This article also appears on the Edgeryders website, where a further conversation around the topic is ongoing.
Why Sci Fi, why now?
A short blog post i wrote to introduce the EconSciFi topic to UNDP Istanbul Innovation Days attendees who will be joining us:
Why Sci Fi, why now?
The world is locked into a particular set of governing positions. Each individual state and region carries with them the baggage and heritage of how they have grown; separately and tied to their neighbours, to reach the position we arrive at now.
But this ‘now’ is a new thing: a globalised ecology, economy, and increasingly, discourse.
Despite (or perhaps in direct opposition to) this emerging factor, our governance is still driven by the interests of the ‘nation state’. Despite minor course correction, and changes in variations of governance structure taking place across the globe, we seem to be locked into this ‘state-based’ system. This creates a tension, both within populations and between systems. We see that the issues we face, and the opportunities we must take, are global in scale, but all our current problem solving mechanisms are levers that reside at the nation state level. This is a fundamental issue.
As Millie Begovic, Shelley Inglis and Indy Johar says in their post launching the UNDP IID2018 programme:
“we hypothesise our Governance models are broken. We are holding on to 19th century models that deny the complexity of the ‘systemocracy’ we live in — a world of massive interdependencies.”
So what do we do? Well to start with we look around at what we have available to us. Seeing a world of struggling complexity and complicated solutions, like our ancestors before us, we turn to our soothsayers.
In order to break our gridlock of complex interdependence, in order to free ourselves from the shackles of what we cannot achieve, we have to delink ourselves from the reality, we have to become unconstrained in our thinking — we need to dream new systems.
So we look to those who are already in the dreamspace; we find those people who are engaged on a daily basis with the creative activity of dreaming up the future, and we read what they write, and we ask them: what other options are there for us?
Science Fiction? Really?
I believe that all fiction is a crucible for the neuroses of each generation, and since its inception as a genre, Science Fiction doubly so. As I talk about in this post on the Edgeryders site,
“We seek to understand our current world by imagining new versions of it, speculating challenges and opportunities that allow us to better understand what we are facing today and prepare for tomorrow.”
You only need to look at the current fascinations of media created for mass consumption (Hollywood, Teen fiction, Television Box Set Drama) to see the anxieties that we all face mirrored back at us. But why are we stuck in a circus of post-apocalyptic hero narratives? The superpowered hero; the sole saviour; the wasteland where only the young can change the future. All idealised narratives that say “don’t worry, it’s someone else’s job to fix that.”
If younger generations must wrestle with the real world complexities for a stable and prosperous future, then where are the mediums that delve into creating those futures? That sees the danger and damage and looks beyond it, assuming that we will go on together? That sees that the ways forward require collaboration, imagination, cooperation and group action? That starts to imagine a new future with alternative economic systems that are better adapted to dynamics of 21st Century challenges?
The answer is that these stories are out there, and they are being thought about in so many different ways and places: like in theatre companies doing radical speculative work with trans youth; or in the manifestos of citizen-led movements bringing refugees and locals together for dinner and increasingly between the pages of a number of Science Fiction writers who are dealing with versions of this possible future.
Within the Edgeryders community we’ve begun exploring a particular niche of these works of ‘EconSciFi’, and alongside our other research initiatives we’ve started our own internal topic to look into this area of speculative fiction directly. We wanted to find out more about the people who dream it, what they’ve been saying, and, perhaps most importantly, are they on to something?
With this new topic of EconSciFi in mind, and a handful of examples each, we set out to find more representations of it. We threw the conversation open to our community and to the wider internet and encouraged people to reflect with us on this wild topic, and make suggestions for work we should be considering. We wanted stories that in some way gave us a representation of a better future, outside the limiting constraints of our ‘real world’ economic system. We ended up with a huge https://edgeryders.eu/t/econ-sf-a-selection-of-works-and-authors/8582, containing suggestions from dozens of community members. We asked the collective brain and they replied.
Alberto Cottica summed it up perfectly in his initial post on the topic:
“There is an important idea that is not receiving enough attention: the economic foundations of a modern society (let’s say late 21st century). All I am seeing being discussed is minor tweaks on capitalism-with-state-corrections. This was not always the case: in the 19th century we had attempts at sweeping paradigm design (Marx, Proudhon, anarchic collectivism and mutualism), as well as prototypes (Fourier’s Phalanstères, Owen’s New Lanark, and, later, Adriano Olivetti’s Ivrea factory as the economic engine of the Community Movement).”
I have always believed that fiction inspires theory; and theory inspires practice. But when we scan the edges of our societies, we see a lot of the speculative practice already happening, so where is the theory and fiction? Perhaps what we are seeing now is an inversion of the idea, and part of what research into this topic can give us is the tools to open these lived practices up to the spheres of theory and fiction, making them available and understandable to more people, and pushing these new methods of living and prospering back towards the centre? Importantly, Edgeryders is not an institution, a lot of us aren’t even academics, we’re interested individuals from a variety of backgrounds working together and using collective intelligence to bring people together and help build the world we want to live in. Our ‘research’ is public and our discoveries are shared.
