For three semesters, we’ve had the opportunity to teach the “Designing the Future” course at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. The students not only explore the social and technological forces poised to reshape society, but proactively design business opportunities for that optimistic future.
Design fiction is one of the tools the students learn to prototype the future of business. Designers often use this strategy to help stakeholders envision divergent scenarios for their organization in the context of uncertainty.
We asked the students to consider the forces at play in today’s fast-changing society, such as artificial intelligence and decentralized governance models, and write a story about the future. Zooming out of this aspirational story, they mapped out what would have to be true from a technological and business standpoint to bring positive aspects of that future to fruition, while calling attention to factors or decisions that could negatively impact our world years from now. At its core, design fiction is a strategic exercise that connects the dots between vision and execution, transitioning teams from imagining the future to taking action.
Below are three of those design fiction stories, expressed as “op-eds from the future,” from a group of students who completed the course in May 2020. Their forecasts, marked by robotic workforces, new forms of currency, and egalitarian policies, can help us understand what actions we might take—or not take—to design a world where humans and technology harmoniously coexist.
By Alex D'Agostino, Cassandra Salcedo, and Alex Severin
It’s 2025, and the economy has somewhat “recovered.” A massive technology company finally opened their “alien dreadnoughts”—giant, gleaming factories producing every conceivable kind of high-quality, low-cost product. The factories essentially run themselves, with little human supervision. In many ways, the soul of humanity has been stripped before our very eyes under the guise of technological progress. As unemployment compounds and inequality continues to accelerate in the Post Pandemic Period (PPP), humans are growing increasingly keen to find alternative ways of leveraging their skills and resources.
Enter timebanking. Through timebanking, a person with one skill set can bank and trade hours of work for an equal number of hours of work in another skill set, instead of paying or being paid with traditional currency for services. For example:
Lucia is an 88-year old grandmother who lives alone. Ever since her children moved and her husband passed away, she’s felt engulfed by loneliness. But Lucia still bakes the best breakfast in town, and she’s always excited to watch the reaction of those lucky enough to taste it.
Carl is a high school senior with dreams of attending the University of California, Berkeley. Carl feels passionate about giving back to his community.
When Lucia needs someone to take out her trash, eager local students like Carl can offer to assist her, and in turn receive a “digital time token,” equivalent to the number of hours performed for the services. If Carl is ever overwhelmed with classwork or missing his family’s cooking, he can ask lonely local chefs like Lucia to prepare food for him and his roommates, while she enjoys their company over a meal. As Lucia and Carl acquire tokens in their digital wallets, they can choose to spend them on other services or save them.
Perhaps the biggest source of momentum behind the timebanking movement is a lesser-discussed pandemic: loneliness. In our PPP world, numerous countries have appointed their own “Ministers of Loneliness” in an effort to find creative solutions to the growing health crisis linked to many other physical illnesses as well as functional and cognitive decline.
We must rebuild the world as we wish to be in. A world in which Lucia, Robyn, and Carl’s contributions are valued and their needs met. Timebanking is a critical tool to strengthen our communities, fight loneliness, and revalue what it truly means to be a human.
By Shaibya Dalal and Kair Duisenov
My wife, Shobha, just got off our monthly portal call with our daughter, Priya, who lives 3,000 miles away. We love these calls—they are our primary connection to Priya. They are also harsh reminders of the loneliness of old age because each call ends with Shobha begging an exhausted Priya to drop in more through the portal and organize more virtual reunions with the grandkids—anything to help us feel more connected.
And, connection matters more than ever before. COVID-19 was merely the first among a series of deadly pandemics that normalized social distancing and accelerated society’s reliance on technology. Working from home became living at work. (Priya, like nearly all of you, is accustomed to a 14-hour workday.) These compounding factors have left the elderly particularly burdened by isolation.
Like other retirees, our insurance company supplied us with mandatory basic robot helpers. From cooking to physical therapy, such helpers are increasingly supporting the elderly. They even provide companionship: Anne, our 70-year-old neighbor, does ballroom dancing and quilting with her helper!
