That moment when sci-fi becomes reality and all chocolate is 3D-printed and nobody owns a car

by Todd Neff

Scenario planning has been around for a half century. Royal Dutch Shell used it to foresee and react to the oil crisis of the early 1970s — and still uses it. Futurist Brian David Johnson added science fiction to the scenario-planning formula, helping Intel predict future applications of its microprocessors in the 2000s.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when Ari Popper opened the doors of his Burbank, California consultancy SciFutures, that science fiction emerged as a mainstream organizational visioning, strategy development and even prototyping tool.

History has shown that, with sci-fi, art presages life: think iPad, IBM’s Watson, the smartphone and much more. Directed energy weapons have made less-than-killer-moon-scale versions of the Death Star a reality. Arthur C. Clarke imagined communication satellites more than a decade before Sputnik. Even those old pre-Jetson’s mainstays, flying cars, are on the cusp of commercialization.

In that spirit, Popper and his SciFutures team created for The Hershey Co., a graphic novel about a future sated with 3D-printed food. For Ford, they imagined a future without car ownership (subscription transportation services and sharing among the alternatives). For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they envisioned the future of warfare. Most famously, SciFutures worked with Lowe’s to create the Star Trek holodeck-inspired Holoroom, a 20-by-20-foot space in which shoppers can see how Lowe’s products might look in their own homes. Customers pick out products on a tablet, then use a virtual reality headset to see those products placed in context in the home.

Visualizing a home improvement project with Lowe’s Holoroom

The Holoroom and all the rest are all the more remarkable considering that, until 2012, Popper was president of the U.S. branch of multinational market research firm that had no obvious sci-fi predilections. Popper was into sci-fi, though, enough so that he enrolled in a science fiction writing course at UCLA. It changed his life — and, with time, the direction of not a few clients.

“I just had an epiphany that the process of writing sci-fi is a really good way to ideate about the future and to really immerse yourself in the future,” he told the Boston Globe. “I thought the idea of sci-fi as a business strategic development tool, as a business ideation tool, could be really powerful.”

Here’s where Popper’s approach diverges starkly with that of other consultancies. In addition to a core staff in Burbank, Popper has enlisted a stable of 100 or so published science fiction writers, categorized by background, interests and other factors. They’re given a bit of information on the client’s products and industry and also the outcomes of the workshop. Then they write up a short story treatment envisioning how a particular technology may evolve in the next 10 to 15 years. The idea is to have fun with it, and provide input for a diversity of deliverables that show clients a way forward in these envisioned futures.

The harnessing of story is central to these projects’ success, Popper says, because storytelling and establishing compelling, plausible narratives creates a shared belief about what’s possible (which, if you think about it, is just a better way to describe that nebulous term “organizational alignment”). Stories create an intimacy with the content and concepts being introduced. That’s central to successful marketing and business building.

“I have yet to find a better way to share a complex corporate innovation strategy than with a science fiction graphic novel, custom sci-fi movie, or illustrated short story that renders the likely impact of a new technology or ecosystem of technologies on real people in an engaging narrative format,” Popper wrote in IEEE Computer.

“As this tool is more widely adopted, we can expect to see more radical innovations in the world,” he wrote. “Perhaps more importantly, as long as these stories are optimistic and inspirational, I believe we will also begin to see a radical and positive transformation in our society.”

Ari Popper is one of 40 speakers slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017. He’s part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap to share insights with the more than 7,000 people attending this year’s festival. Discount tickets are available here.

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