Science Fiction (Sci-Fi) As A Stimulus For Innovation

Science Fiction (Sci-Fi) As A Stimulus For Innovation

Sci-FiAs part of my role as a Facilitator for Warwick Business School’s “Knowledge & Innovation Network” (KIN), I was privileged to be invited to a Sci-Fi Symposium organised by the Defence, Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl). The event took place just before Christmas 2017, and was led by Dr John Carney, Principal Scientist and Mrs Caz Pitt (Innovation Process & Culture Lead) at Dstl. The aim of the Symposium was  to explore whether the stimulus of Science Fiction might enable the development of new solutions and provide unexpected insights into future security and military challenges.

With this year’s schedule of events for KIN being focussed primarily on innovation practices and techniques, I was interested to learn whether the format for this event could be applied more generally as a stimulus for innovation within other KIN member organisations, or adapted as a model for the wider public and private sectors. I think we would all agree that British industry is facing an uncertain future, and we must be able to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive global market. We can only do this with innovative products and services, delivered at competitive prices and assured quality.

The objectives for the symposium were defined as follows:

  • To provide a forum for verbal interaction between Science Fiction writers, Academics with a specialism in science fiction and/or creative writing, scientists and other interested parties from across the Ministry of Defence and wider Government.
  • To educate Government scientists in the value of creative writing and thinking differently.
  • To stimulate small group discussions on (pre-prepared) defence and security challenges through the perspective of science fiction with a view to generating new insights and ideas

Having set the context for the day, we heard from various academics and Sci-Fi authors who provided short briefings with the aim of providing stimulus for the group discussion activities that followed, as follows:

  • Dr Ping Zheng (University of Canterbury) and Dr Victor Callaghan (University of Essex) on how science fiction and fantasy have been used to stimulate innovation.
  • Alastair Reynolds – former Space Scientist turned Sci-Fi author
  • Nicole Devarenne – Lecturer in English and Film Studies with special interests in South African literature and film, science fiction and speculative fiction
  • Sean McFate – Expert in Future of War, author and novelist, including Tom Locke novels.
  • Nick Harkaway – Sci-Fi author, who reminded us that Sci-Fi is not always good at predicting the future.

Interspersed with the scene setting and networking activities, the core part of the day was based around small group discussions on 11 different challenges. The challenges were set by various Dstl subject matter experts and consisted of a broad theme and a summary briefing, setting out the problem or challenge and what was required from the group. Members of the 11 groups were allocated based on the preferences they had selected as part of the pre-symposium delegate instructions. Each group discussion lasted for 1 hour, and was led by a Dstl presenter and supported by a Dstl rapporteur, who summarised the outcomes from the discussion as part of a plenary feedback at the end of the day. The symposium was organised such that participants were able to contribute to at least two group discussions during the day.

Just to give some context to the group discussions, the headline topics for the 11 challenges were as follows:

  1. Radiation Protection for Humans
  2. Digital Diplomat
  3. Safe Spaces
  4. Human Behaviour in Smart Environments *
  5. Defence (in)efficiency: what does the future hold?
  6. Making our people more capable, in less time *
  7. Understanding and Exploring Threat
  8. Please report to the information assurance bureau for re-education
  9. Societal reactions to new technologies
  10. Expeditionary Warfare
  11. Where’s the baddie?

I think you will see from the above that – with some obvious exceptions – many of the topics could apply to just about any organisation seeking innovative ideas for improving performance.  The two groups that I participated in are shown asterisked, specifically chosen because the subject was fairly generic and played more to my personal knowledge and experience.

The key dynamic which (I believe) contributed to the overall success of this seminar, was the ‘free-thinking’ stimulus developed initially from the pre-workshop presentations, and the diversity of knowledge, experience and personality within each discussion group. Either by accident or design (I think the latter), each group had a blend of academics, Sci-Fi authors, subject matter experts and practitioners. An unusual mix, some might say, and the logistics of assembling such a cohort cannot be underestimated.

I don’t have the detailed outcomes from all of the discussion groups, but the two groups I participated in generated a number of new ideas that haven’t previously been explored by Dstl. Of course, turning these ideas into practical solutions may not be always possible, and this may ultimately be the measure of success for this type of seminar. However, based on my own experience, and with reference to the title of this blog, I think that Sci-Fi did indeed provide a stimulus for innovation in our discussions.

The question is, whether the overall approach could be a template for any organisation or sector that is serious about wanting to innovate or challenge institutional inertia. The cost and logistics of assembling the diversity of talent will be a major factor, but I think the process is scalable, i.e. a focus on fewer challenges with fewer participants. I don’t think it has to necessarily include a Sci-Fi element (though this might be useful for more technologically-oriented organisations) but does need to include participants with imagination and creative skills.

Authors and novelists seem to fit this criterion, but it would be useful to explore other creative arts, such as musicians, artists, actors etc., people who are more likely to think differently to civil servants or corporate employees. Innovation means doing things differently, and that starts with thinking differently. This will no doubt be the challenge for many organisations, moribund in “group think”.

Dstl will be presenting the lessons learnt and some highlights from this Sci-Fi Symposium at their showcase stand at the KIN Spring Workshop, The London Shard, 22nd March 2018. Not to be missed!

Other Reference Links:

  2. The European Alliance for Innovation
  3. The Creative Science Foundation


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