simple mission of the centre, which is unusual for a research university, is to get people to “think more ambitiously and creatively about the future”. The idea stemmed from a debate between sci-fi author and cyberpunk founder Neal Stephenson and Arizona state president Dr Michael Crow as to why American society had its lost its interest in these giant leaps into the future.

For Crow it was the dark visions of the future that seem to dominate contemporary science fiction — like Stephenson’s own cyberpunk novels — that were failing to inspire today’s engineers and scientists in the way that, last century, the more “techno-optimistic” Star Trek or Amazing Stories did their predecessors in a “strong feedback loop”.

Stephenson responded to this challenge by founding Project Hieroglyph, a non-profit online journal, run in cooperation with the CSI, that tries to place science-fiction writers in direct conversation with scientists and engineers to produce a collection of optimistic and inspirational science fiction. Since then this collaboration has been joined by others, including Under Tomorrow’s Sky as well as Intel’s Tomorrow Project.

Whoever they are collaborating with, for Finn the goal is to install in us a sense of “agency” about the future, “to make us realise that we are all making choices that create the future”.

Science-fiction author Cory Doctorow says that sci-fi “makes a lot of predictions about the future, but there are no specific reasons why they should be true”. Doctorow is reimagining Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novella The Man Who Sold The Moon for Project Hieroglyph as a story about sending 3D printers to the moon to build a base for humans to inhabit afterwards — rather like Nasa’s own project that was announced later.

He believes it’s better to describe the relationship as providing inspiration to engineers and scientists — something that has happened ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Doctorow isn’t himself convinced that that sci-fi “is particularly dystopian”, as it is a genre that is now so “unimaginably large”.

For him, science fiction is “not just a place to be inspired but a place to capture the zeitgeist”. So it is not surprising that “science fiction is trying to reflect or warn about” fears over, for example, whether the new technological revolution is going to take away jobs and concentrate wealth even more into the hands of a minority.

“This is not to say science fiction can’t also have an optimistic view of the future,” he says. “If a future Earth is depicted as being wrecked by catastrophes then what’s optimistic is the resilience of human civilisation.

“This is far more optimistic than pretending that the future will have no storms in it.”

Science fiction can though, he believes, “help an engineer make good decisions because it can give them access into people’s interior space of mind to know how they are thinking about the technology”.

Although, as writing is a solitary activity, he is not sure how desirable it would be to have an engineer “giving me constant feedback on my ideas”.

For Arizona State structural engineer and “steel guy” Professor Keith Hjelmstad, there is a lot of truth in the idea that “science fiction acts as an inspiration for engineers, along the lines of ‘gosh, what could be built if sky is unlimited'”.

Hjelmstad has worked on turning Stephenson’s “mindblowing” 20-kilometre-high Space Tower concept, which features in Project Hieroglyph, into “plans good enough to present to a room full of engineers without blushing”. The challenge for Hjelmstad is to design a tower that planes or space missions could dock at or launch from “using materials available today”, such as steel, together with technological innovation — how about a tower that is more like a kite? — rather than using “unobtanium” to magic away such problems as the speed of the Gulf Stream.

“Dystopian views of the future do have a wet blanket effect on engineers,” he feels. “Questions about whether technology is good for the world mean that engineers almost end up apologising” for what they do. More importantly, he feels, this “limits the creativity which is needed to think about the big things [necessary to] solve the world’s problems”.

In the end, Hjelmstad is sanguine about the long-term future of the Center for Science and the Imagination, as it is a challenge for it to “operate in a conventional world” and he points out that “taking big risks and doing wild things” is not part of what universities usually do. “They are supposed to be pushing forward new frontiers, but are actually very conservative.”


Young, like Hjelmstad, agrees that it is the “challenging institutional context” of the CSI that will determine how successful the centre will be. In particular he believes it will be down to “how the university values the output” compared to the traditional way of measuring the number of publications put out by a researcher or department. “It will be interesting to see how they have figured out how talk about fiction and speculation can exist in that framework.”

It will also be interesting, he feels, to see whether what they come out with is different from the alternatives such as Sony’s Futurescapes and even commercial trend forecasting.

Ed Finn agrees that the “challenge is now to see it through” and to capitalise on the “enthusiasm and excitement that exists all over the world for the project”. He does, however acknowledge the thin line between optimistic and pessimistic science-fiction. As Young says, “one person’s dystopia may be another’s utopia.” 

The problem is that the clock is ticking and the seed funding from the Office of the President runs out after three years — so the centre has to develop its own “sustainable funding models” if there is to be a future at all.

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