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A Three Question Exercise for Speculative Thinking in Technology

by | Jan 28, 2021

With the World Economic Forum saying that originality and imagination are key skills for emerging jobs, there is a sudden urgency to develop the capability. How can we acquire this tool and stay competitive in a job market with increasing competition from robotic technology and AI? 

One answer lies within speculative fiction, as our podcast guest Shimon Adaf described. In 2014 Adaf appeared on The Guardian’s list of best science fiction for 2013, alongside Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. Speculative fiction, the genre that Adaf’s novels tend to fall under, deals with describing the alternative – exploring the possibilities of what could happen in a parallel timeline. The category differs from science fiction by rethinking present reality, and not just focusing on future scenarios and possibilities.

  

“You are able to see your present in a different way, it enables you to rethink what you know about your own reality.”

 

Speculative fiction pushes you to rethink the basic assumptions you have about your environment, suspending belief in what you know and exploring the scenarios beyond that. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a novel-turned-Hulu series, is a familiar example. Instead of looking to the future, it alters events to reflect what has and could happen in today’s society, forcing us to rethink our societal norms. 

But the principle behind speculative fiction extends beyond writing and is reflected in other artistic mediums as well. Many of our other podcast guests have mentioned the importance of thinking this way in their work, and how it often led them to certain innovations in their fields. For example, James George, the inventor of volumetric films, and Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, came up with technological innovations by wondering why things were the way they were. 

These successes show that this way of thinking is required in every field-from business, education, and governance-because we are entering the Imagination Age. The Imagination Age requires creative thinking to push us past the boundaries we see in our society, to keep up with the innovations that are occurring at a rapid pace. It means fostering our imagination by using the same thought processes that artists use, in part, observation, empathy, and questioning. 

The thought process behind speculative thinking uses this artistic pattern of thought, and further links us to the soft skills of critical thinking, imagination, creativity, and originality. 

And, believe it or not, this way of thinking can be developed. 

So how can we use speculative thinking to advance our imagination?

Adaf gave us three questions that we can ask ourselves as an introductory exercise to flex our imagination muscles: 

 

Depth Editor Debug | 2011 James George and Alexander Porter | Source: aexanderporter.net

Question 1: What stops me from having this experience?

Think about something you want to do or achieve. Now picture what is stopping you from getting there. How can you overcome that obstacle? 

Look for answers that are outside the box. Think of any solution that could get you to that endpoint and follow that train of thought. Don’t worry about any sort of limitation – see how far your imagination can take you.

As an example, Adaf mentioned writers from the 1940s and 1950s who predicted some of the technology that we have now, before science made them a foreseeable reality. One of these writers, Arthur C. Clarke, predicted devices around the earth for communication before satellites were even a possibility. 

How could Clarke possibly think about something like that when his present reality was so far off?  It was because of his questioning thought process. It was because he asked himself why current society was limited in their communication capabilities, and how he would be able to bypass those limitations. Maybe he wondered, “why are we confined by the locality in our communication? What will enable me to speak with someone on the other side of the planet?” Then he let his imagination work. 

By posing these kinds of questions, we are developing the foundation for innovative problem-solving. Even if the question is hypothetical, it makes us think about the current environment and how we can possibly mold it to better suit our needs. It allows us to see what stands in our way, and brainstorm new ways to overcome it.

 

“Extra-Terrestrial Relays” | Arthur C. Clarke | Source: Wireless World 1945

Question 2: What can I do with it? 

This question takes the things around us, whether they be physical or intangible, and makes us question their realm of use. 

It doesn’t mean figuring out what is “possible” or what you think you’re supposed to do with something. This question seeks to find out what you could do with it, listing all the possible ways you can utilize, convert, or play with something. It calls on our imagination to get creative with the ways we can fit something into our lives and play what the implications of that may be, pushing the boundaries of possibility. 

Look at CRISPR – the toolkit to genetically alter yourself in your own home. This revolutionary technology started when scientists discovered certain bacteria could genetically alter the DNA of viruses to protect themselves. 

They were able to expand on this innovation to create something that would give people the tools to tackle diseases like diabetes and sickle cell – all from the comfort of their own home. By looking at the answers this question gave them, these scientists created something that could possibly alter the way we perceive genetic related ailments, and ultimately how we function as a society regarding these diseases. 

And not only was CRISPR a product of imagination, but it also allows other individuals to explore their own imaginative speculative train of thought. It gives them the power to answer “What could I do with it?” with whatever possibilities they can imagine. Some people are trying to design genetically glowing dogs, some are trying to determine their children’s eye colors and others are trying to tackle diseases like diabetes, HIV, and sickle cell. Watch the Netflix show – UnNatural Selection to see it for yourself.

 

DNA Representation | Photo by: Andy Leppard | Source: Flickr

Question 3: What if things were different? 

Imagine what could happen if the circumstances around you were different. If you could have this experience or do the impossible. What are the implications of that? What if, like we mentioned, the basic assumptions about your daily life were upended? 

Before space travel was even technologically possible, writers were discussing it in the 1940s. They were theorizing the different ways humans would be able to survive in the harsh conditions in space. One popular short story talked about how people would need to weaponize themselves to withstand these special conditions. 

Then, in the 1960s, scientists also started to wonder what would happen to the human body if it were exposed to dangerous environments in space. This led to a question: what if, instead of altering the environment to support the human body, we altered the human body using technology? The idea that we, as humans, would possibly need to alter ourselves in order to survive these circumstances, led to the development of a new term: cybernetic organs, aka cyborgs. 

We may think this thought process is nonsensical but look at what is happening today – we have cyborgs such as past podcast guests Moon Ribas and Manel de Aguas who alter themselves to become more in tune with their environment. 

Using speculative thinking to develop the foundation for critical thought prepares us for things that we didn’t anticipate, and adapting our mindset to evolve with these challenges as they come is crucial to future success.  

 

Manel De Aguas with Weather Fins installed in his Head | Source: WikiCommons

Now What?

Now that you’ve gone through this thinking process, go through it again. Now one more time. Adaf recommends to go through this process as many times as possible until the results seem unreal. Each time you go through these questions, reality skews a little bit more. Soon you will find yourself looking at a completely new reality and exploring the opportunities that can give you a new perspective. You will allow yourself to evolve with the Imagination Age. This way of thinking can lead you to completely new places that you thought could never be reached but are closer than you think. 

So next time you are working on a new project, or exploring new technologies as yourself:

1. What stops me from having this experience?

2. What can I do with it?

3. What if things were different?

 

Looking for more tips and tools on how to implement an artistic mindset into your daily life? Check our previous posts.

Listen to Shimon Adaf describe the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and learning in our podcast episode, “Speculative Thinking”

 

-Marisa Cedeno

What can we create together?