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, we formed a consortium of speculative fiction writers and scholars and came 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 built 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 shared expertise and explored 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 PalaceNisi 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 fictional attempt to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, using scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science. These workshops explored how core skills--inhabiting complex problem-spaces, engaging audiences, envisioning possible futures, and empathising with diverse perspectives--can help transdisciplinary teams function more effectively.

The Workshops

With over fifty participants from around the world and across disciplines, including the arts, sciences and defence institutions, the WhatIF Lab virtual workshops mined speculative fiction writing techniques to develop methods for tackling wicked problems. Each workshop consisted of an address from a keynote speaker, several respondents to the address and a general discussion on the topic. These discussions were lively and multifaceted, happening simultaneously in ‘person’ and in ‘the chat’. The larger workshop was then broken into smaller groups, each tasked with an imaginary scenario in which they collaborated with researchers in fields such as design, engineering, or politics, exploring the challenges, approaches and methodologies that might emerge.

In the Envision workshop with Nick Haraway we examined how narrative can help us step outside the bounds of convention. By creating a play space where we feel free to take moon-shots, say yes to crazy things, and envision ‘the shadow of something orthogonal’, this kind of thinking helps query and reframe assumptions about what is possible, or what is known.

In the Engage workshop with Karin Tidbeck we touched on ‘the art of immersion’, and how gameplay and stories create a shared world for their participants. These shared worlds can generate play, enable education, and establish an ‘embodied knowledge library of skills and techniques’ that help us craft experience.

In the Inhabit workshop with Kim Stanley Robinson we explored the skill of ‘world-building’, which involves constructing immersive story-worlds and settings that bring speculative elements, real-world research, and mimesis together. When we foreground a world over character and plot, we create conditions that make problem solving less ego- and human-centric.

And in the Empathise workshop with Nisi Shawl we discussed stories as empathy generating machines, which enable the imagining of a diverse range of perspectives, and help prepare us for possible futures (and the potential chaos they may bring). Empathy creation is a skill that can be taught and developed across disciplines, through practice, constantly shaped and reshaped. Through empathy, the stories we tell can be gateways to creating a kinder world.

The Impact

The scholarly research generated by this project extends and amplifies 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.

This project makes a strong contribution to the study of transdisciplinary methodologies and builds capacity for innovative transdisciplinary collaborations within Australia and the rest of the world.