Nike and Boeing Are Paying Sci-Fi Writers to Predict Their Futures
One of the most influential product prototypes of the 21st century wasn’t dreamed up in Cupertino or Mountain View. Its development began around a half-century ago, in the pages of a monthly pulp fiction mag.
In 1956, Philip K. Dick published a short story that follows the tribulations of a police chief in a future marked by predictive computers, humans wired to machines, and screen-based video communications. Dick’s work inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to think deeply about that kind of future. To adapt that same story into a $100 million Hollywood film 50 years later, Steven Spielberg sent his production designer, Alex McDowell, to MIT. There, a pioneering researcher — and lifelong Dick fan — named John Underkoffler was experimenting with ways to let people manipulate data with gloved hands. In 2002, a version of his prototype was featured in the film, where it quickly became one of the most important fictional user interfaces since the heyday of Star Trek. Bas Ording, one of the chief UI designers of the original iPhone, told me his work was inspired directly by the gesture-based system showcased in Minority Report.
For the past century, this messy, looping process — in which science fiction writers imagine the fabric of various futures, then the generation reared on those visions sets about bringing them into being — has yielded some of our most enduring technologies and products. The late sci-fi author Thomas Disch called it “creative visualization” and noted there was no more persuasive example of its power “than the way the rocket-ship daydreams of the early twentieth century evolved into NASA’s hardware.” Submarines, cellphones, and e-readers all evolved along these lines.
Minority Report produced a hundred patents and helped rapidly mainstream the concept of gesture-based computing — not just the iPhone but all touchscreen tablets, the Kinect, the Wii — and became cultural shorthand for anyone looking to point their ventures toward the future. Before they even had a script, Spielberg convened a two-day “idea summit” around the film with the intent of establishing a lifelike futureworld. Icons like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand joined folks from DARPA and the Washington Post and spent days dissecting cultural trends and technological trajectories. They drew a detailed road map to a world marked by targeted video advertising, invasive surveillance drones, and nimble autonomous cars — things that may have seemed outlandish in 2002 but are all too real in 2018.
“The gap between ‘sci-fi,’ — that which was once imagined — and ‘sci-fact,’ that which becomes manifest and real, is shrinking.”
The film’s world — not its plot or stars — became an aspirational culture product in itself. “I wish I could get away with charging my clients a fee for every time they say ‘Minority Report’ to me,” one Los Angeles commercial artist remarked a full decade after the film was released. To certain observers, Minority Report helped transform the bridge between science fiction and real technology into a pipeline.
In the decade since, the business world has been increasingly aware of the genre’s potential. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm that advises 440 of the Fortune 500 companies, published a blueprint for using science fiction to explore business innovation. The same year, the Harvard Business Review argued that “business leaders need to read more science fiction” in order to stay ahead of the curve. “We’re already seeing science fiction become reality today,” said Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt in 2012. “Think back to Star Trek, or my favorite, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — much of what those writers imagined is now possible,” he said, ticking off auto-translation, voice recognition, and electronic books. Jeff Bezos’ product design team built the Kindle to spec from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age. (Stephenson himself is the chief future at the multibillion-dollar-valued Magic Leap.) Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at Lux Capital, is pouring millions of dollars into companies building what he explicitly describes as “the sci-fi future.” “I’m looking for things that feel like they were once written about in science fiction,” he told Fortune. “The gap between ‘sci-fi,’ — that which was once imagined — and ‘sci-fact,’ that which becomes manifest and real, is shrinking.”
A number of companies, along with a loose constellation of designers, marketers, and consultants, have formed to expedite the messy creative visualization process that used to take decades. For a fee, they’ll prototype a possible future for a client, replete with characters who live in it, at as deep a level as a company can afford. They aim to do what science fiction has always done — build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.
Alternatively referred to as sci-fi prototyping, futurecasting, or worldbuilding, the goal of these companies is generally the same: help clients create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit. Each of the biggest practitioners believe they have their own formulas for helping clients negotiate the future. And corporations like Ford, Nike, Intel, and Hershey’s, it turns out, are willing to pay hefty sums for their own in-house Minority Reports.
