How to better navigate the future by collaborating with sci-fi writers, (visual) artists, philosophers and anthropologists

Four types of innovation and cross-pollination approaches that will help you look beyond your own products, services, company and industry.

calendar icon
February 6, 2020
New York

One of the biggest business trends of the past few years, has been the blurring of industry lines. It's the reason why we are going to China to investigate the impact of changing mobility and city planning on other industries and why we are bringing different industry players together in our Innovation Bootcamps, but I'm getting off track here (after just one sentence!). Moving on. As the world of intelligent sensors, automated buying and personal assistants like Alexa and Google Home will grow in popularity, companies will need to reach out to other industry players if they want to offer their customers an easy and integrated customer experience. Example: your smart fridge will only be truly useful if it doesn’t just tell you that it’s almost out of milk (Most people can see that they’re out of milk, right? Unless you’re a man, possibly. I’ve learned over the years, that the best way to hide products from my husband is to put them at eye level in the fridge. (Yes, I did steal that joke)) but when it also orders that milk for you and has it delivered before you run out. That means that fridge manufacturers will need to collaborate with retailers who will need to collaborate with delivery services, who might collaborate with smart door companies in order to let them in. This type of seamless integrated experience is the reason why WeChat has become so popular in China: it allows users to look things up, book a hotel, pay for a pack of fries, buy a dress, ask their friends if they think that hair colour would suit them; and all of that without ever needing to leave the app. Amazon may be called the Everything Store, but WeChat’s “Everything” approach goes a lot further than merely buying.

Another reason for this industry melt down, is of course the increased complexity of our world: if you want to build a smart city – like Toyota recently announced with Woven City – you’ll have no other option but to collaborate with contractors, chip manufacturers, AI companies, app builders, governments and many other players. And of course, the ruthless war for customer data (data being the foundation for better marketing, better services, better products and let’s not be coy about that, better sales) is forcing players outside their own industry to enlarge their own data pool. It’s the exact reason why companies like Ping An (insurance), Apple and Amazon are all lurking for healthcare data with their new healthcare business models and services. Or why a tech company like Google started dabbling with self-driving cars before car manufacturers ever did.

But how can your company weapon itself against this trend? Or even better: how can it reap the benefits of it?

First of all: by investing talent, time and budget in the upper half of Peter Hinssen’s hourglass model: the half that’s concerned with “sensing” new trends, technologies, models, etc. - and that certainly includes those from outside your own industry - and then “trying” those out on a safe scale inside your company and its sector.

But that merely solves the “what”: it’s no use knowing which evolutions will disrupt your industry if your top of the hourglass team does not know “how” to integrate them in your industry. Fostering an open, agile and lifelong learning mindset will play a huge part here. And one of the best ways to achieve this is by reaching out to immensely different industries. The companies described below did just that: they opened the perspective of their employees – on very different levels of the company – by partnering up with visual artists, science fiction writers, philosophers and antropologists. There are many more examples of cross-industry collaborations, of course, but I decided to focus on the outliers this time, the most radical ones.


Nokia & Bell Labs E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology)

Bell Labs, the industrial research and scientific development company owned by Nokia, has a long history of fusing technology and the arts, long before Artists-In-Residence (AIR) and STEAM (STEM with an A for arts) became popular. Its very first feat was a collaboration with the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski from 1931–1932 on the first transmission of stereo sound.

Today, its E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) program is focussed on finding ways to better share emotions, sentiment, cognition and experiences between people of different races, cultures, religions etc.. The goal is to invent technology that will augment the senses and enable new forms of communication, interaction and sharing. It’s also working on methods to help people think more efficiently using a combination of machine learning and new graph-based mathematics to augment human intelligence and perception. For that, it fosters both longer-term Artist-In-Residences (AIRs) and short-term collaborations with artists across the world. The longer term (about a year) AIR program embeds artists as a team members and provides them with studio space, equipment and materials budget as well as access to world leading scientists and technology.

