Science Fiction to the Rescue! Harnessing Anthropological Design Fiction for Paradigmatic Changes in the World of Collapsing Ecosystems

Johanna Ylipulli
Academy of Finland research fellow
Information networks
Department of Computer Science
Aalto University

In the field of design, applying science fiction has become a common practice. These approaches are called design fiction which refers to using science fiction within a design process – to test concepts and prototype in the context of a fictional world, or to comment, reflect and criticize innovations. This review article introduces design fiction and ponders whether design could draw more from the subgenre of anthropological science fiction. This would enable holistic imaginings and more conscious creation of complete socio-cultural worlds instead of focusing on particular technologies or use situations. Anthropological design fiction could be utilized with broader aims in mind: it could, potentially, assist in changing the seemingly inevitable direction of certain powerful agendas, such as the smart city agenda, which heavily steers the urban development of numerous cities globally.



In recent years, a design approach utilizing science fiction, namely design fiction, has become a basic part of many designers’ and design researchers’ toolbox. The most classic definition of design fiction describes it as science fiction that takes into account the realities of design (Sterling 2005); it allows crossing the boundaries of facts and of what is currently possible over to the imaginary side. It refers to a variety of approaches having somewhat different aims: it is mainly utilized to ideate, prototype, and expand visions of future technologies, but also for reflecting, commenting and criticizing current trends or developments. What is common for all approaches falling under the rubric of design fiction is that they consciously utilize fictional narrative within a design process (Sterling 2005). On the other hand, Coulton et al. (2017) argue that a narrative is not central in design fiction; fictional artefacts are the key as they can act as an entry point to a fictional world. In any case, the argued strengths of design fiction include that it enables putting technologies that are not yet here within a context and imagining emotions, thoughts, and social situations they can produce. Further, it can provide understandings on the potential societal impact of various future technologies or infrastructures. (Bleecker 2009; Dunne & Raby 2013; Sterling 2005.) Relatively often a certain technology, gadget or application works as a starting point for design fictional endeavors. Consequently, the focus is on potential use of novel technology and its implications (Ylipulli et al. 2016).

This article explores the idea of integrating design fiction with perspectives offered by a specific sub-genre of science fiction, namely anthropological or social science fiction (Stover 1973). Shifting the focus from creating imaginary technologies to creating imaginary societies could be highly useful, especially when considering the future of extremely complex entities such as cities. Anthropological science fiction focuses on experimenting with cultural and social issues by asking, for example, what are humans and how does culture work. It can describe situations where cultural practices have developed into new directions due to encounters with alien species, or it might discuss the resilience of human culture when transferred into a strange environment. These kinds of imaginings that offer views to future but do not center on technological novelties but cultural novelties are needed now perhaps more than ever: the immense challenges of Anthropocene, climate change and biodiversity loss, require taking action immediately and steering away from incremental problem-solving towards paradigm shifts (Luusua et al. 2017). As claimed in the next subchapter, imaginary views offered by fiction are not just powerless dreams but they can effectively steer our thinking and actions.

The long-term relationship of science fiction and design

We can argue that fiction, understood broadly, has always been part of design. When we couple fiction with design, we tap one of the most profound human capabilities: that of making tools. On its purest level, this ability is based on imagining something that does not exist yet, and projecting the creations of imagination into the real world – by crafting tools, buildings and technologies, and eventually, by transforming whole environments. The narrower use of the term “fiction” implies that there is a narrative, a story, that is not based on facts nor presented as a fact. Leaning on this definition does not save us from a throwback to history: stories have inspired technology design and engineering for centuries or for thousands of years across different cultures (see e.g. Cave et al. 2020). Moreover, inventors and scientists have created speculative designs to test their ideas.

Science fiction as a modern literary genre (and later other media genre) was born as a result of the industrial revolution (Franklin 2011). It offers an imaginary venue for the critical reflection of scientific discoveries and also enables pondering alternative paths of development. In other words, science fiction can be seen as offering a safe arena where our increasingly technologizing society can exercise introspection (Franklin 2011). To give a brief general definition, science fiction describes and creates reflections on the impact of technology and science on human societies – and also on individual human. Typically, science fiction is more or less rooted in the advances of science and technology. Some subgenres, especially hard science fiction, pay more attention to scientific accuracy.

