Elon Musk is an avid reader. He is particularly fond of science fiction. “Worth reading Asimov’s Foundation,” he tweeted in reference to the books covering the downfall of civilization that visionary Hari Seldon tries to escape from by setting up scientific colonies on distant planets.
“The lesson I drew from that” Musk explains to to Rolling Stone, “is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”
Musk is not the only Big Tech boss inspired by sci-fi. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a Trekkie and Google’s Sergey Brin names Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash as one of the books that influenced him. The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg is pushing today was actually first conceived in this book.
Sci-fi novels are of course unable to make accurate predictions about future technologies but their plots take the reader into the intertwined relationships of people and technology. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have figured this out, benefiting from rich narratives putting a spotlight on the implications of fictional ideas. Using sci-fi is good old-fashioned scenario planning on steroids.
Why Sci-Fi Works In Corporate Settings
Imagine, a group of people is blindfolded and randomly dropped in a terrain consisting of hills and mountains. Then it starts to rain and the water is rising in the valleys. Everyone is climbing up-wards. As it continues to rain and the water rises higher and higher, some people reach the top of the hill they have been climbing. As there is no way to go higher they are swept away by the floods. Only those who by coincidence started their journey at the bottom of a high mountain survive.
This scenario describes the common way most companies look for new solutions. They engage in what management scholars refer to as a local search, i.e. looking for business ideas that are not too far from their current expertise. Those who are lucky enough to engage with ideas and technologies that lend themselves to future opportunities will survive, others go out of business.
Even when companies attempt to engage in a distant search, the natural instinct to knock down anything defying industry logic restrains their imagination.
Sci-Fi offers a playful way to look further afield, ignoring such restraints. Initially it might seem a bit immature for serious corporate types (think New York law firm), only suited for the gig-economy that hardly needs a license to go crazy. But with serious institutions like MIT, Penn State, and Georgia Tech offering science fiction courses for engineers and blue-chips like France Telecom using sci-fi to ideate in its innovation lab, nobody needs to be embarrassed. In a world full of surprises, imagination and play are needed to prepare.
How to unleash the power of Si-Fi
Scenario planning is a process where companies develop multiple stories describing the future. The approach has two distinct advantages. First, it gives participants a license to think without the pressure to make precise predictions. Second, storytelling provides a rich picture of potential futures, moving beyond a few key indicators.
Science fiction can easily be integrated into such a process. In a recent article Thomas Michaud from Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale and Francesco Paolo Appio from SKEMA Business School suggest hiring “artists and Sci-Fi writers …, leveraging … an original method inspired by design thinking: design fiction.”
France Telecom, for example, used such an approach to create dozens of dream stories depicting the future of the telecom industry. These stories can then be used as an inspiration for new products and business models. In other words, more conventional scenarios are replaced by sci-fi inspired ones.
To move from rough idea and prototype to something more concrete, the grand vision has to be translated into a business model. Open Strategy methods can be used, setting up workshops where competing teams develop business models fitting with the Sci-Fi scenarios.
After a first round each team pitches its idea to all workshop’ participants. Half of the ideas are dropped after this, while the winning teams develop more detailed business models. The initial sci-fi stories will once again surface at the end as a criterion to judge the validity of the business models.
Back to Elon Musk
For Musk science fiction is not just a loose inspiration. It is concrete and real “Foundation Series & Zeroth Law are fundamental to creation of SpaceX,” he tweeted in June 2018. Going back to first principle, the big picture drawn by the writers provided him with the background he needed to think about the space industry in an entirely new way. Maybe no colonies on far away planets yet but a billion dollar company is not bad for starters.
Read the original blog post on his Forbes channel .