What do I hope EconSciFi can do to move things forward?
It can provide an open platform and fertile environment for the discussion of the economic ideas in science fiction books between published writers of both, and that we lead from that discussion into further opportunities for deeper learning and research into these areas.
It can act as a bridge between the world of economics and mainstream speculative fiction, as well as a provocation to both sides to be more permeable with each other.
It can create the environment for a call to arms for economic writers and academics to try harder. As Alberto says above, where is the “sweeping paradigm design”? Where are the radical economics thinkers? Who is looking into the data generated in radical economic systems? There must be people out there doing this work, and perhaps EconSciFi can be a rallying point around which they can meet?
Similarly, EconSciFi can be a call to arms for Science Fiction writers to imagining better futures that operate outside the structures of market capitalism that dominate most 20th & 21st Century SciFi. By drawing attention to the work of those writers who are doing this ‘heavy lifting’ already we hope to encourage and inspire more writers to take up the mantle.
Finally, and I hope most importantly it can help explain innovative or nascent economic ideas to a wider audience through live events and clear communication. We also ask ourselves, what place does collective intelligence have in achieving this?
Perhaps alongside the work Edgeryders have done in the past to find ‘FutureMakers’ EconSciFi offers us a platform and a mechanism to find the ‘FutureMakers of Economics’?
But I’m not an economist or a writer, why should i engage with these ideas?
To my mind EconSciFi gives us a handful of useful tools; the most useful of which is that it breaks down our cognitive biases and actively encourages us to utilise the parts of our brain that ask “what if?”. To some extent all fiction does this, but because of the richness of the established tropes of Science Fiction we allow ourselves to fully step out of the quotidian experience of human global existence as we know it now.
It gives us a space to explore methods, ideas, solutions and compromises that challenge everything that we know about the world we live in. It doesn’t concern itself with establishing a complete, complex interdependent system of realities, but instead it often focuses on one germ of an idea, and then runs with it.
If you speculate ‘What if the one thing that was required to successfully pilot intergalactic spaceships, and therefore oversee an Universal Empire, was only available on one, tiny, deadly planet?’ Then you get Frank Herbert’s Dune and the complete (and still ongoing) saga of stories that lead from that creation.
Similarly, if you ask ‘What if instead of remaining on Earth within Nation States, the massed followers of Marxist socialism have moved to The Moon?’ you would get Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece novella The Dispossessed.
Both of these examples deal with the tropes of SciFi at their farthest limits (yet always with parallels closer to home) but the genre is a broad church and it doesn’t have to be in the depths of space to classify as SciFi.
For example, imagine an Earth where we had reached a tipping point: the intersection of climate change threat; regressive national policies; divisive rhetoric; increased polarisation; income inequality; massed power and economic resource in an ever diminishing number of hands; wholesale dislocation and disengagement with political and economic structures; a growth of stateless peoples… How prescient does Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway seem?
We’ll explore more of the ideas that come out of that book within the EconSciFi Zone of Experimentation? at the UNDP IIDs, or you can dive into our discussions around the economic arguments here.
What will we be doing for UNDP IID2018?
@anique.yael will be publishing a blog post very shortly that details the ideas and work we have done around making our Zone of Experiment as a place for independent growth and understanding. So i’ll let her explain that in more detail.
At the centre of the Zone however is an open discussion and Q&A between Alberto Cottica, Edgeryders Co-Founder and Research Director (@alberto) , Malka Older, Author of The Centenal Cycle (@Malka) , and Raffaele Miniaci, Professor of Economics, University of Brescia (@Raffaele) .
We expect that through bringing these people together we can create a dynamic of tension and speculation between the spheres of understanding in a room: The challenge of the pure science, the mathematics, the measurable and measured; The understanding that underpins the systems of our current civic and social interaction; Demonstrable; Alignment; Stable. (Perhaps we should call it the ‘Field of Economics’).
Brought together with the freedom to innovate within a creative space; The ghost of the idea, and speculation that sees something outside of a measurable system and explores that centrally through imagination, freed from analysis of the world as it is and towards creating a world where it can be. The tenet. The inciting concept.
(Perhaps the ‘Field of Speculation’.)
In and around that interplay we are mediated and provoked by researchers and creators who ask the central questions of both sides: how does that look in our world? Can you point to examples of where this ‘fictional’ idea exists in our world now? How can this idea be communicated so that it is understandable? What elements of these ideas are we already living/exploring/understanding?
For me this zone of experiment acts as a way to open ourselves up, and through research, understanding and collaborative practices work to build better systems and futures. It tells us its okay to look elsewhere for answers to the problems we face. I hope that it can point to new pathways for governance to “provide a framework for the creation of public value and preservation of the public good” Preferably through the most surprising and imaginative ways possible.
“the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” TS Eliot