How to Build Brave New Worlds
There’s a quote from Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a.k.a Blade Runner), that resonates now more than ever:
The relationship between fiction and reality is entangled. The two feed into each other. When those fictions describe a world in the future, we call it science fiction.
Science Fiction: Designing the Future
According to Nesta researchers, everything from “Mars to flying cars to digital drugs, robot friends to teleportation, GPS to mobile communicators, smart food to mitochondrial reproduction techniques,” has roots in science fiction. Harari recently declared science fiction the most important genre and Alvin Toffler described it as a sociology of the future.
Here, I’ll take it one step further:
Science fiction is the genre of wealth and power.
It imagines and shapes the future. It permeates our minds and infiltrates our lives even when we do not engage with it. It influences the research, innovation, and technology we have become so dependent upon, which in turn shape our political, environmental, economic, and cultural realities. It inspires the leaders of our tech ecosystems — the new seats of global economic power — including the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. It impacts the wealth of nations. It fuels military might. It has far-reaching systemic consequences that extended across time and space, most of which go unacknowledged by society at large. No other art form can claim this level of power. It is the visions of science fiction authors that have forged our modern day world.
Given that science fiction has the ability to shape our future and the real world stories we tell, how do we leverage that power to engage in real-life worldbuilding? Can we design a better future for ourselves?
What is Worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world. It is not an individual story or the elements of a story; it is a broader context against which many stories can be set. Worldbuilding is a vast 3D landscape, and a story is a sliver of that landscape. For example, in Star Wars, the Empire, the Jedi, and lightsabers are all part of the world. In that world, we can many tell many stories, such as what happened to Luke Skywalker, a day in the life of a stormtrooper, or the story of an ordinary family living under imperial rule. Every work of fiction requires some worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is more than a literary exercise; it is a mechanism for designing the real-world. Much of strategic foresight work — including creating scenarios, experiential futures, and science fiction prototyping — are forms of worldbuilding and storytelling. Companies like Airbnb have successfully used worldbuilding and storytelling techniques to design their organizational strategies.
If our reality and the world we have forged is a collection of stories, then we can operate on the basis that what is constructed can be deconstructed and reconstructed. It suggests that we can systematically dismantle our paradigm and rewrite it.
Seven Foundations: A Model
In 2017, I researched the process science fiction authors take to imagine and create future worlds. I wanted to understand how we can borrow their approach to imaging and building new visions of the future. The outcome was the Seven Foundations model (if you’re interested, you can download the full paper here).
This foresight model allows for coherent worldbuilding using the superstructure of culture (the fundamental parts that make a complex structure). Each foundation is broken down to its most fundamental essence, so the model captures the first principles of culture.
Political: Creation, maintenance, and governance of entities and society
Economic: Management of wealth and resources
Philosophical: Epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (nature of reality), value theory (ethics and morality), logic and reason, and human nature
Environmental: Ecological systems, including physical and relational space
Scientific and Technological: Observation of, and/or experiment with the natural and physical world
Artistic: Representation, expression, and form
Social: Human organization, relational dynamics of our world and systems
Seven Foundations encourages us to design coherent alternative realities and multiple futures by breaking away from our preconceived notions. For instance, the political foundation can refer to a democracy, but dictatorships, monarchies, a council of elders, etc, are also political systems. All create, maintain, and govern entities and societies, and there are many ways to achieve this end in ways we have yet to imagine.
Seven Foundations asks that if we could rebuild our future or a given system from scratch, what would we design? It’s from rich, coherent worlds that futurists pull innovative strategies.
All seven foundations are at play in any given system or culture, throughout time. Because we are targeting the superstructure of culture, this model is decolonized. However, real-world systems can be out of balance and one or more the categories might be inflated or suppressed. For instance, as a system, the United States as over-privileged the economic and political foundations while suppressing the philosophical and environmental. Technology is revered but science is disparaged by many, including politicians. As a result, we’re seeing backlash from the suppressed foundations (e.g. more scientists running for office than ever before).
Here are some completed examples for reference. I deconstructed existing systems so that you can see how the model works in a real-world context. The different points outlined in each foundation serve as leverage points (places to intervene) in a system.
As a foresight practitioner, I have used the Seven Foundations models in the following ways:
- Designing scenarios (I have used this model in combination with other foresight such as Generic Images and 2x2 Matrix)
- Designing preferred future states
- Designing experiential futures
Organization Strategy and Culture
- Deconstructing the current state and designing the desired state
- Creating a sub-strategy based on the overall strategy (e.g. deconstructing an organizational strategy to design a brand strategy)
- Deconstructing current state and designing the preferred state of complex social issues + wicked problems
- Mapping the current and desired states of a complex system (e.g. what does education system look like now, what should it look like in the future?)
Product Innovation and Science Fiction Prototyping
- Designing a product for coherence (within the product and to the external world). For instance, are environmentally unfriendly products coherent with the emerging realities of climate change?
Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Creating coherent and robust narratives/fictional worlds for storytelling purposes
- For those who want to use this model to create fantasy worlds, replace science and technology with systems and tools of magic
Tips on Using the Model
- Pick a starting point and build out from there. For instance, if you’re examining the future of work, a natural place to start might be the economics or political foundation. If you’re looking at climate change, the environmental foundation is a safe bet. If you want to challenge yourself, start with the foundation that seems least compatible with your work.
- You can either build out into the other foundations from that point. You can also add points to different foundations and see if they are compatible with each other. For example, is universal basic income (economic) compatible with a dictatorship (political) and art (artistic)? If the income was rationed with no alternatives and the art was propaganda, the points are coherent.
- Think of the trade-offs: when you emphasize one foundation, you might have to take from another.
- Your insight or leverage point doesn’t fit into any category, it likely needs to be broken down further into more foundational points.
- The model can be used to design the rules of a system as well (not just the states) e.g. policies we need for a coherent and balanced educational system.
The Seven Foundations model will allow you to build coherent and robust future worlds. In Part Two, we’ll explore how the Seven Foundations Model can be used for more complex strategic foresight and transition design work.
In the meantime, I encourage you to explore the power of science fiction and imagine new ‘universes of the mind’, both fictional and real. Our world needs brave new images of the future. Have the courage to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Download the complete research paper on the Seven Foundations model.
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