WhatIF Lab: Using Science Fiction to Solve Complex Problems

What does science fiction have to do with solving the most complex problems facing society? Can creative writing techniques for worldbuilding help planners create carbon neutral cities? Can imagining futuristic plots help Defence agencies anticipate new threats?

In 2021-2022, we are forming a consortium of speculative fiction writers and scholars who will come together to explore how creative writing skills can help researchers in diverse fields solve the grand challenges of the twenty-first century.

The Challenge

The grand challenges of the twenty-first century--such as climate change and AI--are broadly recognised as ‘wicked’ problems, because they are high-stakes, with long time frames, cannot be solved by a single discipline, and can seem existential if not insurmountable. Yet, science fiction writers have a long history of working with transdisciplinary teams within corporations such as Microsoft, Apple and Google to work on these sorts of problems. Our project investigates how skills honed by writing science fiction and fantasy, genres that imagine alternative worlds, can enrich research within universities and industry.

The Solution

Funded by a UQ Global Engagement seed grant, we will form a consortium of science fiction and fantasy writers from institutions such as the University of British Columbia, the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Glasgow. With our partners, we will share expertise and explore successful practices within four virtual workshops featuring keynote speakers such as Nick Harkaway whose novel Gnomon explores a near-future model for democracy; Karin Tidbeck whose work on experimental role-playing shaped her novels Amatka and The Memory Palace; Nisi Shawl, co-author of Writing the Other and the critically acclaimed fantasy novel Everfair; and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Ministry for the Future narrates a fiction attempt to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, using scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science. These workshops will explore how core skills--inhabiting complex problem-spaces, engaging audiences, envisioning possible futures, and empathising with diverse perspectives--might be used to help transdisciplinary teams function more effectively.

The Impact

The scholarly research generated by this project will extend and amplify the emerging sub-field of creative writing studies that is concerned with creative arts across disciplines (e.g. health, psychology). Increasingly, universities and other organisations including our own are forming and supporting transdisciplinary teams to address wicked problems through high-impact research but there are still key barriers such as the difficulties of building functional teams, the challenges of bridging cultural difficulties, and the inability of teams to forecast effectively.

The project will also make a strong contribution to the study of transdisciplinary methodologies and will build capacity for innovative transdisciplinary collaborations within Australia and the rest of the world.