Science fiction is a brilliant way to imaginatively explore how unthinkable futures might look and feel.
Very often the challenge in futures studies is the difficulty in setting the mind free enough to imagine futures that feel a little bit too 'out there'.
Especially in a business setting where individuals might feel that their thinking could be perceived by others to be 'too wild' - it is not easy to facilitate truly creative thinking about the future under these conditions.
As an example - just 2 years ago it would have been inconceivable to think that a global pandemic would have shut down economies around the world and that everybody would be working from home and ordering their groceries via online apps that deliver in less than 30 minutes.
If you have told that story in a scenario planning workshop as a possible future state of the world you would have been fired and told to go join Neil Gaiman in cloud cuckoo land.
Increasingly though - academic futurists are exploring the value that science fiction narrative frameworks can play in our structure thinking about the future.
Two futurists from the National University of Singapore, Alessandro Fergnani and Zhaoli Song, have now published some fascinating research into the six scenario archetypes that they discovered by analysing hundreds of science fiction films set in the future.
From V for Vendetta to Waterworld, Wall E and The Hunger Games - each film's storyline that they included was categorised as representing a specific archetype in their framework - and they ended up with six distinctive themes throughout the genre: Growth & Decay, Threats & New Hopes, Wasteworlds, The Powers That Be, Disarray and Inversion.
Here are the details of each of the six:
Growth and Decay
'This archetype involves the continuation of the current capitalistic status quo, which grows even more rampantly. Corporations reigns unalloyed, potentially extending their power to policing, urban security, the management of public infrastructures, and law enforcement. Governmental power is absent or sidelined. Current technologies also grow steadily, pushed by monetary gains and
controlled by corporations.
Hints of societal collapse or decay are found in the society. Decay can manifest in various forms, from abject life conditions and patent disparities to mismanagement of urban hygiene and bleakness of the atmospheric environment, or in a combination of these elements. Decay can also manifest in the decadence of common values, or in the conflict between values between different groups of
individuals/factions. For example, leadership can be evil, primarily profit seeking and dominative, while subordinates are subjugated.
This archetype is represented by the cyberpunk genre in cinema, although it is also portrayed in films that do not entirely fit into this genre.'
This archetype is portrayed in the Steven Spielberg movie Ready Player One:
Threats and New Hopes
In this archetype, no significant change affects mankind, and human life conditions are very similar to the present. However, an imminent catastrophic or apocalyptic event or phenomenon threats mankind’s existence. This impending occurrence can take various forms, including environmental disasters, man-made destructions, or aliens’ invasion. National and supranational governmental bodies or military organisations collaborate to devise a global plan of rescue, while the private sector is less relevant. Individuals sacrifice their personal wealth, affections and even their lives for the common good in order to save the world as humanity is united to fight a common enemy. This archetype is represented by the disaster genre in cinema, although it is also portrayed in films that do not entirely fit into this genre.
This archetype can be found in the movie Transcendence:
In this archetype, a catastrophic event or phenomenon has already occurred, bringing about substantial transformations on a global scale. The atmospheric environment is often perniciously hit, forcing humans to adapt to drastic life conditions.
Often times, on the backdrop of severe resources’ scarcity, human civilisation has regressed to sustenance level. The market economy has given way to more rudimentary economic systems, such as barter or the use of water, oil, or sand as currencies. Few survivors live in scattered tribal communities, struggling for life and often exploited by gangs of outlaws. Tyrannical local leaders often
subjugate these defenceless communities, expropriating their resources. Individuals fight against each other for survival. Other times, humans abandon earth altogether due to unliveable environmental conditions, this being a variation of the archetype, albeit with the same initial premises.
This archetype is represented by the post-apocalyptic genre in cinema, Mad Max: Fury Road is a good example.
The Powers That Be
In this archetype, a catastrophic event or phenomenon, often man-made, has already occurred. Although this has left a scar on the human species to the point that population is often significantly reduced, mankind resumes its path to progress quickly thereafter.
However, strict totalitarian or dictatorial powers emerge from this checkered past, ostensibly to carefully prevent the occurrence of other man-made devastating events or phenomena in the future. Technology is advanced, but centralised in the hands of governmental bodies and used as an instrument of control. Running parallel to technical progress, citizens’ rights, happiness, freedom, and emotions
are limited from above. Individuals attempt to emancipate, to rebel against existing regimes, or to uproot them.
This archetype is represented by the dystopia genre in cinema - have a look at the movie Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron.
In this archetype, although in absence of apparent transformational changes in the economy or atmospheric environment, mankind faces structural endogenous problems. The globe is plagued by any of the following: endemic crime, social unrest and disorder, widespread poverty, ignorance, infertility, violent confrontation and war, famines, or pandemics; or by a combination of these.
Although the private sector is still present, military and policing organisations, either official or non-official, have a more central role in this future. Individual endeavours zero in on restoring or maintaining justice, order, or protection of citizens.
This archetype can be seen in the movie Children of Men.
In this archetype, the role of mankind is turned upside down, as it is outpaced or subjugated by a superior civilisation, agent, or organism. Human beings no longer dominate the planet. Often times, they are instead dominated by creatures of higher physical prowess, of which they become preys. Alien species invading the planet or the entire galaxy is an example, either monstrous or anthropomorphic in appearance. However, this superior entity could also manifest itself in more subtle manners, such as an ostensible creator or supervisor with whom mankind ought not interfere.
This archetype is represented by the aliens’ genre in cinema, although it is also portrayed in films that do not entirely fit into this genre. The 2018 film A Quiet Place is an example.
How the six archetypes can be used for scenario planning
There are a number of ways that scenario planning can be done and there are numerous methods that can be used.
Scenario archetypes, as one of those methods, are useful because they offer a frame within which you can position your organisation, your focal issue that you are investigating as well as the driving forces of change and uncertainty that you are wishing to better understand as to how they may unfold into the future, all within the different contexts of each of the archetypal narratives.
What makes them come alive so vividly for people are the background worlds that are given by the related movies in each one of the archetypes offered here. These provide an inspirational backdrop against which specific, detailed stories that are meaningful for your own investigation, can be created.
For more - here's a link to the research paper: