Today's guest blog post comes to us from two of my colleagues:
- Radha Mistry, Story Maker in the Office of the CTO (OCTO)
- Jessica Escobedo, summer intern in OCTO
Finding value in stories isn't new. Our histories, creeds, and technologies are very much embedded in fantasy and in fable. What storytelling allows for is a more intentionally curated version of our surrounding context; a point of reference that we're not typically afforded in real-time and at the human scale. Stories — varying degrees of fictional representation about the recent past or the near future — help us construct our understanding of the world around us.
So it's not that stories aren't valuable. The problem these days is that we're bombarded with too many stories. Stories that acknowledge that climate change is inevitable, or that automation is going to take all of our jobs. Stories that tell us that those stories are fake. Stories about the next big technological innovation we absolutely must adopt... These days it seems that the rate of change is too fast. Context changes too often. The world is noisy. It's hard to parse. Full of the dazzle of technology. We don't know what to make of our present, and maybe because of this we don't know how to plan for a future drowning in uncertainty. So how do we begin to quiet the noise?
It turns out that science fiction authors have done a really good job of exploring the implications of emerging technology on society for decades. For example, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee drew his inspiration from science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who coined the famous quote "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." and described satellites in such detail he could have patented the idea 20 years before they became reality. Clarke's story Dial F For Frankenstein, set in 1975, describes an automatic telephone exchange system with the equivalent number of switches as there are neurons in the human brain. "Pygmalion's Spectacles," written in 1935, is one of the earliest known stories that describes a Virtually Reality style interface — goggles and a mask that transport you into an alternate reality.
Using science-fiction as a mechanism to quiet the turbulence around us can provide clarity in our perception. The world is full of weak signals, fragmented indicators that give us insight into our potential futures and reveal something about the present. By clearing the noise and amplifying interesting weak signals, we can create a new lens on reality and begin to reveal critical insights into the shaping of our futures. We can begin to be proactive about our futures rather than merely reacting, succumbing to our circumstances.
At Autodesk, we're already quite good at using stories about the future and digging deeper to design and make tangible examples that demonstrate ideal scenarios. We see the outcomes of explorations around weak signals often, such as in research initiatives carried out in OCTO.
Projects like the Digital Twin VR experience that was showcased at AU last year gave our customers and industry partners a better idea of how robotics and immersive technologies might one day augment our workflows, leveraging automation and allowing for remote collaboration. That technology isn't ubiquitous yet, but it's an indicator of where we might be heading.
Our story around generative design and our Toronto workplace showcases the types of technological advancement that Archigram or Buckminster Fuller might have only dreamt up in their mind's eye. It's incredible.
But how do we bridge the gap between where we are today, and where we think we're headed tomorrow? How can we make sure that we bring our customers and partners externally and our teams internally along with us? And how might we ensure that our future-focused efforts are taking us in the right direction? Enter science-fiction.
Science-fiction isn't just good for entertainment. At a broader level, it can be used as a tool for gaining strategic foresight through scenario building. In OCTO this year, we undertook a world building exercise. We took cues from science-fiction, allowing ourselves to be transported into an alternate conceptual space. Since Autodesk serves a broad base of customers with diverse needs, we wanted to span all scenarios. We considered big cities and small villages. We pondered centrally located towns and remote islands. We covered the 4 seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. We also leveraged strategic foresight to, more deliberately, bridge that space of uncertainty between the future and our present context. The project built on various future of work initiatives across Autodesk. The outcome of the world building exercise is a set of robust scenarios depicting our vision for the future of work.
In the same way as our OCTO scientist researchers use prototypes to explore unknowns, the scenarios are helping us prototype potential futures and explore answers to questions such as "Where do we see our place in the automation discourse?" or "How can we serve our customers and our employees in the future?" and even "Will all of our workers be human?"
Our four worldbuilding scenarios included:
Winter: Metropolis in Transit: Is a Win for the City a Win for All?
- Gabrielle Lozano, Neighborhood Data Advocate, acts as the bridge between the public sector and private citizens. She's in charge of working with the community, local government, and the Olympics to inform development and "decode the data" for citizens.
- Caleb Gibson is a Dynamic Resourcing Supervisor. Automation has meant that he's not only overseeing one construction site, but a number of sites that are sensed and connected within a construction ecosystem. Working on a platform rather than a portfolio of products has allowed Gibson to safely and efficiently distribute materials, equipment, and labor across multiple sites.
