The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies

I have a new, and somewhat futuristic project on the go


NESTA have asked for a review and reflection on the role of science fiction in technological innovation. It will be published in the early Autumn alongside a couple of reports on more, ahem, formal futurological methods. I’ll be blogging thoughts about this here as I go.

Now, though, a simple request for help. There’s obviously stuff I need to know about. I can think of lots of different areas to explore – and will of course be doing a (limited) literature review and compiling a bibliography in academic mode.

But there are too many disciplines relevant here for one person to cover. There is also, I suspect, a fair bit of grey literature – some in print and, perhaps, more on the web.

So a little crowdsourcing seems in order. I’d be very grateful for any pointers to relevant items – research, commentary, discussion, etc – which I should ponder. Assume I will revisit the histories of SF and technology, literature on innovation, and journals in (science fiction) literature, science and technology studies and design. But anything outside those areas which I might miss is of interest.

I am particularly interested in:

  • Robots – as a case study
  • Design fiction/interaction design/speculative design
  • Examples from non-Anglophone countries
  • Projects in which tech development organisations (public or private) have dallied with science fiction in various ways.
  • and, to ensure the project is as much fun as I intended when I pitched for it, exemplary fictions!

And the questions in NESTA’s original call were about:

  • The direct impact of science fiction on those undertaking technological development, and the extent to which it has influenced research, product design, or the ambition and direction of innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the demand for innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the social status of innovation
  • The creative processes and techniques that science fiction writers use to imagine and flesh out possible futures.

You might think, at first look, some of these will be easier to tackle than others. Me too…

If anything comes to mind in response to any of the above, do please take a moment to pass it on. If you use the comment space below, others can avoid repeating if they care to read through.


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21 Comments on “The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies”

  1. […] The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future … […]

  2. […] me browse their library while I was in London the other week. If this is of interest, please take a look at Jon’s blog and see what he is looking for. We do have some fairly specific requirements, and we do need […]

  3. Matt Wall Says:

    Hi Jon – sounds like an interesting project. One thing you should definitely look at is the Tricorder Project: The guy who develops them has been doing a fantastic job of making the Star Trek-inspired Tricorder an actual, workable scientific tool.

    One other thing you might find interesting is this document from IBM (written in 2005) on the future of mobile computing. Not so much sci-fi inspired, but pretty prescient:

    The last suggestion I have is a bit more from my own research area – electronic brain implants are a staple of science fiction, and we’re just beginning to be able to implant them effectively and realise what kind of potential they might have. I’m thinking about artificial retina implants, and deep-brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease (and other problems). Hit me up if you’re interested and think I might be able to help in anyway

    Hope that’s helpful!

    Matt. (@m_wall)

  4. The book ‘Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science’ covers a lot of the historical ground.

  5. Jessica Says:

    I think a Star Trek tricorder style medical imaging device is a big thing at the minute, I have a vague recollection of a prize being announced earlier this year.
    Sorry I don’t have any more details!

  6. Paul Says:

    Rainbows End by Venor Vinge, and Web Mind by Robert Sawyer (I think that’s what its called).

  7. rmileham Says:

    Thinking of sci-fi-come-true along the lines of Eddie the Shipboard computer, Holly from Red Dwarf (sorry) etc, Jeremy Pitt at Imperial College has edited a sci-fi influenced book on pervasive computing. Last year I facilitated a Dana Centre event with him and others including Oli Mival, who is developing a futuristic office with lots of smart interfaces. My writeup is here Sounds like a great project.

  8. Rex Says:

    There are some good chapters in Charles E. Gannon’s Rumors of War and Infernal Machines; and H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars. Both discuss how SF can drive techno-military agendas.

  9. Athos Says:

    Interesting project.
    To quickly get a comprehensive view of the genre including the main novels, films and other forms pick up John Clutes’ ‘Science Fiction The Illustrated Encyclopedia’ which also places all the major works in historical context.
    I guess you probably want to look at Arthur C Clarke as no other writer got as many predictions right as he did and he also drove some of the innovation. His role in the development of satellite technology for example.
    Asimov might also provide some insight. The only author to have published books in every Dewey Decimal library category, he was also the most prolific science fiction writer ever with 500 books. He may even have written a book about Science Fiction and innovation.

    Science fiction shouldnt just be about the invention in itself but about the social consequences arising. Broadly speaking American Science Fiction tended to paint more positive outcomes whereas European tended to be more cynical. Especially during the cold war. This distinction is not so well defined these days.

    For a more recent author I would suggest Ian McDonald. In his books most of the future innovation takes place in India and Brazil because they have fewer rules and bureaucracy restricting new technology.

    Lastly a comment on the picture you had of Minority Report. This is an excellent example of a film with a plethora of possible innovations. This was done deliberately by the film producers who drafted in a small army of futurologists to fill it with future tech. Little of which was in the original short story.

    Good luck let me know how it goes

  10. Frank Says:

    Great project, congratulations! I remember getting my first mobile phone and thinking: “this is just like having one of those lapel radios in Star Trek! I can speak to anyone any time I want!” 🙂

    Seconding Assimov – wasn’t he the first to describe how geostationary satellites could be used for global comms coverage?

    Speculative design – check out James King and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg; most notably their e.chromi project for diagnostic bacteria, but plenty more besides.

    I think the major difficulty will be knowing whether sci-fi leads tech development or the other way around – that is to say, whether “space age” technology is a natural outcome of increasing levels of sophistication in engineering, computing, etc; or whether a product has been specifically pursued to mimic a fictional device. Tough call!

    • jonturney Says:

      working assumption is that it is (always?) a two-way street – each influences the other…
      GInsberg and King – interesting projects: thanks for reminder.

  11. Geoffrey Heaford Says:

    I don’t know whether these qualify but Artgur C Clarke wrote a short story in the late 1940s/early 1950s about a race usuing space ships with sails to catch the sunlight and then there is “Fountains of Paradise” about a space elevator

  12. The European Space Agency looked into this a few years ago for its own purposes. See:

  13. Hi Jon

    Just discovered your project and if there’s anything I or the Arthur C. Clarke Award team can do to help, please do get in touch.


    Email: ClarkeAward at gmail dotcom

    Best wishes

    Tom Hunter
    Award Director

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