“We’ve just wrapped a worldbuild today, just now in fact,” Alex McDowell tells me, collapsing into an office chair. His mess of brown-to-graying hair falls over a pair of designer glasses. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
Experimental.Design, McDowell’s worldbuilding company, is nestled in an expansive cluster of rooms and offices in the hip downtown Los Angeles co-working outfit Spaces. After Minority Report, McDowell began spending less time in studios and more in spaces like these. With credits like Lawnmower Man, Fight Club, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, he was one of the most sought-after production designers in Hollywood. But by 2013, McDowell had all but walked away, turning his attention fully toward worldbuilding.
Whiteboards line the walls of the studio, and they’re covered — and we’re talking covered, to the improbable degree of a Hollywood film about a troubled math whiz — with diagrams, lists, and notes. McDowell was working on a project for the University of Alaska, and the scrawl concerned government policy, ecological collapse, and educational architecture. Look closer, and they all extrapolate current trends affecting Alaska and its universities into the future. “The goal is to envision a future where the education system is completely subservient to the student,” McDowell says. He’s working with the school system to envision the trajectory of higher ed in the 49th state, which currently has the nation’s lowest rate of transition between high school and college.
“In worldbuilding, we are not dealing with prediction or trends. We are looking for arcs of history through present to future at multiple scales that properly represent each unique world. We extrapolate forward to immediate, near, or far future horizons.”
McDowell points to one wall largely filled by a colorful diagram, which he calls the Worldbuilding Mandala. The labels Mind, Body, Self, and Fuel are clustered in the center. They branch out to Governance, Structure, Culture, and Energy and represent a method of organizing data about how an individual is situated in a given world. “Worldbuilding is about understanding a world deeply enough that stories and narratives spring effortlessly from its fabric,” McDowell says. “It’s almost like taking a great horizontal slice of a world and making it so you can drill down vertically at any point to see more details and dimensions.” It’s heavily researched, fact-based speculative fiction with a promise to consider every conceivable angle.
It’s also a rich tradition in sci-fi: Countless workshops, courses, and books have been dedicated to teaching writers to build effective, narratively compelling fictive worlds; it’s a bona fide (and sometimes contested) hallmark of the genre. From the hallucinatory, otherworldly environs of Dune to the down-home paranoid dystopias of Dick, we respond to speculative fiction when it lets us experience the distinct dimensions of the future.
McDowell teaches his action-oriented variant of practice at USC, where he leads its Worldbuilding Lab. He also runs the nonprofit Worldbuilding Institute. Over the years, McDowell and his partners have made near-future worlds for Nike, Ford, the American Society of Civil Engineers, Boeing, and even an indigenous tribe whose language and culture are at risk of dying out. Phase one costs roughly $100,000 per month for a minimum of three months and ideally begins with a multiday, in-depth summit with dozens of stakeholders. Invitees are broken out into groups and given a series of questions, or “provocations,” about the future. Discussion ensues, “domain experts” are interviewed, data is collected, and notes are fed into custom software — and a media-rich story is constructed. “In worldbuilding, we are not dealing with prediction or trends,” McDowell says. “We are looking for arcs of history through present to future at multiple scales that properly represent each unique world. From the past and present, we extrapolate forward to immediate, near, or far future horizons.”
The results can be surprising: Ford’s worldbuild resulted in a “City of Tomorrow,” in which smart cars and autonomous ridesharing vehicles yield to pedestrians. This imagined city, presented at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show and which Experimental continues to update and expand, was built around the idea that people would “reclaim the streets” from congestion and accidents. Even from cars themselves. “By enabling one kind of freedom, we restricted another,” Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, said in the CES keynote, acknowledging cars’ deleterious effects on urban life. Smart sensors, autonomous vehicles (Fords, of course), and renovated former parking lots would cede the city to pedestrians. A car company pushing back against decades of, well, car culture struck industry analysts as “bold, and incredibly risky.”
It should come as no surprise that these worlds are usually flattering to the client.
