Science Fiction’s Greatest Power? Inspiring Us to Build the Future

Science fiction’s visions of the future can appear more fantasy than fact. Sometimes books and movies are unnerving, other times they’re way off. Although sci-fi isn’t always right, it does something else that’s more important than mere prediction—it inspires the people who can build the future to go out there and get to work.

And so when I received an invitation to participate in SU Labs’ pilot workshop—SciFi D.I.: Design Intelligence for the Future Home, a two-part workshop bringing together an uncommon mix of partners to create a sci-fi graphic novel envisioning the future home in 2030—I was pretty fired up.

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a sci-fi novice and had some serious catching up to do. So where did I begin? Binge watching the original Star Trek TV series. But the deeper I dug into sci-fi, the more hooked I became.

Star Trek alone has inspired multiple technologies, like telepresence and the cell phone. In fact, Motorola’s director of research and development Martin Cooper attributes the design of their first cell phone to the Star Trek communicator.

The design of Apple’s debut iPad in 2010 was said to be inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the Johnny Cab in Total Recall (1990) is credited as early inspiration to many currently developing autonomous cars. In more recent news, October 21, 2015 marked national Back to the Future day, which celebrated the many realized technologies that were featured in the 1980s film—biometric scanners, hydroponics, wearable VR/AR technology—and the list goes on.

As the graphic novel comes together in the months ahead, I’ll be leaking pre-release bits from the story, along with some of the technologies we’ve come up with.

But for now, this is an inside look at putting science fiction to use as a tool for innovation during part one of the SciFi D.I. workshop—the workshop that turned me from a sci-fi skeptic to believer.

Inside Part I of the SciFI D.I. Workshop

My badge for the workshop

Once gathered in beautiful Bodega Bay, California for part one of the workshop, Robert Suarez, managing director of innovation and design at SU Labs, kicked things off by framing a few core questions to focus on:

  • What should or should not exist in 2030?
  • How can closed-loop systems like greywater recycling make homes more sustainable?
  • How can design create seamless integration with surrounding natural environments?
  • What new technologies can be used for urban planning and home design to support developing cities build efficient, safe, and affordable housing?

We then divided into four multi disciplinary teams, each tasked with crafting their own fictional world of 2030, a compelling protagonist, and a range of futuristic products woven into the storyline.

The mix of co-collaborators was incredible and the energy in the room was buzzing.

On my team alone was the head of Ashoka Asia, Bayer LifeScience iHub’s director of digital health, Caterpillar’s director of innovation, Lowe’s Innovation Lab’s distributive innovation manager, a graphic novelist from Saudi Arabia, a comic book artist who has worked on pieces like Iron Man and Green Lantern, and the managing director of innovation and design at SU Labs—previously a senior portfolio director at renowned design firm IDEO.

For the first half of the day we rotated through four ideation sessions—biomes and biospheres, virtual and augmented reality, biomimicry, neuroscience and consciousness—interacting with a new technology as it relates to the future of the home.

By the second half of the day, my team landed on our character—a 120-year-old nomadic woman with a sophisticated exoskeleton.

With our character in hand, we moved into a series of intensive design stages, including persona development and world building, to further develop our protagonist and explore questions like: Why was this 120-year-old nomadic woman so determined to extend her life?

On the final day of the workshop the full group reconvened and the teams presented the characters, plots, and future products they developed.

Since October, when the first part of the workshop took place, a group of science fiction writers and illustrators have been doing the heavy lifting to bring it all together. And last week, during the second part of the workshop with the full group, they further built on the characters and futuristic technologies that made the cut for the final graphic novel.

Closing photo shot by drone

What will the end result look like? Stay tuned. I’ll give you a peek in the coming weeks.

Get an inside look at part one of the workshop by watching this video from the SciFi D.I. Part One.

By Alison E. Berman

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

Exploring the Great Mysteries of Consciousness and Free Will With Annaka Harris

For thousands of years, humankind has been plagued by to two essential questions: Why do I have this unique voice inside my head? And am I in control of it or am I simply a passenger?

The concepts of consciousness and free will are fundamental to the human condition—perhaps the two most crucial operating principles of our lives. And yet, after millennia of philosophical inquiry and scientific progress, we are still confounded by these notions, unable to make many great claims with high certainty.

