By end of the 19th century, New York City was struggling with a manure crisis; as horses ferried people and goods through the streets of Manhattan, they produced thousands of tons of waste, choking streets and creating a public health problem. In 1898 urban planners from around the world convened to brainstorm solutions to the impending crisis and failed to come up with any – unable to imagine horseless transportation. Fourteen years later, cars outnumbered horses in New York, and visions of manure dystopia were forgotten.
Business leaders can expand their mindsets and envision new futures with Science fiction: it offers more than escapism. It’s not only about spaceships and aliens, but also present plausible alternative realities, science fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how and why we think it. They reveal how fragile the status quo is, and how malleable the future can be.
These futuristic fantasies tap into our fears, hopes, and ambitions, expanding our notion of what’s possible and help us see the present more clearly. William Gibson famously coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 masterpiece Neuromancer. Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age inspired Jeff Bezos to create the Kindle; Sergey Brin mines Stephenson’s even more famous Snow Crash for insights into virtual reality; the Star Trek communicator spurred the invention of the cell phone; Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World weaves together a series of mind-bending vignettes into a compelling vision of how social media could change our lives; Eliot Peper’s Cumulus, explores surveillance, inequality, and winner-take-all internet economics.
Science fiction isn’t useful because it’s predictive, rather because it reframes our perspective of the world. Like international travel or meditation, it creates space for us to question our assumptions. Assumptions locked top 19th-century minds into believing that cities were doomed to drown in horse manure. Assumptions toppled Kodak despite the fact that its engineers built the first digital camera in 1975. Assumptions are a luxury true leaders can’t afford.
But assumptions are notoriously hard to beat back, and for a very good reason: They’re useful. They provide us with cognitive shortcuts for making sense of the world. They make us more efficient and productive. The problem is that they fail to update when that world changes, and stand in our way when we could possibly change the world.
That’s why science fiction is invaluable to the ambitious, and the reason why companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple have brought in science fiction writers as consultants. Exploring a fictional future frees our thinking from false constraints even challenging us to wonder whether we’re even asking the right questions. It spurs us to recognize that sometimes imagination is more important than analysis. So consider leaving the latest white papers, industry rundowns, and management hot takes at the office.
The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that science fiction is indispensible and hence, leaders like Jeff Bezos and Sergey Brin have admitted to mining Sci-Fi novels for inspiration. Science fiction reframes our perspective on the world and creates space for us to question our assumptions.