However, the sad reality is that high-quality robot help comes with a steep price tag. Helpers can alleviate loneliness, but the needed capabilities require technological upgrades costing upwards of $1 million. Unlike Anne, Shobha and I will never be able to afford these upgrades.
The late physicist Stephen Hawking warned us in 2015 of technology’s potential to exacerbate inequity; it is doubtful even he could have imagined the full impact decades later. The “Asimov Law” was passed in 2040, requiring the three global insurance companies to provide basic robot helpers as part of mandatory retiree packages. Instead of being the great equalizer, this privatization of robot helpers and AI magnified the power of large corporations. Life has not been this unequal since 2020, and left unchecked, advances in robotic technology will continue to reinforce disparities.
To protect those who come after us, we must collectively organize to advance “Better Helper AI” (BHAI) policies for seniors. (“Bhai” means brother or friend in Hindi.) A growing coalition of aging adults, willing adult children, and social workers is advocating to set rigorous standards and improve the capabilities of the basic robot helper. Moreover, they are pushing to earmark 5 percent of the annual funds allocated through the Robot Helpers Reinvestment Act to develop open source protocols that raise the floor across robot manufacturers. BHAI can ensure that all, not just some, elderly people have access to quality companionship and connection.
I believe there is a brighter and happier future ahead. If we fight together, I know there is.
By Fayzan Gowani, Stacey King, Evan Wright
Today, my life looks very different from how it looked back in 2020. Instead of driving around a city looking for clients to transport, I’m managing fleets of autonomous electric vehicles. COVID-19, now known as Pandemic I, was a precursor of what was to come. Things had to fall apart before today’s egalitarian society was given a chance to be real.
Even before Pandemic I, tech companies were collecting data on every Internet user, and consumer skepticism was growing. In Pandemic I’s aftermath, we were all too devastated by the effects to be upset about how they invaded our privacy. Instead, we spoke our grief through the polls: Our votes elected government leaders that implemented more social safety nets. For example, the government guaranteed a living wage to all workers, greatly increasing the net worth (and saving power) of each citizen.
But when Pandemic II—a truly airborne zoonotic disease—hit, big technology companies got greedy. They started using their arsenal of collected data on our lives to increase household spending on their apps, now that everyone had a living wage. Siri was helpful when I needed her to entertain the kids while I worked during the stay-at-home orders, but she started giving me unsolicited parenting advice. CEOs complained that Siri chimed in on their private business deals. Only when whistleblowers revealed the data abuse did the technology sector accept the loss of consumer trust they had precipitated.
Surprisingly, one of the big tech culprits helped create a revolution by working with data unions to enable the average consumer to manage and monetize the data it collected. The company and the government partnered to use centralized blockchain to retroactively compensate every individual for the data abuse, funnelling $134,000,000,000 of revenues and the government’s $693,000,000,000 annual defense budget to good use.
Though my job was soon replaced after Pandemic II by Uber’s self-driving car, the government’s emphasis on protecting its workers ensured that Uber trained me and hundreds of others for the future. That’s how I was promoted to fleet manager. Sometimes, I have nostalgia for the days when I would pick up clients in my Uber.
We’ve come a long way. I’m thriving in this egalitarian world. But we can’t forget the past. Take this next election seriously, and find ways to get your kids and grandkids to vote the way you and I did back then. Remind them—four decades of work can also be erased in the time it takes to send a tweet.
There’s much more to design fiction than sharing provocative stories. Leaders can apply design fiction to their businesses, no matter the industry, using this four-step exercise. Once you’ve written a story about the preferred future of your organization—whether that’s making insects into Americans’ new protein staple or introducing robots to combat loneliness among elders—the question becomes, how do we reverse engineer a path to get there? This unlocks strategies and tactics for the next five to 20 years—however far into the future you’d like to plan—that can help you and your team prototype your desired business reality.