From Fiction to Future: [better] World Building

Using speculative fiction for future forecasting

Ellen Hlozan


Getting Curious

Today, innovation means being in a constant state of flux. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what real change looks and feels like. For instance, how might automation impact the way we design & work? Will all our customers be human in the future?  Or even, how might extended reality and floating architecture help island nations facing coastal erosion?

Questions like these emerged through a foresight process developed at Autodesk Research. Using speculative fiction, we explored how the future might look and feel. The resulting Collision Anthology is a speculative account of near-term futures, exploring automation, who our customers might become, and the impact of climate change.

The goal of this project was to use storytelling to articulate long-term drivers of change and reveal critical insights that could shape our collective future(s). Stories are powerful. They enable people to see and feel change differently than reading a technical paper would. Speculative fiction places the reader in a brand-new world where they experience what change could feel like in a visceral and empathetic way. Seeing yourself in a new reality and feeling a sense of empowerment to move towards that change (or chart a path away from an undesirable future) is motivating.

As a Community Manager, I was especially interested in how we might draw insights from our resident community (150+ global organizations building and researching solutions for the future) and read the long-term impact of their work through the lens of foresight practice. We hope that Collision Anthology readers understand that the future is not predetermined, and their decisions hold weight where we collectively land on important issues we face today.

Collecting Signals

Diving deeper into our points of inquiry, we learned that our resident community was primarily technology-focused, followed by organizations with environmental and social implications, trailing off in the areas of economic and political impact. This STEEP analysis indicates an opportunity to ground our understanding of resident work through context and examine how our world might look and feel 10-20 years from today. How is technology changing our world? What new behaviors are emerging? How are we collectively impacted by social, political, and economic changes driven by technology?

Signals into Insights

Informed by Autodesk’s research and that of the resident community, we zeroed in on resident projects that 1) felt the most potentially impactful; 2) were the most uncertain in how they might be realized. From here we dove deep, consulting subject matter experts, conducting our own research, and hosting workshops and discussions to decide which projects to collide with one another.

These explorations helped us to define drivers or “fledgling trends” that we feel could have the most impact on our world in 10-20 years.  We intend for these stories to inspire customers to imagine what might be changing in their industries through world building.

How does research drive these stories?

We were inspired by the residents and their unique projects as weak signals of change. We held workshops with them to hear their POV on how their work might take shape in a future society and what impacts it may have when fully realized at scale. We projected ourselves into positive and negative micro scenarios together.

After getting into the weeds with residents, we created story boards, researched topics related to resident work in more depth, looked to academia, and researched the setting we were placing the story in. For example, I spent a great deal of time researching the cultural traditions of Micronesia and watching conference talks from experts.

The writing process was about weaving together varying thematic threads into a world that doesn’t yet exist but is plausible or even preferred.

What will we collide next?

The Collision Anthology format lends itself well to exploring many different futures inspired by research. I can’t say for certain, but have you ever considered how we might build carbon neutral structures in the future? Or how buildings could be better designed to suit the needs of people through continuous feedback? Stay tuned.

Ellen Hlozan is a Network Community Manager at Autodesk Research.

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