For Nike, McDowell’s worldbuild resulted in a book called Unlocking 2025: A World of Unlimited Human Athletic Potential and an immersive website that allows users to follow athletes through a world beset by climate change, microsponsors, and health monitoring technologies. Click on a character called Mateo, and up comes the tale of a street soccer player in Brazil. “Since Google UA began supporting the street scene, and fitness more generally, democratized football has become massively popular,” it reads. “Chasing the ball, Mateo thinks about earlier today at the academy, sweating in the Amazonian humidity [this part links to research on climate and pollution impacts in Manaus], having his kick and gait dissected, and his insides — hydration levels to lactic acid — brought outside, into the charts of coaches and data analysts who talk in hushed numbers, making Mateo feel like a machine, not a player.”
It should come as no surprise that these worlds are usually flattering to the client. McDowell’s educational and nonprofit work — he is envisioning, for instance, the future of Skid Row with his USC students, sociologists, and activists — was frankly so good that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it inspiring. The commercial work, which he describes as aspirational, must confront a companies’ place in these future worlds without casting them as a bad actor.
“It is our job to engage the client as a partner in the discovery of their world,” McDowell says. “We take on board their vision, or their intent, or their understanding that the future may violently or radically disrupt their former model” — this is the most common scenario, he says — “but we never predict the outcome, and we encourage every client to remain open to the possibility that the worldbuilding process will discover a completely unexpected outcome. If any client is set in their fantasy, then it will remain a fantasy.”
The headquarters of SciFuture, another central player in this nascent industry, sits just above the Psychic Eye Occult Bookshop, on the second floor of a small business complex on Ventura Boulevard that smells slightly of incense. The company’s office is mostly one large, open, naturally lit room and a small bookshelf, where Neal Stephenson titles line the top row. Ari Popper, CEO of SciFuture, is thin and unimposing, with an easy smile and an undercurrent of nervous energy. He grins as I come up the stairs.
Popper started SciFutures in 2012; he had burned out on his previous market research job and idly taken a writing class at UCLA. “I did this course, and it was — click — one of these epiphany moments: Maybe I can use science fiction to help companies,” he says. SciFutures offers clients custom-built science fiction stories and scenarios, courtesy of the 200 writers the company keeps on tap. The talent ranges from aspiring scribes still looking to break out to Hugo-winning heavyweights like Ken Liu.
“It’s science fiction based on science fact. It’s used as a way to prototype the future, and sci-fi is about people.”
Popper says he relies on a process called “science fiction prototyping.” The man who literally wrote the book on the method is Brian David Johnson, a professor, engineer, and sci-fi author based in Portland, Oregon. In his book Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Johnson outlines “How to Build Your Own SF Prototype in Five Steps or Less.” It begins by exhorting practitioners to “Pick Your Science and Build Your World,” moves on to instructions on how to identify the inflection point upon which that science or technology will collide with people, and suggests a framework for considering the ramifications. It’s sort of a basic sci-fi writing prompt guide through the lens of business management literature. “It’s science fiction based on science fact,” Johnson says. “It’s used as a way to prototype the future, and sci-fi is about people.” The best example, he says, is Intel, where until recently he served as chief futurist. “It took Intel 10 years to design and deploy a chip, so they needed to know 10 years out what people would do with computers.”
For an initial fee in the range of $50,000, SciFutures will take a prompt from a client — say, the Future of Sustainability for Naked Juice, or the Future of Home Improvement for Lowe’s — and farm it out to 30 or so writers. Popper and company read the stories, which usually clock in around 1,000 words (he typically pays writers $300 to $500 for each one, though more seasoned writers can command more), and scan them with an eye to intellectual property, novelty, and technology. Then they’ll choose five or so and polish them up for delivery to the client, often translating them into graphic novels or other media. If the client is hooked on a specific science fictional idea, SciFutures will help them develop further blueprints, even actual prototypes.
