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Can design fiction help businesses understand their own future?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Design fiction’ uses the power of storytelling to generate ideas for future services. At the height of lockdown, Thales went big on the concept with a project that asked staff to imagine fantastic future worlds. 

How Thales sent 150 of its employees on a trip… to 2035

In 1898 city planners met to discuss New York’s manure problem.

Every day, 150,000 horses moved people and products across the city – leaving 1.1 million kilograms of ‘waste’ behind them. 

The city stank. 

Was there a solution? Yes there was. The motor car arrived and, in barely more than two decades, it eradicated the city of its manure problem forever.

Of course, the city planners completely missed this. They were too focused on those horses. 

This is a common problem in industry. When exploring a problem, it’s easier to apply today’s ‘solutions’ than imagine entirely new fixes that don’t yet exist.

And even with our modern technology, it is as easy to fall into this trap today as it was in the 1890s. 

In a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review, novelist Eliot Peper explains why.

“If 19th-century urban planners had had access to big data, machine learning techniques and modern management theory, it would not have helped them,” he says.

“These tools simply would have confirmed their existing concerns. Extrapolating from past trends is useful but limiting in a world of accelerating technological change.”

Is there a fix?

Well, according to Peper and many more like him, there is one promising route: design fiction.

How can design fiction and virtual worlds help large groups implement their transformation?

All over the world – and across many diverse verticals – companies are exploring the power of speculative narrative to imagine possible futures. In the US, there’s even an agency – SciFutures – that pays writers to do “sci-fi prototyping” for corporate clients including Visa, Ford, and PepsiCo.

In fact, there is a name for this technique: design fiction.

Last year, Thales Digital Identity and Security (DIS) division embarked on a landmark design fiction project comprising 150 participants across three continents. 

Thales’ aim was to shift their focus away from their usual strategy and attitude, and towards a vision of change.  The project would look forward to the world of 2035 – and explore futuristic scenarios around connectivity and security. 
The scheme generated 30 ideas, and a final shortlist of four. The eventual winning team will be tasked with turning its idea into a live product within Thales’ own Startup Studio venture.

Before we dive deeper into the design fiction project, let’s look more closely at the design fiction concept that inspired it.


What is design fiction and how does it work?

All design is an exercise in exploring the future. Designers make objects that don’t exist yet. However, they rarely create the worlds that these objects will live in.

Two decades ago, one visionary writer/designer began thinking that perhaps they should.

In his 2005 book Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling used the term ‘design fiction’ for the first time.

Later he described it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” 

It’s not a very elegant description for a novelist to write. What he meant was: when we use stories, it’s easier to persuade people to accept unfamiliar new ideas. 

The design world quickly embraced the concept. In 2013, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, professors at London's Royal College of Art, published Speculative Everything. It became the first real guide to design fiction, posing ‘what if’ questions about the kind of future people do and do not want.

The book presented many ideas that emerged from asking these questions: a solar kitchen restaurant; a flypaper robotic clock; a cloud-seeding truck; a phantom-limb sensation recorder; and devices for food foraging that use the tools of synthetic biology.

Raby and Dunne stress that design fiction isn’t mean to predict anything. Instead, it should “imagine all the possible futures that could be”.

They argue that any good piece of speculative design should fall within one of these areas.

•    Probable
•    Plausible
•    Probable
•    Preferable

Anything outside is simply fantasy—something design fiction has no interest in exploring. 


How lockdown facilitated the Thales design fiction project 

In the summer of 2020, the COVID pandemic was three months old. It tore up existing assumptions. 

Thales, like every other large corporate, was compelled to re-visit its forecasts. According to Virginie Galindo, Director of Technology and Innovation Strategy at Thales, the company needed to push its people to think differently about the future direction of connectivity and security

Yet, it had to find a way to do this when the participants were in different continents and time zones and overseas travel was banned. “In a big company like Thales’, it can be hard to move quickly,” says Galindo. “We needed a methodology to push people outside their comfort zones.

“Design fiction provided the perfect solution.”

The Thales design fiction scheme: 150 people, 3 continents, 30 ideas

Galindo and her colleague Isabelle Armand-Guerineau, Director of Innovation Journey at Thales DIS, began by interviewing Thales’ management to collect ideas and beliefs about the future. They settled on the themes of hyper-connectivity and trust.

They then invited more than 150 employees from around the world to participate in the Thales design fiction project. They recruited nine coaches to help. 

The sessions were held remotely using Microsoft Teams and the participants used the Klaxoon collaborative tool (like a digital mood board/mind map) as the medium on which to capture their ideas.

Galindo and Armand-Guerineau decided to create two fictional future worlds for the participants to visit: Ecaps and Aloris

Galindo says: “We wanted to take our participants on a journey through time, into future worlds we conceived from scratch. By creating imaginary worlds we could get people out of their daily lives and help them think in open and free ways.”

Future world #1: Ecaps

In 2035, Ecaps is earth’s sixth continent. But it is not on earth. Instead, it describes the community living in settlements across the solar system. 

In this future, space travel is accessible to anyone, and settlements are connected via high-speed inter-planetary networks. Satellites are deployed on earth, Mars and the moon to make the 5G network available.

However, these networks consume 20 percent of earth’s available resources. For this reason, there is a strong focus on resource management. Research is dedicated to new forms of energy, recycling, and accurately measuring consumption.

All citizens play their part. For example, every home has a ‘personal renewable energy generator’ and a big screen dashboard that reports consumption and recommends actions. 

Future world #2: Aloris

The inhabitants of Aloris live a life based on leisure, learning and culture. Nine in ten of them live in the country. It’s a peaceful world with little economic pressure. 

Thanks to their physical isolation, Alorisians live much of their lives at home with their families and use digital tools to access necessities such as health, education and food. 

Work patterns reflect these changes too. Most people work for several companies, ‘contracting out’ their expertise. And they work from home using ultra-high speed teleconferencing services. Inhabitants are also encouraged to e-learn, and even to regularly re-train for new careers.


How the Thales design fiction teams generated ideas

The Thales coaches wanted the participants – as much as possible – to ‘live’ in the worlds of Ecaps and Aloris.

Why? Because feelings and emotions are the best way to spark new ideas.  

To do this, they generated fictional inhabitants of the two worlds. They gave these people names and created ID cards for each listing: age, family status, bio, personality type goals, likes/dislikes etc.

The coaches did this because “creating an artifact forces you to get into the details of your future world.”

They then invited the Thales participants to create their own ID cards as if they too were inhabitants of the two worlds. Finally, the coaches hosted a virtual ‘flight’ to the future. 

Isabelle Armand-Guerineau says: “The immersion began in the first minutes of the workshop. The groups were transported virtually into the future on board a shuttle, with the coach playing the role of an inhabitant of the world. 

“He or she would describe what life was like and then outline a typical day for the citizens. The aim was to give a real sense of daily routine in 2035, and to encourage participants to think: what makes these people happy? Where is their pain?”

What’s next?

At time of writing Thales is studying the shortlist of four futuristic ideas that sprang from the project. The winning group will have the chance to develop their idea into a viable service within Thales’ own Digital Factory Start-Up incubator. 

Meanwhile the company has learnt a lot about the application of design fiction itself. It now understands that the concept is best applied to phenomena such as AI, eTravel, the IoT or data ethics. It says that, by pairing these ideas with real objects and then working through imagined scenarios, design fiction can take ideas that are currently abstract and make them concrete.