Game of Thrones, Star Trek and Innovation

Game of Thrones, Star Trek and Innovation

I recently wrote a couple of articles for Innovation Excellence that explored innovation insights we can glean from science fiction writers.  In this article, I want to further expand on that topic, and ask how other authors, including William Gibson, Jules Verne and James Burke may be able to help us stretch our thinking.  And given that we are in the throws of “Game of Thrones” fever, I couldn’t resist asking if there is also something we can learn from that somewhat unlikely source?

Science and Art: Innovators & SF writers share a common challenge – to envision and create the future.  The two I wrote about, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov were both accomplished scientists and inventors in their own right.

This places them in a unique space at the interface of science and creative arts. Interfaces between disciplines are always ripe for innovation, as they force us to step outside of our comfort zone, and explore and embrace new knowledge.  This can occur at interfaces between similar disciplines, such as biochemistry and genetics, or at more disconnected interfaces like those that blend art and science.  More disconnected disciplines require more learning, as well as bigger mental stretches, and so are more challenging.  But that mental yoga also has the potential to trigger more diverse thinking, and so potentially trigger more disruptive ideas.

The richness of the art-science interface in particular has a long history of delivering truly disruptive ideas, going all of the way back to Leonardo da Vinci, punch cards used in early computers which were derived from tapestry looms, medical suturing techniques derived from embroidery, or even the very recent example of using computer games to help in the restoration of Notre Dame.

Submarines, The Internet and K-Pop: While a science background helps to ground future visions in technically likely realities, science fiction has a track record of creating ‘sparks’ of innovation that go well beyond the work of ‘hard scientists’ like Asimov and Clarke.  Jules Verne’s books were littered with ideas such as submarines that later became reality.  William Gibson, and several others envisaged the internet long before it came to pass, while Gibson’s insights into marketing, branding, and even K-Pop have proven to be almost disturbingly prescient.

The Final Frontier: Perhaps the biggest source of inspiration of all is Star Trek.  So many of today’s technologies, from voice activated computers, to flip phones (OK they’ve come and gone, but you get the idea), medical scanners, and tablets were anticipated in Star Trek.  We may still be a long way from warp drives and teleportation (although worm holes and particle entanglement are at least on the quantum mechanical radar), but much of what seemed wildly futuristic when Star Trek first aired has now come to pass, and in some cases, come and gone.  It is all too easy in hindsight to dismiss the vision in those early TV shows, but at the time, the idea of a talking computer, or an African American female bridge officer for that matter, were pretty radical.  Why was Star Trek so good at predicting the future? Perhaps it was a function of the extraordinary insight of Rodenberry, it’s creator.  Or perhaps so many innovators watched Star Trek in their youth that it primed them to create many of the innovations we take for granted today.  We’ll probably never know, but most likely it’s a mixture of both.

Game of Thrones: This brings me to Game of Thrones, a complex, fantasy based science fiction story that couldn’t be more distant from the ‘hard’ science fiction of Clarke, or even Star Trek.  But it is extraordinarily popular, so will it influence the thinking of future innovators?  Clearly it’s unlikely to have the direct influence of something as directly anticipatory as Star Trek.  But as innovators, I passionately believe we need to stretch our thinking, so what could we potentially learn by having a little fun with this addictive story?

  1. A Magic Mind Set.Magic is often used in science fiction as a mechanism to deliver what we cannot deliver via science. You could argue that this is simply a ‘lazy’ plot device, but it is one that frees up the imagination, and the kind of ‘what if’ thinking that if leveraged carefully, can provide a pathway to truly disruptive innovation.  It can help us explore bold goals, and temporarily remove the feasibility constraints that as scientists and engineers, we often automatically evoke when ideating.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon constraints, or spend time searching for chemically unlikely dilithium crystals.  But to come full circle, and quote Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so in many ways, as innovators, we are in the business of creating magic, but then making it real.
  2. Let There Be Dragons. The origin of dragons in Game of Thrones may be shrouded in magic, but what if we ask how would we create dragons using science?  I‘d suggest genetic engineering.  At present, we tend to think of genetic engineering in terms of what it can deliver in disease management, and more controversially in agriculture.  But from there it is a short step to think about how we bioengineer nature to create tools and technologies we can use.  It’s a controversial area for sure, but as we seek to reduce our environmental footprint, the concept of using ‘organic engineering’, modifying organisms (or ourselves) to take the place of the plastic, metal and concrete tools and devices we create today becomes compelling.  Why couldn’t we ‘grow’ houses, or create organic, photosynthetic power sources?  Or what about the other AI, augmented intelligence?  It is science fiction today, but so were Star Treks flip phones in the 1960’s.  As our sophistication in genetic engineering grows, it is an area that will present real opportunities, and probably some real ethical dilemmas as well. And it’s an area that has already been explored extensively in science fiction, by authors including Jules Verne, Harry Harrison, and brilliantly prescient William Gibson in his latest novels.
  3. Deconstructing the past often gives us insight into how to create the future. It’s well documented that George RR Martin is a student of history, and many of the events and story lines in game of thrones can appear to be derived from actual historical events, in particular the War of the Roses. Ed West’s book, “Iron, Fire and Ice: The Real History that Inspired Game of Thrones” covers this in far more detail than I can here.  But it’s a fairly common technique for future or fantasy writers to draw on real historic events.  For example, the contemporary biopic on J R R Tolkien explores exactly this as it examines the influence of his experiences in the First World War on the plot development of Lord of the Rings.  Similarly, the title of George Orwell’s landmark novel 1984 was actually a play on 1948, the year it was written, and was as much an observation of contemporary events as it was a prediction of the future.  It may have been prescient in its treatment of linguistic contraction, fake news, and meaning reversal, concepts that now play out in Facebook memes, fake news, texts and emojis, but its foundation lies in an understanding of history.   This is a critical point for us as innovators.  We cannot create the future without understanding the past.  We need to deeply understand how incumbents work, how they have evolved, and where they both fail and succeed if we are to create either incremental or disruptive interventions that stand on their shoulders.  Again, to come full circle, artists understand this.   Van Gogh, for example, early in his career learnt by copying other masters, and later in life while in an asylum, painted numerous variations on existing masterpieces. Recreating someone else’s song, painting, or a competitive product can be incredibly insightful, and provide a way to blend the best of theirs and ours. As innovators, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how radical our innovations may be.  As a related example, perhaps the earliest influence on my path as an innovator was the series “Connections’, by James Burke.  James is a brilliant historian and journalist, who traced inventions back through history to show how one idea led to another, and how via analogy, our knowledge of historical inventions could be reapplied to create new ones.

So referencing Game of Thrones at this time may have an element of ‘click bait’ associated with it, but it also illustrates some really important insights, both around how we can learn from artists, and science fiction authors in general, as well as how important it is to reach outside of our existing knowledge domains if we truly want to create breakthrough and disruptive innovation.  If we only network with innovators, we’ll likely never be truly innovative!

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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Pete Foley




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