“Science fiction gives us a very dynamic way to ask existential questions.”
— Denis Villeneuve
At a recent retail brand conference set in the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, Sebastian Fauré (our group CEO) and I sat in the audience as a young very hipster-looking man, sporting a full Edwardian beard and stylish glasses, bounded up onto the stage and proceeded to tell us the story of how at Lowe’s, the home hardware chain, he had set up an innovation lab using the most unusual technique.
In essence, he had gathered up customer and behavioral data that related to the home renovation category, and wrote out an innovation brief that he then gave to a group of published science fiction writers he had scouted. Cleverly, he also paired each one with an illustrator, and asked each team to come back with a comic book version of Lowes ten years in the future. Yes, a science fiction comic book.
The ideas that he piloted as a result of this project were so successful that his little experiment got fully funded and became the norm for how the company runs their innovation process. These ideas are already being put in market at Lowes stores across the continent. We were astounded that at a very conservative company in a very conservative category, he had managed to do something so wonderfully different.
Science fiction has always been a huge part of pop culture, and is ever more so today. Great science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke wrote prophetic stories that in many ways we are living today as we contemplate how (not whether) AI will transform human interactions, or NASA’s hopes to colonize Mars.
But only recently have we seen how science fiction can affect our approach towards innovation, design, and business as a whole. At Toyota’s central factory in Tokyo, a team of animators from the famous Studio Ghibli (makers of the Oscar-winning Hiyao Miyazaki animated features) work alongside Toyota designers, not to work on projects together per se, but to influence each other’s thinking merely by being in close proximity, looking over at a neighbor’s Mac screen, having an informal conversation at lunch. In other words, leaders at Toyota and Studio Ghibli had decided that there was mutual benefit in putting futurist animators alongside automotive engineers, to see what the chemistry would produce.
What science fiction authors and auteurs challenge us to do is to see our world, our natures, and our future – through a different lens. To pose questions about our tendencies and technologies today, and project them to their logical conclusions by depicting a possible future, like Los Angeles in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Or as Spike Jonz did in Her, which is set only a decade or so in the future, with an entirely believable storyline where a young man falls in love with his AI software. (The AI voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson, so can you blame him?)
I encourage anyone working in marketing, branding, innovation or design to consume a steady design of quality science fiction. To use the genius of these storytellers to help see our world anew.
So, for those of you who are interested, here’s a brilliant half-hour interview Denis Villeneuve gave at Google recently. Enjoy!