In October 2015, researchers presented an unusual paper at a computer science conference in London. The paper described the promising results of a pilot project in which a local community used surveillance drones to enforce car parking restrictions and to identify dog owners who failed to clean up after their pets. Controlled by four elderly retirees, the drones buzzed around the city and directed council officials on the ground.
The paper and its accompanying video generated lively discussion about the ethics and regulation of drone use among delegates at the CHI PLAY conference. But there was a catch: The paper, the video, and the pilot scheme were fictional, as the researchers admitted at the end of both the paper and the presentation.
The researchers had invented the scenario as a way to focus attention on how drone technology—a topic of study for some of the people in the room—could shape and change society. The team thought that presenting the idea as if it were real—for example, showing familiar street signs in the video warning drivers about a drone-controlled zone—would provoke discussion about a future in which such use of technology was considered mundane.
The practice is called design fiction. Originally used in product design, the approach is finding increasing use in scientific and medical fields as a way to explore the possible consequences of technological development. These projects are not so much experiments designed to test a hypothesis as they are orchestrated scenarios designed to provoke forward-thinking discussion and debate. From climate science and artificial intelligence to wearable technologies and healthcare, researchers are creating and sharing often dystopian tales about the near future. And they’re tracking people’s reactions to these scenarios to help reshape the way researchers conceive the technology they are developing.