Furthermore, not only fiction reflects science, but it has been argued that also science reflects fiction and draws inspiration from it. (Bardzell and Bardzell 2014; Reeves 2012). For example, it has been highlighted in media that some tech companies have hired science fiction writers to boost innovation; and reportedly, the virtual reality company Oculus has handed the science fiction novel Ready Player One (2011) to its new employees (Wingfield 2016). The interaction between fiction and science can also be more unconscious. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2014) state that “science fiction does not merely anticipate but actively shapes technological futures through its effect on the collective imagination.”

However, although the relationship between fiction and design can be seen as ancient, and also science fiction has been around for more than a century, the concept of design fiction is relatively new. Design fiction as we understand it was it was coined by Bruce Sterling in his book Shaping Things (2005). He defined it as science fiction concerned with the realities of design. Another seminal publication came out in 2008 when Julian Bleecker discussed the concept in a presentation given at the Engage Design conference and in a digital essay (Bleecker 2008). Subsequently, the papers referring to design fiction have multiplied and its uses have been elaborated into multiple different approaches. Lindley et al. (2014) describe in their paper that “Returning to Sterling’s definition of design fiction, a central point is that designers are now using diegetic prototypes intentionally. Whereas in examples from literature, film and comics, diegetic prototyping occurs as a byproduct of the storytelling and entertainment endeavor, designers and practitioners of design fiction now are mobilizing diegetic prototypes intentionally for the purposes of informing design processes and projects.” In other words, the central point here is that fiction is used consciously as a part of design.

The more recent trends include combining participatory approaches to design with design fiction which enables imagining new futures together with more diverse group of participants (Baumann et al. 2018; Lyckvi et al. 2018). It has been argued that this is essential in order to create more diverse futures and to democratize future-making which is often confined to privileged groups such as policy-makers, futurists, entrepreneurs – and designers (e.g. Maze 2016).

When we look at the current works employing design fiction, they are often quite centered on gadgets and devices. In other words, technologies act as an entry point to the future AND the main aim is to create fictional prototypes. For example, Baumann et al. (2017) introduce a design process including four phases in which prototyping precedes the creation of design fiction: 1) Brainstorming; 2) Prototyping; 3) Design Fictions; 4) Presentation. Another example of this focus on artefacts and prototyping is offered by Coulton et al. (2017) who intend to redefine design fiction in their paper as focused on world building through several fictional artefacts: “[–] Design Fiction also demonstrates how an unreal world can be built using a wide variety of different artefacts, for example signs, maps, hardware blueprints, new legislation, and a user interface. In this case a single ‘container’ artefact, the research paper, linked all of these elements together. Each of these individual elements, which in aggregate tell a world not a story, represent ‘entry points’ to that fictional world.” This focus of design fiction is very understandable as the dominant motive for using the approach has been to innovate new technologies, and I want to emphasize the aim of this article is not to argue against this kind of use. Rather, the idea is to suggest an adjacent approach; following the example of science fiction, design fiction can also accommodate different subgenres that serve different purposes.

Another alliance: science fiction and anthropology

Anthropological science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, having a distinct focus. Rather than starting with technology and science, anthropological science fiction experiments and innovates with cultural and social issues. It is centered around the very same questions as academic anthropology: it ponders what humans are and how does culture work. Typically, it describes situations where cultural practices have developed into new directions due to encounters with alien species, or it might imagine how human culture would change when transferred into a strange environment. Ursula Le Guin’s seminal Hainish Cycle novels (1969–2000) as well as Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–1989) are classic examples of anthropological science fiction. Famously, Le Guin’s father was a well-known cultural anthropologist.

Interestingly, again the interaction between fiction and academic discipline(s) is reciprocal: as demonstrated above, fiction writers have been interested in anthropological speculation, but also anthropologist have for decades been interested in the potential offered by narratives and the power of speculation (e.g. Gerald 2003; Stover 1973). Sean Seeger and Daniel Davison-Vecchione (2021) map the recent developments of this area and mention a blog series (Anderson et al. 2018) on speculative anthropologies, commissioned by the Society for Cultural Anthropology. In the series scholars from social sciences and humanities ponder how questions posed by their fields resonate with science fiction. Further, Matthew Wolf-Meyer (2019) has recently built on these explorations and authored a short monograph on anthropology and speculative fiction, drawing on a range of science fiction. He claims that there should not be sharp distinction between social theory and speculative fiction as the knowledge claims of social sciences can be understood as somewhat speculative in nature: “Social theory and speculative fiction are two sides of the same coin. It is not the case that social theory is the sole provenance of academics nor that speculative fiction is that of science fiction writers. Both traditions ask us to imagine worlds that can be described and depicted, and ask us as audiences to imagine the rules that undergird a society and its human and more-than- human relationships” (Wolf-Meyer 2019, 5.) In short, Wolf-Meyer intends to tease out more creative ways of thinking about the world ahead, and create space for more diverse potential futures.