“The program we helped set up for Lowe’s is a phenomenal case study for how science fiction prototyping can transform culture, bring genuine innovation into the business,” Popper says. The hardware chain told him it was having trouble getting customers commit to home improvement projects, so SciFutures put forward the idea of decorating in virtual reality. “This was before Oculus — VR wasn’t a thing, AR wasn’t a thing.”
The story prototype follows a couple who try to renovate their house the old-fashioned way but keep running into problems. “The husband thinks he can solve it all, the wife is fed up, and the contractor is going ‘hehehe.’ The client loved it.” In virtual reality, the couple, of course, try out various options beforehand, without committing to a disastrous color scheme or ill-fitting marble counter. “So it’s a science fiction prototype,” Popper says, “and the client hands this to Lowe’s board. Literally the board of this Fortune 50 company. And they said, ‘Let’s figure out how to make this real.’ So we rapid prototyped three versions, and the first one was built. From sci-fi to reality in 18 months, just like that.” The project resulted in Lowe’s rolling out its Holoroom to about 20 stores in 2015. The concept has since been developed into an augmented reality app. In 2017, Fast Company named Lowe’s the number one most innovative company in AR or VR.
SciFutures has prototyped similar futures for Hershey’s (edible 3D printing), Ford (the future of car ownership), and Visa (the transactions of tomorrow). Few of the stories are true narratives; most are sketches of product-oriented futures. One involves a grandmother getting outfitted with a haptic VR system for her birthday present so she can feel her far-flung family giving her hugs across cyberspace. Many feel like ads set in the future. Nobody would sit down and read a volume of this work, and Popper knows that; it’s not the point. He’s mass-assigning the same speculative prompt to dozens of writers, selecting for best futures, and harvesting the results for IP.
Johnson calls dystopian prompts threat-casting. Recently, he worked in collaboration with stakeholders including the U.S. Army Cyber Institute, Citibank, the NYPD, and Cisco’s own Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL) to develop “Two Days After Tuesday,” a graphic short examining a scenario in which the digital infrastructure undergirding our physical supply chains gets hacked. The art has a familiar anodyne corporate tint, but it’s something of a remarkable document, part company threat analysis, part dystopian fiction, part fear-driven commercial pitch.
“In terms of stopping those futures from happening, they’re spending real money and resources.”
Basically, hackers identify a weakness in a small shipping company’s cybersecurity and use an A.I. botnet to hack into the greater New York port system, overwhelming the inspection system. The hackers, who are also terrorists, exploit the confusion to slip a bomb into the city. Then, well: “It’s a busy morning rush hour in NYC… The terror group detonates a dirty bomb in Manhattan… the city sees massive casualties… Markets fall…,” and the final page is given over to a full-screen portrait of the city occupied with tanks and soldiers and streets lined with body bags. “Chaos reigns.” This is a corporate document, remember, that concludes with the Cisco logo. The section ends with: “ONLY YOU CAN SECURE THE FUTURE OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN! Stay Tuned… as Cisco, Citi, GE, Intel, and DB Schenker battle to save the world’s tomorrows.”
As a result, “Cisco ended up coming with five different business ideas and put a quarter of a million dollars into developing those businesses,” Johnson says. “In terms of stopping those futures from happening, they’re spending real money and resources.”
The military, which was involved in “Tuesday,” is perhaps the largest organization reliably spending real money and resources on science fiction prototyping. (This isn’t new: Winston Churchill credited H.G. Wells with “coming up with the idea of using aeroplanes and tanks in combat ahead of World War One.” Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative was guided by (and publicly lobbied for) Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle, two of the genre’s most hawkish writers. In 2016, hoping to help its leadership prepare for a future with an unknown portfolio of threats, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation commissioned SciFutures to produce an anthology of stories about the near-future of combat, called Visions of Warfare: 2036. A sample synopsis: “A child cyber-soldier fires missiles from thousands of miles away while being pursued by a NATO operative trained in facial and behavioral recognition.” Another: “A Chinese soldier genetically altered to emit fear-inducing hormones contemplates his role in the great expansion during an invasion of Pakistan.” After each story, there’s a list of questions intended to prompt discussion.
