Future Perspectives

enriches foresight

Where do visions of the future come from, which of them will become a reality, and how will they shape the experiences of people? Scientific foresight-methods can also be applied to investigate science fiction, to anticipate the emerging future and to reengineer how visions become new technology.

Reading time: 7 minutes

In the late 1960s, the Star Trek TV series inspired technology experts at Motorola to develop the first cell phone – back then known as “the brick” because it weighed so much. Of course, cell phones eventually became lighter and more compact. Motorola drew inspiration from Star Trek not only for its concept of mobile communication but also for the design and storytelling.

So, indeed, science fiction can become a reality. Science fiction has inspired new products, services, and business models in the past. The world of Silicon Valley is full of examples, from mobile devices, to cars, scooters, and space shuttles. Science fiction influences people, societies, and markets across the globe. The narratives of the products of our culture shape our views and beliefs.

Let me offer you another example. For decades, the James Bond series of novels and films has shaped our perceptions of the British intelligence service, MI6. This has led to MI6 being inundated with applications from people who believe that if they could work for British intelligence, they would be just like James Bond. MI6 even had to launch a public relations campaign to point out that this isn’t the case.

“So, indeed, science fiction can
become a reality.
It has inspired new products,
services, and business models
in the past.”

Embracing agility in an uncertain world

We live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). The war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other crises underscore something obvious: The future will most likely look very different from the past or the present. While everything has become more VUCA-heavy over the last decade, managers and consultants have championed the shift from de-veloping strategies to fully embracing agility.

This may sound counterintuitive, but in times of multiple crises (like now), strategies and long-term perspectives are crucial. Companies need both to react to change and develop a long-term outlook and a guiding vision, which they then need to carefully execute, measure, and adapt. While common perception often tells us that innovations and crises are suddenly accelerating, research tells us a different story: Megatrends such as digitalization, artificial intelligence, and climate change have been around for decades.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction,” wrote Bill Gates in 1996.

And the last two decades have indeed been very dramatic. The challenge that remains is to anticipate the future that will be relevant to your field and prepare, act, and respond appropriately to developments that are occurring at an accelerated pace. But how can we anticipate the future when everything is constantly changing?

Master accelerated change by using foresight science

This is where foresight methods come into play. As soon as we plan or think about a long-term investment, whether it’s a research and development project or infrastructure construction, we start to anticipate the future. In the past decades a scientific, datacentric field has emerged that supports organizations in developing future scenarios and foresight. Foresight methods are used to develop activities that help organizations and businesses anticipate the megatrends that will drive change within multiple dimensions of the fabric of societies, ecosystems, and markets. Foresight methods offer us practical tools for anticipating the trends and scenarios that may emerge in the future – and understand what they could mean for the organization.

Nonetheless, a key challenge when anticipating the future is to encourage people to think differently about the situation by challenging habitual assumptions. And to be honest, that is a challenge in itself. This is where science fiction comes in again. When it comes to anticipating the future, science fiction seems to be gaining ground. All around the world, companies like Intel, Audi, SAP, and Telekom have reported tapping into science fiction as inspiration for innovations, as well as ideas in the long-term future. And billionaire entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have openly stated that their ventures were inspired by reading science fiction when they were young.

Subterranean fiction is also a thing

Even though science fiction focuses primarily on outer space, subterranean spaces also play a role. If we look underground, we discover a subgenre of science fiction called subterranean fiction, in which stories unfold under the earth. Go back through the history of science fiction and turn to H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. There we are confronted with the image of a very distant future. In this future, two societies live side by side, one on the surface of the Earth, the other below. The species living on the surface is peaceful and advanced, while the other is brutal and primitive.

By contrast, in The Coming Race published in 1871, Edward Bulwer-Lytton describes an advanced society living in a subterranean cave system. The 1993 film Demolition Man picks up on this divide, but with a twist. Set in 2032, the film describes the society living on the surface as technologically advanced. However, living under the rule of a totalitarian regime that monitors all citizens and enforces strict rules. The subterranean society has more freedom. But they attack the other society to gather food.

“If dark underground societies
are the dominant cultural
representations of underground
infrastructures in fiction, it
might be worth working on an
alternative fictional scenario
in which life above and
below merge.”

Obviously, science fiction is always framed by a contemporary perspective of the future. In Jeanne DuPrau’s 2003 novel The City of Ember, an underground city was built in a distant future to protect humanity from an unknown catastrophe above the surface. In the film adaptation of the novel, in which the characters try to escape the underground city, we recognize the protective nature of this subterranean refuge space.

Hugh Howey’s 2011 short story Wool, the first in a continued series, describes a future in which society only exists in giant silos hundreds of levels underground. The silos protect inhabitants from the toxic environment near the surface. Although life in the silos is regimented, it is still considered better than life outside. Howey’s subsequent Silo TV series is streamed on Apple TV since May 2023.

Thinking about current discussions of natural disasters, heat waves, and preventing war, one might wonder if life in an underground space might actually become appealing. One thing all of the aforementioned science fiction stories have in common is that they keep people on the upper level separate from those below. The underground societies are depicted as dark, even though the living conditions might be better and safer than above the surface.

Harnessing the power of science fiction

If these are the dominant cultural representations of underground infrastructures in fiction, it might be worth working on an alternative fictional scenario in which life above and below merge – as is the case in liminal spaces and metropolises such as Helsinki.

For me, reading and watching science fiction is no less valuable than reading trend or scenario reports – or even doing academic research. Science fiction offers a different way to anticipate the future. In many ways, it challenges our assumptions about the present and, of course, the future. It also provides us with rich narratives and images of how the future might be different, thus acting as a source of inspiration.

The power of science fiction is that its narratives and images stay with us much longer than anything written on an information bulletin.

Reading and watching science fiction helps us develop an essential new skill: science fiction thinking. Science fiction thinking is the ability to imagine and anticipate the future, to challenge familiar notions of an uncertain but open future in which anything is possible, and to translate those concepts into viable outcomes with which to plan our future strategically.


Prof. Dr. Jan Oliver Schwarz

is a professor of Strategic Foresight and Trend Analysis at the Technical University of Ingolstadt. Schwarz's research areas include which human needs and technological trends can be derived from depictions of the future in science fiction films and literature. In his book "Strategic Foresight" he explains the most important foresight principles and how organizations can apply them.

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