Despite these highly interesting explorations that all appear to point towards the same direction, there seems to be a gap between designerly uses of science fiction and anthropological interests on the subject. A few scholars have begun connecting the dots: Lindley et al. (2014) discuss in their paper how design fiction and design ethnography could work together in theory, resulting in an approach they call anticipatory ethnography. Further, anthropologist Anne Galloway has studied the possibilities of fantastic ethnography or creative ethnography (Galloway 2012; Galloway & Caudwell 2019). Design anthropologists Mette Kjærsgaard and Laurens Boer (2015) have also made a bold suggestion that we need to develop more speculative anthropology inspired by critical design and more situated critical design inspired by anthropology. They describe an approach realized with students where they combined ethnographic fieldwork, creation of speculative artefacts and writing of fictional narratives. Overall, there seem to be several fascinating propositions but also a lot of space for developing these ideas further, both in theory and in practice. One way forward is finding more resonances between approaches raising, on the other hand, from the field of anthropology and from aspirations to create understandings of (future) human condition through fiction, and design-led approaches focusing on technological change.

The importance of incorporating anthropological or holistic socio-cultural perspectives to design fiction can be justified by thinking about the persistent separation of technology and culture. These two are still often treated as separate domains; the view is dominating the everyday life thinking and often also conceptualizations in business world – and sometimes also research and design activities (e.g. Suopajärvi et al. 2012). This separation is often connected to technological determinism which still seems to haunt large part of the public discourse around technology, depicting it as an “arrow of progress” which moves towards a certain direction and cannot be controlled (Escobar et al. 1994). The separation of technology and culture is harmful in many ways: it prevents us from properly reflecting on the potential consequences of technological innovation and it also restricts the imaginative space of design itself (e.g. Balsamo 2011).

Technology can be defined as a set of tools, machines and knowledge related to them; and culture as “socially shared symbolic system of signs and meanings” (Balsamo 2011, 5) cannot be separated from it. Anne Balsamo (2011) uses the concept of technoculture that unites these two. According to her, social elements contribute to the overall meaning of technology, and technologies take shape through social practices. Her list of social facets inseparable from technology include also “the rituals and habits engendered by innovative devices, and the social structures that congeal through the use of machines, the consumption of products, the imposition of laws, and the enactment of policies” (Balsamo 2011, 9). Science and technology studies (STS) scholars have concluded that on the most fundamental level, every technology is socio-technical construction. Furthermore, Balsamo refers to the Humanist notions which claim that every technology also includes the expression of cultural understandings – “in the form of narratives, myths, values and truth claims. Therefore, technological innovations should be understood as hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages.” (Balsamo 2011, 9.) It can be argued that this corresponds also to fictional technological innovations – also they can be seen as hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages.

It can be argued that in order to create more holistic and sustainable visions of the possible futures, designers and design researchers utilizing design fiction need to pay attention to deeper socio-cultural structures. Anthropological science fiction can offer models for this work. We began to study the possibilities of combining anthropological thinking with design fiction in a paper published in 2016 (Ylipulli et al. 2016) in which we explored some ongoing urban research projects in the light of design fiction without an intention to prototype anything. We were especially interested in the social, cultural and ethical aspects and found ourselves pondering, for example, what death means in a potential future where all humans have their digital 3D replicas and tons of digital information of themselves online, and AI can mimic anything based on this information. Design fiction allowed us to dive deep into many profoundly cultural themes before the changes in question had actually happened, and to ponder their promises, challenges and threats. (Of course, now we are much closer to this fictional future than 5 years ago!). We noted that actually the science fiction inspired project of design fiction and the aims of anthropologists who study emerging technologies fit together well. This insight can be broadened by arguing that design fiction provides intriguing tools for anthropologists who try to make sense of emerging socio-technical futures and their implications for different groups of people. These notions are resonating clearly with arguments by Wolf-Meyer (2019) about speculative anthropology.

Reconfiguring dominant paradigms with anthropological design fiction?

To summarize, the reasons for harnessing dormant powers of anthropological speculation in design lay in the necessity to address the deeply entangled nature of culture and technology, but also in the urgent need to question complete paradigms or agendas steering technology design and development. Most of the design fiction operates within these paradigms; they do not necessarily challenge the very ideas of developing for example autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous computing or smart cities. All of these can be seen as dominant paradigms of technology design, based on certain choices, values and beliefs, and promoting the development of certain types of infrastructures and interactions. The social scientific orientation that encourages to question and challenge hegemonic arrangements, see their historicalness and relativity, can open up completely new, unexpected future horizons and help to reconfigure dominant paradigms. This can be especially useful concerning those agendas that are repeatedly critiqued for causing adverse societal impacts – such as the ones mentioned above.