“The Army uses sci-fi prototyping as a way to get cadets and leadership to think about cybersecurity threats,” Johnson tells me. “They’ve taken one prototype, called Hero, and they’re teaching it at West Point.”
These companies have found purchase at a moment when science fiction is sweeping the world. In 2018, Netflix invested an estimated $13 billion in original content, a third of it dedicated to science fiction, the company’s most-viewed genre. Sci-fi podcasts, books, and online outlets are also on the rise. But the nascent industry ultimately exists because the men behind these companies (and yes, they’re largely run by men) really do appear to believe in the transformative power of speculative fiction, of telling stories about the future. Like those who still write sci-fi stories today, it’s something of a labor of love — with, of course, the outside shot that one of those stories will go big.
“In some sort of ridiculously overblown way, we’re trying to change the world,” McDowell wryly tells me. He and Popper have both left lucrative careers, one in the business of creating actual science fiction, to build their disciplines and companies. McDowell is still working with Ford to evolve and imagine its reduced-car city, and he’s helping doctors and educators reimagine a cancer cell as a city that can be entered and traveled through in VR. He believes he can have a greater impact here than producing, say, superhero science fiction.
Worldbuilding may seem most poised to take on mainstream adoption — deep, participatory thinking about the future is something everyone could probably use more of.
“We’ve created a business around explicitly using science fiction to unlock innovation,” Popper says. “And we’re trying to get more toward social good, not just innovation for innovation’s sake. We’re thinking a lot about ethics. We’re vegans, for example, so we’re thinking a lot about food production.” I point out that the military is a major client. “But we don’t do stories in which anyone gets harmed or killed,” Popper says, “unless those stories could lead to fewer people actually getting killed in real life.”
Sci-fi prototyping companies are under no illusion that they’re producing the next sci-fi masterwork, a Dune or The Dispossessed. How successful their projects and visions are is up for debate — there’s certainly nothing approaching a Minority Report in the for-profit sci-fi scene, at least in terms of cultural or financial impact. In fact, the future of this future industry itself is unclear. It’s a turbulent, uncertain business, even if demand is waxing, not waning. Popper recently restructured SciFutures and reduced the full-time staff from 15 to three. He suggested that this was a tactical rather than financial decision: They had been taking on too many clients, he says, and he reorganized to allow SciFutures to spend more time with high-quality clients, rather than turning into a science fiction mill. “It could be big, though,” Popper says, shaking his head, a little wistfully. “It could be.”
“I am seeing more and more people and the Army and companies coming in,” Johnson says. More clients are showing up at his door, and more laypeople are taking note of sci-fi prototyping. “I do it every day,” he says. “I did it this morning with one of my clients. Sometimes it gets turned into a story. Sometimes a novella graphic. Sometimes it gets turned into a product.”
And, of course, it’s big in China. Johnson says his prototyping book has taken on a life of its own: It’s used in business schools and cited in peer-reviewed journals. “It’s being taught in China — sci-fi prototyping schools! Like summer programs where they teach it. In China, people will show up to meetings, they’ll walk in with this look on their faces, and now I know what it means: They have a book and they want me to sign it.”
Worldbuilding may seem most poised to take on mainstream adoption — deep, participatory thinking about the future is something everyone could probably use more of. And McDowell, there can be little doubt, is a true believer. He relishes the conversations, chewing over a single filament of a prospective world, sharing it with a team. He appears to enjoy the process more than most science fiction writers I know. He must — he more or less walked away from a career as the one of the most in-demand production designers in the business. During one of our last meetings, I asked him why and if he ever regrets it.
“The last film I did” — 2013’s Man of Steel — “took a year of prep,” McDowell says. “We developed a new language from the ground up.” They meticulously created an entire alien culture, a whole world — one that was unaware it was on the brink of collapse. “We decided it would be a feudal system that started dividing its own power….” He enters a reverie, describing in vivid detail the rationale behind his interpretation of Krypton. This is his natural state, these worlds, this process.
“We did all of this beautiful work,” McDowell says with a sigh. “And then the movie came out and it was two grown men beating each other up.”