WhatIF Lab: The Ursula Project - Speculative Fiction Storytelling for Technology Foresight

Launching in 2022, the Ursula Project is a collaboration between The University of Queensland and the Australian Department of Defence, Science and Technology. Our aim is to adapt story-telling techniques drawn from speculative fiction (across books, games, and screen) into workshop material that will help Defence personnel prepare for the potential disruptive effects of new technologies.

Writers of speculative fiction have expert knowledge in building and populating imagined worlds and communities, and playing out chains of cause and effect within them. The skill set that we aim to develop into transferable skills for technology foresight are the four key domains of speculative fiction storytelling, broadly: setting, character, plot, and style.

The Challenge

The world is facing an unprecedented wave of ‘wicked’ problems with high-stakes, long time frames, and which cannot be solved by a single discipline. Fostering the ability within organisations to imagine and think creatively when planning for the future, is key to overcoming them. Technology foresight research has largely been focussed on understanding and forecasting the implications of specific technologies in isolation. It is becoming more and more vital to build the capacity for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that considers the reaches and impacts of change within an entire system.

The Solution

Pre-existing Defence horizon initiatives often rely on bringing speculative fiction writers into organisations to do the work of imagining for Defence. Our project aims to enable internal capacity within Defence, so Defence personnel can imagine future technology scenarios for themselves. The Ursula Project will support strategic planners in forecasting potential impacts of new technological developments. We will do this through the development of a set of guiding principles and model workshops.

Via interviews with a diverse cross-section of speculative fiction creatives, with varying professional and cultural experiences, we will develop a set of transferable skills, such as: imagining conflicts (problems, solutions, causes, and effects); creating characters (human decision-making, adversarial viewpoints, individual motivations); and building contexts (geographical locations, operating environments, logic and rules of engagement). In effect, the methodology provides a 360-degree way of thinking about future problems, addressing the need for determining how technologies and tactics may converge in future military and security scenarios.

The Impact

This research forms the basis for a novel methodology, conceptualising how the techniques of science fiction and fantasy writing can be used to help teams of experts solve complex problems. From the findings of this research, we will develop a set of guiding principles and steps for development of operational models to support creative thinking towards analysis and discovery of novel opportunities presented by emerging technologies.

This project will help place the creative arts – and speculative fiction in particular, a genre that is often put down as ‘mere escapism’ – at the heart of research about the most difficult problems facing the world right now.