In the latest episode of Singularity University Radio’s the Feedback Loop, we sat down with one of our species’ latest champions fighting to unravel the enigmatic puzzle that is the human mind.

Annaka Harris is an author, editor, and consultant for science writers, including her husband and world-renowned author, podcaster, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris. Over the years, she’s honed her thoughts about consciousness and free will, two of her favorite topics.

The result? Her new book, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, a wonderfully concise and well-organized exploration of the mind’s greatest mysteries backed by numerous case studies and examples outlining our latest understanding of consciousness.

In the book, Annaka explains how easy it is to take our everyday experience for granted. But the moment we stop to consider what’s really happening—our perception, our thoughts, our choices, our experiences—we are forced to reckon with one of the most profound mysteries that exists: How could any collection of matter become self-aware?

Her stated goal is to shatter the intuitions and biases that can lead us into inaccurate assumptions and direct us instead into a state of awe and openness to new ideas.

One such idea is the controversial concept of panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of matter, much like gravity or electromagnetism. It’s a bold idea that was explored by thinkers as early as Plato, but which lost favor through the years (especially with the rise of logical positivism). However, with science still struggling to find a solution for the “hard problem” of consciousness—which is the question of how and why organisms have subjective experience—there has been a resurgence in exploration of panpsychism as a possibility.

On Episode 6 of the Feedback Loop , we explore the notions of shattered intuitions and panpsychism, the implications of consciousness studies for AI and free will, and the lessons we can learn from altered states like meditation and psychedelics.

You can find this episode with Annaka Harris—as well as past episodes with wonderful thinkers like Douglas Rushkoff—in the player below or on your favorite podcasting platforms like Spotify, Apple, or Google. Additionally, you can find links to other podcasting platforms and Singularity Hub’s text-to-speech articles here.

Image Credit: frankie’s /

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This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

What is it, the Tao?

What is it, the Tao?
Leave your mind open to question.
An open mind, an open question.
The answer is important?
The Master says nonsense.

What is this? What is that?
Between this and that, no division.
Without one, where is the other?
Without both, where is the Tao?
Question, questions…
The answer is to question.

The Motivating Power of a Massive Transformative Purpose

Eradicating diseases, mastering flight, near-instant global communication, going to the moon—humans have developed a taste for making the impossible possible.

Though we still face a daunting list of global challenges, we’ve learned that science and technology can uncover big solutions. But mind-blowing breakthroughs don’t just happen. They take teams of bright and dedicated people chipping away at the problem day and night. They take a huge amount of motivation, toil, and at least a few failures.

To solve our biggest problems, we need people to undertake big tasks. But what drives someone to take on such a difficult, uncertain process and stick with it?

There’s a secret to motivating individuals and teams to do great things: It’s purpose.

Social movements, rapidly growing organizations, and remarkable breakthroughs in science and technology have something in common—they’re often byproducts of a deeply unifying purpose. There’s a name for this breed of motivation.

It’s called massive transformative purpose or MTP.

Setting out to solve big problems brings purpose and meaning to work—it gives us a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning and face another day.

Peter Diamandis likes to say, “Find something you would die for, and live for it.”

The more we organize around massive transformative purpose, the harder we’ll work, the more dedicated we’ll be, the faster we can solve big problems—and maybe most importantly, the more fulfilled we’ll feel about the work we do.

This article will explore ideas we’ve learned from some of our favorite big thinkers on what makes an MTP and how to find and implement yours.

Understanding Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP)

In 2014, Salim Ismail published Exponential Organizations, co-authored by Mike Malone and Yuri van Geest. In the book, the team analyzed the 100 fastest growing organizations and synthesized their key traits. They discovered every single company on the list had a massive transformative purpose.

In the simplest sense, an MTP is a “highly aspirational tagline” for an individual or group, like a company, organization, community, or social movement.

It’s a huge and audacious purpose statement.


Elon Musk and SpaceX are a good example for understanding MTPs. Musk didn’t found SpaceX to have a luxurious retirement on Mars or just for the sake of building the most profitable aerospace company. He’s driven by the belief humans must become a multi-planetary species. Making this a reality is his purpose.

SpaceX’s MTP to revolutionize space technology and enable people to live on another planet creates a shared aspirational purpose within the organization.