For example, smart city as an urban development agenda has been extensively critiqued by urban scholars for being too exclusive and targeted mainly to wealthy and tech-savvy citizens. This can strengthen the existing axes of inequality, including those related to space and different residential areas, and create new ones, based on digital capability. Furthermore, it has been claimed smart city agenda promotes excessive surveillance and control, and transfers power from city dwellers either to big tech companies or to authoritarian governments (see Ylipulli and Luusua 2019; Ylipulli 2015; Zuboff 2015). Urbanization and technologization are megatrends that cannot be ignored when visioning the future of humankind; we need alternative techno-urban visions to accompany the critiques and to challenge the existing agendas.

I wish to underline that drawing from anthropological science fiction in design-oriented explorations does not mean we would completely steer away from technology and protypes. Rather, the idea would be to define a new starting point and reverse the order of imaginative processes: first, we have the anthropological, fictional scenario; changed living environment or societal arrangements that are different from the current situation. After having imagined these, we could focus on what technologies would be desirable. It is out of the scope of this brief paper to elaborate the process in detail – it will probably require some empirical studies as well. However, in the following I introduce three notions that can assist in developing the idea of anthropological design fiction further. The notions are inspired by all the three fields I wish to combine here: science fiction, anthropology and design.

Notes from three different “universes”

First of all, it may be useful to look at our original starting point, science fiction as genre, more closely and see whether it offers new insights for understanding anthropological design fiction. It has been argued that science fiction has three central modus operandi: intensification, extrapolation, and mutation, each one offering a different orientation towards understanding the future possibilities (Wolf-Meyer 2019). They are important to recognize as one of them is especially suitable for creating anthropological design fiction capable of breaking existing paradigms – namely mutation.

Image 1. The film Blade Runner 2049 (2017) takes several current developmental paths or megatrends and leads us to a rather bleak and unfertile future world created by intense urbanization, and packed with elaborated technology.
Image: Warner Bros Entertainment / Sony Pictures

Image 2. In the future world depicted by the film Dune: Part One (2021) mutation plays an important role. The narrative effectively demonstrates how human societies may transform in harsh extraterrestrial conditions, and introduces us the desert people Fremen with their social, cultural and technical adaptations.
Image: Warner Bros Entertainment

If we take brief examples from contemporary science fiction, the film Blade Runner 2049 (2017) leans strongly on intensification. The narrative follows several present developmental paths to the future and intensifies them: Blade Runner introduces a world of accelerated climate change, biodiversity loss, and excessive urbanization, coupled with elaborated robotics, AI and VR. Humans live in the vast and rather bleak urban areas, and boundaries between human/artificial and reality/digital reality are becoming unclear (image 1). The film presents an interesting commentary, for example, on human nature, but when assessed from the perspective of designing new futures, we can contend that it does not necessarily sign a way forward. It shows what developmental paths we should maybe consider again and seek other options, but these options are not really opened up.

Extrapolation takes a practice, institution or people and investigates what would happen if it would survive to the future. One recent example of this tendency could be The Handmaid’s Tale, a book by Margaret Atwood (1985), which was adapted into an award-winning series in 2017–2021. Although the narrative falls maybe more clearly under the category of speculative fiction than science fiction, offering a view to an alternative reality, it is a very clear example of extrapolation: it takes many forces of today’s world – totalitarianism, hierarchies, extreme religiousness – and weaves them into a dystopic future where part of the women are ripped off all their rights and forced to live as breeding machines. And the society pictured does not seem to make its creators, the class holding all the power, that happy either. This form of science fiction can offer extremely effective commentary on current trends and on horrifying injustice human societies are capable of, it can criticize and warn – but likewise narratives drawing from intensification, it often lacks the ability to effectively show us an alternative way forward: how we could do things differently.

