How Science Fiction Shapes Our Reality

“Science fiction gives us a very dynamic way to ask existential questions.”
– Denis Villeneuve

At a recent retail brand conference set in the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, our CEO Sebastian Fauré and I sat in the audience as a young, very hipster-looking man leaped onto the stage. Sporting a full Edwardian beard and stylish glasses, he proceeded to tell us the story of how he set up an innovation lab using the most unusual technique for Lowe’s, the home hardware store.

In essence, he gathered customer and behavioural data in the home renovation category, wrote up an innovation brief and gave it to a group of published science fiction writers he had scouted. Pairing each writer with an illustrator, he then asked the teams to imagine what Lowe’s would look like ten years down the road, in comic book form. In short, he asked them to create a science fiction comic book.

The ideas that he piloted as a result of this project were so successful that his little experiment was fully funded, and actually set the standard for how the company runs its innovation process today. The initiatives have been marketed at Lowe’s stores across the continent. We were astounded that for a very conservative company—in a very conservative category—he had managed to do something so wonderfully different.

Science fiction has always been a huge part of pop culture, and is ever more so today. Prominent science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke wrote prophetic stories that in many ways we are living today as we contemplate how (not whether) AI will transform human interactions, or NASA’s hopes to colonize Mars.

But only recently have we seen how science fiction can affect our approach to innovation, design, and business as a whole. At Toyota’s central factory in Tokyo, a team of animators from the famous Studio Ghibli (makers of the Oscar-winning Hayao Miyazaki animated features) work alongside Toyota designers. They don’t collaborate on projects together per se, but they influence each other’s thinking merely by being in close proximity, looking over at a neighbour’s Mac screen or having an informal conversation at lunch. In other words, leaders at Toyota and Studio Ghibli decided that there could be mutual benefits to putting avant-garde animators alongside automotive engineers, and seeing what their chemistry could achieve.

What science fiction authors and auteurs challenge us to do is to observe our world, our natures, and our future through a different lens. To pose questions about our current tendencies and technologies, and draw logical conclusions by depicting a possible future, like Denis Villeneuve’s version of Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049. Or as Spike Jonze did in Her, which is set only a decade or so in the future and features an entirely believable storyline where a young man falls in love with his AI software. (The AI voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson, so can you blame him?)

I encourage anyone working in marketing, branding, innovation or design to consume a regular dose of quality science fiction. To draw on the genius of these storytellers and find ways to see our world anew.

So, for those of you who are interested, here is a brilliant half-hour interview Denis Villeneuve gave at Google recently. Enjoy!

– WY