- It's September of 2030, and Gabrielle and Caleb are reflecting on how their design team did with LA Olympics. Historically, Olympics had left a poor legacy. As such, residents felt the committee was going to overlook their needs and re-distribute money for the short-term priorities of Olympics events instead of their long term needs of citizens like an updated water distribution network and upgraded railway line. People weren't just worried, they were angry.
- Back in the early 2020's, tools like generative design boasted the ability to manage vast levels of complexity and work in partnership with design and construction teams to explore the entire solution set. So the design and construction team put generative design tools to the test not only integrate business metrics but also factor in resource constraints like water shortages, compressed construction timelines, and an adaptive reuse approach to programming where existing infrastructure could be re-purposed for Olympic events, and new builds could be demolished easily — their raw materials redistributed for other projects.
Spring: From Robot Trainer to Small Town Mayor: How One Woman Led Industry 4.0 in Her Hometown
- Trey Kotkin is a Co-Bot Site Manager. Kotkin's decades of experience overseeing robot and human teams on the factory floor translate pretty well to robot and human teams on construction sites.
- Lisa West, former robot trainer turned young Mayor of small town (Rust Road Initiative), relies on AR simulations to extract insights from human workers and feed them into robot workers. She felt that automation was destroying worlds instead of building them and is working turn that around.
- The Rust Road Initiative transformed this small town. The project called for mass implementation of smart infrastructure, the use of emerging technologies like robotics for construction, and a Configurable Micro-factory Audit to assess which former facilities could be repurposed as part of the new manufactory-service-network. The plan also proposed a funding model targeting many of the large corporations who had originally begun divesting from small town operations.
- As other industries continued to move away from models that required the ownership of products and towards the usership of services, the team thought — why not leverage a manufacturing-as-a-service model? Corporations wouldn't have to commit to a single site or town. For a fee, they would have access to the entire Rust Road network, and as demand for particular products shifted, so could the nature of the manufacturing process.
Summer: Micro-factories as First Responders: How an Accidental Industrial Designer Shipped a Boat to Save His Island
- Fabian Correa is a trained climatologist who accidentally turned into an industrial designer by using generative learning tools (a.k.a. the Autodesk learning engine). A community of makers that are part of what we're calling a Virtual Makerspace community; in them, a Nomadic Disaster Relief Architect who had insights about the best way to make a shelter
- Set in a tropical island, the story is about Fabian, who develops climate preparedness projects by day and works on restoring his grandfather's boat by night, using generative design tools in a Virtual Maker Space.
- Nine Days before a Category 4 hurricane is predicted to make landfall, Fabian and his fellow Maker Community work together using generative design tools to make a foldable boat that can be repurposed as a shelter and delivered via drones for people on the island. The production was done in configurable micro-factories around the island before, during, and after the storm, optimized by the data from sensors in the island's smart infrastructure.
Fall: Rapid Recovery: How Connected Citizens and Thoughtful Technologies Built a New Future for this Hilltop Village
- Natasha Kohli is a Nomadic Architect that works with International government agency. Her job is to come in after natural disasters occur, like an earthquake, and asses a course of action for rebuilding.
- The village also includes a small team of AEC professionals among its diverse set of residents.
- The story is set in a remote hilltop village in the Himalayan mountains and reimagines the rebuilding efforts after an earthquake. Natasha Kohli and her team use a Configurable Neighborhood Model, which is like an automated, collaborative SimCity platform used for remote collaboration, drones for land surveying and delivery, configurable micro-bots that clear rubble and can assemble into larger configurations on-site, and also using AR/VR immersive technologies to augment the skills of locals in rebuilding.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, and we'll be there, applying strategic foresight through storytelling. The scenarios help us filter through all of the possible futures and move beyond what will probably happen to prototype what could plausibly, or what we want to preferably happen. The stories amplify the impact of emerging technologies, quelling the peripheral noise of so many other global drivers. In this way, science-fiction operates as a means of prototyping the future in a more digestible and more emotionally engaging manner.
The stories should serve as provocation. They should help us to quiet the noise out there and amplify the weak signals around the future of work that really matter to us, as Autodesk. If we can do this, we can help ourselves and our customers and colleagues by bridging that space of uncertainty between our offerings today and tangible validations that showcase risks and opportunities for tomorrow. And even if met with a degree of uncertainty (because change is constant), the outcomes will still provide us with a North Star; because, in a landscape where we sometimes feel like we're in a turbulent and foggy stupor, it can only help to have some semblance of a path forward.
Thanks, Radha and Jessica.
Purposeful imagination is alive in the lab.