“You never change things by fighting the existing model. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

— R. Buckminster Fuller

The pioneering American computer scientist Alan Kay observed, famously, that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” In that spirit, he devised the Dynabook, a tablet-like prototype of what would later become the laptop and other recent innovations in mobile computing. The Dynabook, however, never existed as anything other than an idea of how to bring computing to children.

Kay’s work offers a compelling illustration of how a fictional device can shape an entire industry. And Dynabook is hardly the only such example. Science fiction inspired many futuristic technologies. Ars Technica, for instance, notes the striking resemblance between Star Trek’s Personal Access Display Device and the iPad (and, indeed, the Dynabook). As Kay anticipated, the conceptualization of such devices drove the innovation and magic behind Apple’s iPad.

Even more recently, smart phone manufacturers are exploring 3D software as a means of generating holographic images of the person on the other end of the call, an idea that traces straight back to Star Wars.

Such is the stuff of design fiction, which is the practice of creating products and services which don’t exist yet but will eventually fill a value gap and solve a fundamental problem. The process is all about re-imagining the linkages between objects, spaces, people and invisible phenomena such as radio-waves or online communication.

As designers we use design fiction to collapse physical limits while investigating potentialities, like Dynabook. Like science fiction, this process is all about exploring the trajectories of possible futures by injecting real life proponents into a creative process.

These are not abstract exercises. Julian Bleeker, of the Near Future Lab, provides an excellent overview of the broad industries where design fiction is relevant: service design, business design, product design, experience design, industrial design, circuit design, finance design, and research design.

When making products and services more usable, we also want to go beyond the typical scenario-based way of design thinking. We seek to use the world as a laboratory. Using tech, social and economic tools, designers connect artifacts, interfaces, signs, actors and spaces to discover the true potential of an idea.

In many ways, design fiction is really about innovation. Essentially, designers create a prototype in the form of theatre, where ideation strategies shift between the fictional and the real – the threshold where new realities spring to life. Bruce Nussbaum, an influential design thinker writing for BusinessWeek, has declared innovation dead. A pretty lofty statement, but he believes when people talk about innovation in this decade, they really mean design.

Peter Horvath


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