Notice that SpaceX’s MTP is:

  • Huge and aspirational
  • Clearly focused
  • Unique to the company
  • Aimed at radical transformation
  • Forward-looking

MTPs are not representative of what’s possible today; they’re aspirational and focused on creating a different future. This aspirational element is what ignites passion in individuals and groups; it’s what engages people’s hearts and minds to work together to realize their goal.


SpaceX’s MTP does this so well that they’ve also activated a cultural shift outside of the company’s walls, which is a secondary effect of having a strong MTP.

Other examples Ismail, Malone, and van Geest note in their book include the massive lines that form when Apple releases a new iPhone or the huge waitlist each year to get a seat at TED’s annual conference.

MTPs can inspire whole communities and evangelists to form around them.

Four examples of strong massive transformative purposes

As you read through these examples try to identify how each one fulfills each letter of MTP.

  1. TED: “Ideas worth spreading.”
  2. Google: “Organize the world’s information.”
  3. X Prize Foundation: “Bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”
  4. Tesla: “Accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation.”

Hopefully, this helps explain what an MTP is. But there are other kinds of motivating messages out there. What distinguishes an MTP from all the rest?

An MTP is not:

  • Just a company’s mission statement.
  • Technology specific or narrowly focused.
  • Representative of what is possible today.
  • Motivated only by profits.
  • Just a big goal or even a “big hairy audacious goal.” (It must also be driven by a purpose to create transformative impact.)

A successful MTP can often be reframed into a question. That question can then be used to evaluate organizational decisions and whether they’re aligned with the MTP. For example, if the organization TED is deciding whether to move forward with a talk they can ask, “Is this an idea worth spreading?”

The competitive advantages of an MTP

Having an MTP can trigger incredible outcomes, which is why high-growth organizations all tend to have them.

The aspirational quality of an MTP pushes teams to prioritize big thinking, rapid growth strategies, and organizational agility—and these behaviors all have substantial payoffs in the long term.

As an MTP harnesses passion within an organization, it also galvanizes a community to form outside the company that shares the purpose. This sparks an incredible secondary impact by helping organizations attract and retain top qualified talent who want to find mission-driven work and remain motivated by the cause.

Additionally, when people are aligned on purpose, it creates a positive feedback loop by channeling intrinsic motivation towards that shared purpose.

Finally, like a north star, an MTP keeps all efforts focused and aligned, which helps organizations grow cohesively. As the organization evolves and scales, the MTP becomes a stabilizer for employees as they transition into new territory.

How to begin creating an MTP

Peter Diamandis boils down two main areas of focus to identify your purpose:

  1. Identify the who: Ask yourself who you want to impact. What community do you want to create a lasting positive impact for? Is it high school students? The elderly? People suffering a chronic disease? These are just a few examples of potential groups to focus your purpose towards.
  1. Identify the what: What problem do you want to take on and solve? Here’s an exercise created by Diamandis to identify the “what” of your purpose:

Step one: Write down the top three items you are most excited about or get you most riled up (that you want to solve).

Step two: For each of the three problems listed above, ask the following six questions and score each from 1-10.
(1 = small difference; 10 = big difference)

1. If at the end of your life you had made a significant dent in this area, how proud would you feel?
2. Given the resources you have today, what level of impact could you make in the next three years if you solved this problem?
3. Given the resources you expect to have in 10 years, what level of impact could you make in a 3-year period?
4. How well do I understand the problem?
5. How emotionally charged (excited or riled up) am I about this?
6. Will this problem get solved with or without you involved?

TOTAL = Add up your scores and identify the idea with the highest score. This is your winner for now. Does this one intuitively feel right to you?

Have an MTP? Here’s what to do next

Realizing an MTP requires a different type of thinking. It requires a mindset and work environment that leans into complex problems and dares to think big—really big.

SpaceX isn’t where they are today because they focused on making 10% improvements to existing aerospace technology. And Google’s self-driving car isn’t the byproduct of a goal to make a 10% improvement to driving.

10% thinking leads to incremental progress, which doesn’t lead to making the impossible possible—like sending people to the moon.

Through history, however, we’ve learned that radically big thinking can lead to these types of breakthroughs.

You have the recipe for creating a massive transformative purpose to push you and your organization to the next level of performance and impact.

Now, it’s time to get to work.

Download a checklist for writing your own MTP, and share your ideas with us @singularityhub.

Image credit: Shutterstock


This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.