Harvard Business Review

Science Fiction Helps Imagine Unimagined Solutions

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world.  Illustration from Harvard Business Review

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world.

Illustration from Harvard Business Review

Business leaders and issue managers should read science fiction to escape the confines of their own assumptions and engage in freer thinking that can unlock unimagined solutions to intractable problems.

“Exploring fictional futures frees our thinking from false constraints,” advises sci-fi writer Eliot Peper in an article published in Harvard Business Review. “It challenges us to wonder whether we’re even asking the right questions. It forces us to recognize that sometimes imagination is more important than analysis.”

He begins his article by noting the mountainous problem of horse poop facing New York City officials in the late 19th Century. He urban planners brainstormed the problem, but no one could imagine a horseless New York, even though only 14 years later motorized vehicles outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in the city.

Peper is not alone in urging sci-fi reading. Richard MacManus, an author like Peper, said science fiction “extrapolates current technology,” “highlights societal and cultural changes” and, at its best, identifies solutions to big problems. Deploring the wave of apocalyptic science fiction, MacManus said stories such as The Martian shows an “inventive, can-do spirit that makes us optimistic about the future."

He praised Peper’s book Cumulus for showing how “economic inequality and persistent surveillance [can] push the San Francisco Bay Area to the brink of civil war.” Noting inequality and surveillance are subjects commonly sensationalized, he said, “Peper’s novel takes a more thoughtful approach to these topics and ponders what kind of society we might end up with if inequality and surveillance continue on their current trajectory.”

Stephanie Buosi, a self-described latter-day convert to science fiction, says it allows people “to experience what-if scenarios of various novel universes.” Buosi credits science fiction for putting what-if scenarios into human terms (even when they involve aliens). “We read about the protagonist in the what-if scenario, and it becomes easier to imagine our own reactions if the fiction were to occur in our reality.”

Annie Evett, who blogs about writing, put a similar turn on the same point. “Of all forms of literature, science fiction is the only one that deals primarily with change, routinely painting it story against the colorful background of a different society – be it on Mars, post-apocalyptic earth or other planet, or amongst the mythical worlds. Even though there are endless possibilities available to write about, they all have one thing in common; that being that the worlds they describe are like the here and now and that they are on the brink of change.”

William Hertling, also a science fiction writer, offers several reasons to read it. He says it invites exploration and expands the range of what people see as possible.

“When China wondered why their scientists and engineers weren’t as creative as their American counterparts, they set out to study why,” Hertling notes. “Talking to scientists and engineers around the world, they found those with the most imagination and creativity all shared a love of science fiction.”

He also says science fiction makes it easier to understand complex ideas and can reduce hysteria by making unfamiliar things and situations more familiar and even logical.

Your Audience Knows Best

Let your audience do the talking to come up with winning ideas, messages and strategies to public affairs challenges.Managing an issue is sometimes seen as a battle of who can talk the loudest. With the advent of social media, the winning public affairs strategy now involves who can listen the best.

Bill Lee, a consultant writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, recounts the experience of anti-tobacco warriors in Florida who used a variety of unsuccessful tactics to dissuade teens from smoking.

Out of despair, they called a summit on teen smoking. Some 600 Florida teenagers attended. When asked why past ads with dire warnings of the dangers of smoking had failed to work, teen attendees said they were unimpressed.