Commentary

What's Your Sci-Fi Future?


Perhaps, like me, you're amazed and also find it ironic that some iconic science fiction stories are coming true.  The Jetson’s original video chat, for instance, is now part of everyday life.  

And remember the mask Jane Jetson wore when she wasn’t presentable?  I’ve thought that might be handy for my early morning video calls. And now it’s here:  Shiseido recently partnered with Microsoft to create an app called Telebeauty, which combines facial recognition and augmented reality to apply make-up to women’s faces onscreen for just such occasions.  This is one small real-world example that reflects our increasingly sci-fi-concocted futuristic world.

The merging of science fiction with reality calls to mind a safari trip I took some years ago, where the nearest electrical outlet was a plane flight away and my BlackBerry was rendered a useless piece of plastic. Our guides had lived their entire lives in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and had little access to technology — just a solar-powered TV, which was only good for watching DVDs.  

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They loved American movies and wanted to know (in all seriousness) if “The Terminator” was based in reality.  We set them straight.

Later, we marveled that the modern world depicted through movies was filled with technologies so unfamiliar to our guides that they couldn’t separate reality from fiction.

Now, technologies in our developed world have advanced so far that they are blending with the most fantastical sci-fi experiences created, and our guides’ question no longer seems so crazy.

Granted, “The Terminator” may still be firmly placed in fiction, but cyborgs are not so far off, or here already, depending on how you want to define the term and the degree.  In an earlier column, Mike Azzara noted the very real progress in connecting human brains with computers, as well as the fictional stories that may have provided inspiration for this development.

The fact is, science fiction provides a regular source of ideas for developers, and has a more direct link than many realize to recent inventions.  

Some companies are proactively harnessing the best in science fiction to help create new realities. Magic Leap for instance, hired Neal Stephenson, author of “Snow Crash,” to play the role of chief futurist, and Oculus points to “The Matrix” as its inspiration.

Never has technology been more disruptive or inventive, which is a scary thought for the CEOs of established brands — and an ambitious one for newcomers.  In a world where just about anything that can be imagined can be done, clearly imagination wins. Which is why I was so compelled by Sci-Futures CEO Ari Popper and the consulting model his firm has created to help clients bring their futures to life through science fiction stories.

In essence, Burbank-based Sci-Futures uses storytelling to prototype future business models for clients, employing research, workshops, and rich storytelling in the form of comic books, graphic novels, Web sites, graphical maps, and prescriptive technology road maps.

Sci-Futures draws from a stable of published science fiction writers, pairing clients with the appropriate writing talent. Writers then work with clients to draw out disruptive fantasies about ways industry or societal forces might radically change their category, leaving business realities at the door -- and in some cases entering a frightening realm that implicates major change and shifting resources.  

The work illuminates potential future threats and opportunities, and prescribes ways the company can win in the end.   About 50% of projects involve building innovation labs for clients, showcasing prototypes that create epiphanies and grease the wheels of disruptive innovation.  

Does the team then immediately move forward to turn the business on its head in order to achieve the prototype?  I didn’t get that sense.  But the resulting story and roadmap can align people to move towards a future they can all imagine, and next steps for the business become clear.

What does the pizza business of tomorrow look like? Popper has an idea but won’t divulge.  Sci-Futures works with some of the biggest businesses in CPG, electronics, automotive and finance – but most of their work is top-secret.  

When asked if AI is part of his clients’ stories, Popper indicates that it plays a leading role, drawing on a concept he calls Business to Algorithm (B2A). “Regardless of whether you sell food, paper products or financial services, you must develop a B2A strategy that involves leveraging the emerging data ecosystems, understanding what data your brands and products produce, and also what data you require to be competitive in this new environment,” he says.   

Popper’s B2A thinking reflects a marketplace that is now generating a “goldmine of data exhaust” that will provide the “future theatre for ongoing battles of business algorithms.”  He believes that “algorithmic-enabled markets will be the dominant arena for ecommerce.”  

He also emphasizes that understanding the algorithms that will fuel your business is a near-future necessity. “The B2A environment is mostly green fields today.  But it may not be that way for long…. It is imperative for every company to prepare for this emerging marketplace since this connected digital layer will be everywhere.”

So I will leave you with this thought: No business today can operate without managing change, and anyone reading this piece is likely doing that.  Beyond that, no business will stay relevant without significantly changing its future business model.  

Are you imagining your sci-fi future?

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