The book Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert was also recently adapted into an audiovisual work – the film Dune: Part One (2021). The original novel is sometimes categorized as an important piece that bridges the science and technology centered hard science fiction and “soft”, anthropological science fiction drawing from social sciences (Kennedy 2020). Anthropological understandings of culture have clearly informed Herbert’s descriptions of various groups of people. The Fremen, people living in extremely hostile conditions in the desert planet Arrakis, provide a fascinating example of the mutation in science fiction: the Fremen have adapted to the harsh environment and developed numerous innovations, including technical ones, that help them to survive in the middle of lethal sand storms and enormous creatures, sand worms, living underground and hunting anything that moves above them (image 2). Further, their belief systems and values have also been affected by the environmental conditions. For example, they are seeing the sandworms as physical representation of God. However, it is important to note that the modes of science fiction can also exists simultaneously, and in addition to drawing from (cultural) mutation, also Dune carries traces of, for example, extrapolation (feudal governing structure, family clans, militarism). Nevertheless, considering the aim here which is to reach towards more constructive views on future, the use of mutation in science fiction is probably the most fruitful one.

The next two notions can be explained more briefly but they are as central as the need to study the origins of design fiction, i.e. different modes and orientations of science fiction, in more detail. My second notion concerns the inspiration for alternative thinking models, worldviews, and consequently, experiences – where the creator or facilitator of anthropological design fiction should start? One option is to look at the enormous richness of the past or current human cultures which can offer alternative starting points, and turn many (western) conceptualizations that we take for granted upside down. For example, a variety of basic building blocks of our reality are understood differently among different societies: the classic anthropological examples include, for example, the concepts of family, property, ownership, or a more abstract concepts of privacy and agency (Ratner 2000). For example, widely held thoughts connected to animism, which refers giving agency to non-human world – plants, spirits, objects and animals – and communicating with them could offer alternative starting points (e.g. Rival 2012). This does not mean some particular cultural conceptualizations should be followed in detail but studying and recognizing the great variety of worldviews and perspectives found in human societies can help in finding alternative ways to think about futures.

The third point raises from the current trends of design fiction: The anthropological design fiction must be created through participation. As stated earlier, it has been argued in the field of design that design fiction needs to be participatory in order to democratize potential futures. If works of speculation are exhibited only in museums or scientific forums, they are accessible only for limited audience. If they are created only by groups having intellectual, political or economic power, they will reflect only their future hopes, fears and dreams. Participatory design has a long tradition and can surely offer approaches that work in conjunction with design fiction, as some authors have suggested (Candy & Kornet 2019; Lyckvi et al. 2018).

To end with an example of how the ideas presented above could be applied, I offer a quick look at the research project titled Digital Inequality in Smart Cities (DISC) that I currently lead at the Aalto University. The latter part of the project will focus on exploring “alternative smart cities’” by utilizing anthropological design fiction and participatory approach. The intention is to craft design fictions based on results of multi-stakeholder workshops held during previous phases of the project; therefore, they will be embedded in the lived reality of the city dwellers. The tentative plan is to hire professional writer(s) to create engaging and comprehensive “smart city fictions”, and film maker(s) to create short films. These products intend to reflect collaborative visions of alternative smart cities, and represent them in a form that is easy to comprehend and spread. In the final workshops held during the project these products will be presented to the study participants and feedback will be gathered. Further, the very last part of the project turns design fictions or parts of them into tangible creations: prototypes of alternative urban services, their parts or novel platforms will be designed in collaboration with interested workshop participants, the Cities, companies and engineering and design students. The aim is to find subversive approaches that can reverse the impact of smart city development: instead of being an agenda that increases (digital) inequality, the bold aim is to turn it into a vehicle for increasing digital equality and people’s technological agency.


We can conclude that science fiction, anthropology and design are by no means strangers to each other. Design and science fiction and on the other hand, also anthropology and science fiction have been mixed for different purposes for decades, and they have also been affecting each other in more subconscious and subtle ways. It must be mentioned that also design and anthropology have been interacting with each other for a long time, but discussing this further falls out of the scope of this brief article. However, the combinations of these three areas offer still plenty of space for theoretical and methodological investigation. Through carefully combining the strands of thought raising from different fields, we could develop approaches for envisioning more holistic socio-technical transformations.

I argue that in order to arrive into creative and effective combinations of the said areas we need interdisciplinary, deep knowledge of all the fields discussed. We need to consider science fiction as a genre speculating about change, anthropology as a field of intending to understand human societies and their change, and design as a field aiming towards change, which is necessarily always also cultural and social. This could enable developing interdisciplinary approaches that could assist in creating plausible alternatives for global agendas that are currently dominating our thinking and actions, and shaping our future.


Johanna Ylipulli would like to acknowledge grant n:o 332143 from the Academy of Finland for the project Digital Inequality in Smart Cities (DISC).



All links verified 13.12.2021


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