Dystopian literature: inspiring innovation and policy making

It has been more than a year since we are experiencing quite a different world, sometimes compared to a dystopian scenario. This is not a science-fiction novel, a dystopian book or a movie, but a global crisis humankind is facing. Neither is the first time we see something that put us on the edge of falling over: devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, massive people displacement or wars are also clear examples of crises. Although these are not dystopian scenarios, in this article I argue that dystopian literature could serve as inspiration for innovation and policymaking due to its connection to future thinking and the tool of scenario planning.

The edge of falling over

Imagine yourself walking in empty streets during recent lockdowns due to the current pandemic. Restaurants, hotels, retail shops, except for essential grocery ones, everything else was closed. If you lived out of the city centre, you would have found yourself walking alone in the streets. Quite like a post-apocalyptic film. Our imagination goes directly to the time when everything else was “normally functioning”, an urban ecosystem, perfectly articulated, or completely chaotic, but still what we were used to see.

The empty streets could be also found in L’Aquila, in the region of Abruzzo, Italy. After the earthquake in 2009, the government decided to resettle the inhabitants into a new temporary neighborhood in the periphery and closed the dangerous, almost falling building in the city centre. You could feel the silence in your bones while walking a city at the limit of death. The risk of opening the buildings was too high.  This town lost it soul, what was the future of urban regeneration?

We have well seen these scenes or similar urban landscapes along human history. For instance, the memories of fallen cities after global wars. We can think the images of the impact of Katrina in Louisiana, or even the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Even the very well-known example of Chernobyl. Furthermore, the already evident impact of Climate Change. All are kind of threats that put as on the edge of falling over: What are the limits of humanity? What if we could have done things differently?

Dystopian Literature as inspiration

From philosophers, to movie makers or writers, we have always imagined the world destruction. Our culture is embedded with images of the end of the world, and we have settled outside influences such as meteor impacts, pandemics or alien invasions as main threads.

There is a question that constantly appears in dystopian literature: What would happen if this world changed? Writers belonging to this genre write from a position of anguish in the face of social order disturbances, and seek to resolve them. These are attempts to govern the complexity of the human being.

In post-apocalyptic, dystopian narratives, the concept of uncertainty about the future has actually been an excuse to address various social problems that occurred at different times in world history, through fiction and in a critical way. Facing many of these problems makes us look at ourselves as a society in uncertainty, faced with the contingency of the future and requires us to make decisions based on plausible hypotheses about the future.

Could literature become a driver for science innovation and policy making? The answer is definitely yes. This genre has historically thought about possible futures, hypothetic scenarios.  Narratives such a “The city and the Stars” of Arthur Clark, “After London” by Richard Jefferies, or “The drowned world” of John Ballard propose diverse solutions to apocalyptic situations. From a technological catastrophe to a devastating flood, the authors make us ponder about issues such as political organization, what to do with memories of humankind or how to organize the society. They very deeply narrate the suffering of the characters, showing off their emotions as many of us may behave in similar situations nowadays. They have even described the role of scientists finding solutions and discovering the ways out of critical situations.

We have understood we need to face the complexity of contemporary challenges in a comprehensive way, taking advantage of interdisciplinary approaches. Indeed, the current pandemic put us in another trial: we must cooperate to find solutions. As scientists, we try to understand our world: from developing new tools, exploring ways to make everyday life easier, strengthening medical developments, finding solutions to our habitats and more. We are constantly in the position of thinking “what would happen if…” Will dystopian literature become an inspirational source for innovation and policy making?

Scenario Planning: a tool for innovation and policymaking

Dystopian Literature has always done what scientists and policy makers could do: imagine futures. Indeed, Scenario Planning is a methodology that allows to devise solid strategies given different future scenarios. It was originally designed for military and business purposes, but it turned to be an effective tool for policy making in times of uncertainty. Thinking possible future scenarios means analyzing logical, rational or normative implications of an action. However, this exercise is embedded in our personal and scientific backgrounds. What is the added value of Scenario Planning?

When we think about possible future scenarios, we should pay attention to our understanding about how the world works. It is a logical exercise that could bring solutions to concrete problems and prepare the society to be more resilient. In the article “Living in the Futures”, the authors look back at Shell’s business strategy built up using Scenario Planning. They highlighted the value of “strategic foresight” when making decisions: a) it enhances capacity to perceive change; b) it enhances capacity to interpret and respond to change; c) it influences other actors; and d) it enhances capacity for organizational learning.

Scenario Planning as a tool has the power to connect risk assessment with future thinking: decision-makers need to pay attention not only to what is known and their personal assumptions, but also to what is novel and uncomfortable. It is a way to prepare ourselves to face unknown challenges. Will policy makers and scientist further use Scenario Planning to mitigate the impact of crisis?

Matias Barberis Rami
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