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Imagining a science-fiction future

By harnessing the imaginations of science fiction writers, a California company may have already helped to protect our future selves.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson Spring 2018 Cover

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Mark Mann

In 2010 Ari Popper was searching for something. He didn't know what it was exactly, but he figured he probably wouldn't find it as the president of a market research company.

"I could have continued that career," Popper says. "I could have gone to work for big companies, become head of research. But I felt like I wanted to do something different and innovative."

On a whim, he took a science fiction writing class at UCLA. Instantly intrigued, he thought the course was so phenomenal that he re-enrolled the following term.

It was then, while he was developing a passion for writing and studying science fiction stories, that Popper had an epiphany, which ultimately led to the creation of his company, SciFutures.

His idea? Use sci-fi to help big corporations get a better sense of where their businesses could go in the future and then plan accordingly. In other words, future-proof their businesses.

While he admits that his brainstorm seems wild even now after taking on several large corporations and even NATO, the principle behind SciFutures remains straightforward: Harness the imaginations of science fiction writers and the knowledge of industry experts to help clients prepare for potential obstacles and opportunities. This can take the form of graphic novels, virtual reality, film, websites and even physical props and nothing is considered too weird.

We're not for everyone

Now in its sixth year, SciFutures has helped Pepsi imagine a world where plastic bottles no longer existed, has helped Ford envision a future where people share rather than owning cars and for Hershey has written a graphic novel that portrayed people using a 3D printer to make chocolate bars. Visa's experience was more practical: SciFutures built a car interior to demo a concept for in-car mobile payments.

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A selection of Ari Popper's favourite sci-fi books.

Viktor Koen

SciFutures now uses close to 200 freelancers, many of whom are published science fiction writers (one of its biggest names is Ken Liu, translator of the Hugo Award-winning "The Three-Body Problem"). The company also taps industry or subject matter experts, including retired CIA analysts, professors and NASA engineers.

Even with such a large stable to call upon, Popper says that he never knows what to expect when he first pitches to a potential client. "Most people's reactions to what we do are along the lines of, 'Wow, you do what?!' That's the gut reaction," he says. "Then once they think about it, most of them go, 'Holy crap, that's brilliant.'"

Having said that, Popper is the first to admit SciFutures' methods may be a little too "out there" for some companies. If a client has a very conservative corporate culture, or is risk-averse, for example, then using science fiction writers as a form of risk assessment can seem too outlandish.

"We would like to be for everyone," he says. "But if culturally it's not gonna fit or they're too afraid, then it just won't work."

The fog of war

One of SciFutures' more unusual projects has been its work with NATO. Mark Tocher, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force officer and a NATO military strategist in Norfolk, Virginia, turned to Popper, curious to see if science fiction prototyping would provide a viable method of military foresight.

Tocher didn't need to be convinced of SciFutures' potential. "I drank the Kool-Aid right away," he says. "It's not hard to find examples of how science fiction has informed design. Look at the Star Trek series; there's a good handful of examples of how something that was science fiction in Star Trek became reality, like the flip phone or a tablet."

The process began with SciFutures and NATO brainstorming ideas about the future of warfare. Popper then took these ideas and worked with his team of science fiction writers and subject experts before presenting NATO with 14 stories involving imagined future combat scenarios.

The stories include scenarios as varied as child cyber-soldiers launching missile attacks on NATO troops, hacked smart guns and genetically engineered Chinese soldiers who emit fear-inducing hormones during an imagined invasion of Pakistan. Each story has questions at the end, designed to provoke discussion of the topics addressed -- kind of like a book club for the military.

In 2016 the heads of NATO and senior military officers ended up reviewing SciFutures' material at the alliance's Chiefs of Transformation Conference, which meets to address future security challenges.

Tocher wasn't surprised at how helpful the exercise was. "We figured it would work," he says. "We got very similar answers to the questions that we had used other methodologies to derive."

An unusual marriage

Professor David Southwood, of Imperial College London and a patron of the Science Fiction Foundation in the UK, considers large corporations and science fiction writers working together to be a curious idea.

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"It's not hard to find examples of how science fiction has informed design."

Viktor Koen.

"It's a gross generalization but when corporations appear, they tend to appear with a negative light," he says. "Science fiction tends to posit a future where there can be a large amount of control exerted by outside bodies. In a way, science fiction is often about how far human individuals can remain human individuals."

Writing for the benefit of large corporations may sound like the antithesis of some of sci-fi's familiar tropes, he says, but the genre has no collective morality -- instead, it's up to individual writers (including those writing for SciFutures) to consider the morality behind what they do. "Taking the moral position that large corporations are bad or wrong is probably extremely foolish. Some are and some aren't."

For instance, driverless cars, not an unfamiliar concept in science fiction, would require a huge amount of infrastructure, which in turn requires the cooperation of governments and corporations.

Southwood says, "The dissonance about the whole idea of SciFutures is the fact that it may be a sign of science fiction moving more mainstream, as we live in a world where more and more things that even 20 years ago were regarded as science fiction turn out to be real."

As for the military's involvement, Southwood sees the potential benefits of having science fiction writers imagine scenarios for the military that most of us wouldn't have started with. "It isn't necessarily bad; it depends what the military are trying to do," he says. "I'm old-fashioned enough to think sometimes they're defending us."

The future of SciFutures

SciFutures hasn't attempted to future-proof itself, but Popper knows where he wants to take his company. One goal is using its methods to highlight the ethical issues related to disruptive, emerging technologies, which are transforming humanity and what it means to be human.

Secondly, he'd love to do more around changing the conversation on food and the treatment of animals. "It's not just for humane reasons and [about] the mistreatment of animals," he says. "There are also massive environmental benefits to plant-based nutrition and diets."

Ultimately, though, he thinks that it's time for all of humanity to collectively think about the consequences of its actions and inactions.

"Personally, I am passionate about helping our species move on from the present-day fragmented, siloed and fear-based belief systems to a more unified and aspirational vision of our collective future," he says. "I am passionate about the power of stories to help us identify and create a North Star that doesn't benefit the lucky few but attempts to elevate all species on the planet." 

This story appears in the Spring 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.