The Head of Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T) at Nokia Bell Labs, Domhnaill Hernon, talks about alternative ways of communicating and the value of tensions between colliding minds

McLaren Pit Crew & the Royal Ballet

Since its first Formula 1 victory at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, the Mclaren Formula 1 Team has gone on to secure 181 grand prix wins and 20 World Championships (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too). They are successfully operating in a fast and highly competitive industry, with permanently changing (safety) rules and evolutions in (car) technology. And one of the reasons for that succes has to do with permanent learning, and a fantastic connection with ballet.

Pit stops are one of the tensest activities of formula one auto races. In fact, auto races are frequently won and lost because of the pit stops and pit crews. In just a few seconds the Formula One pit crew has to refuel, replace 4 wheels and clean the driver’s helmet. In such a case, teamwork is of the essence: the whole McLaren crew (both on the track and back at HQ) needs to perfectly synchronise in order to avoid injury or lose precious time. This synchronisation is achieved through personal training, continuous practice and a constant search for new learning. My absolute favourite part, though, is that the pit crew consulted with the Royal Ballet to help them choreograph their movements to perfection. Using techniques like this enabled them to reduce pit stop time by 50% from an average 4 seconds to 2 seconds.

Bosch & Platform 12

I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing “engineer-mind with an artist-heart” Birgit Thoben about how she achieved a complete turnaround in innovation approach, mind-set and culture at the quite traditional incumbent Bosch. Many people called her crazy when she launched innovation lab ‘Platform 12’: it was basically ‘just’ a fantastic building floor - full of materials and a changing series of long-term artists in residence - waiting to be filled with engineers researching and experimenting, during the 10% spare time they received from Bosch to do just that. The most radical part is that she made the bold decision to let serendipity kick in, instead of forcing artists and engineers to work on well defined projects (something with probably would give most corporate decision makers screaming nightmares), but her approach was very successful.

Read all about Birgit, Platform 12 and her new company Future.Solutions here.


Who is better at inventing insanely radical visions about the future - that have not been tainted by our own habits and experiences - than science fiction writers? Especially since the genre has a serious track record of making fictional predictions that tend to crystalize in real life after a couple of years. So it should not come as a surprise that sci-fi writers are “hotter than a heatwave day when your heating systems decided itwould collaborate with (not against) the weather for optimal results" (that unfortunately happened to me 2 years ago).

Many are the examples of multinational companies and military institutions, looking in that ‘hot’ direction to help them navigate the complexities and uncertainties of the future or offer possible (worst-case) scenarios. The French Defense Innovation Agency (DIA), for instance, assembled a ‘red team’ of science fiction writers and futurists which will use “role play and other techniques to imagine how terrorist organizations or foreign states could use advanced technology.” Their job will be to identify possible future disruptions that the military itself might not have considered. Then there's the “corporate visioning” company SciFutures, which has a network of a hundred or so authors envisioning the future through “sci-fi prototyping” as a predictive model for corporate clients like Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and NATO. International engineering firm Arup, in its turn, asked author Tim Maughan to envision what climate change might mean for their business—and beyond—in 30 years. And so he wrote four different “user journeys,” written accounts that imagined potential futures. Another example is Alex McDowell’s worldbuilding company Experimental.Design which created near-future worlds for Intel, Warner Borthers, Nike, Ford, the American Society of Civil Engineers, MIT Media Lab, Boeing, and even an indigenous tribe whose language and culture are at risk of dying out.


When I saw several news items pass about companies like Apple (Joshua Cohen), Google (Luciano Floridi and Damon Horowitz) and Facebook (Andrew Taggart) working (or having worked) with in-house philosophers, I decided to interview one of them to understand how this worked in real life. Each of them has of course their own method, but Andrew Taggart – stay tuned for our podcast conversation in the coming weeks – wants to ‘shock’ companies into asking questions and answers on the most basic of levels. He gave the practical example of dealing with burnout: companies tend to make a lot of assumptions about the nature of that problem when they try to solve it. For instance: some say that we could deal with burnout by introducing a 4-day workweek, which clearly assumes that burnout is a mere time and pressure related problem. While it’s probably just as much an identity-problem (many people see and define themselves as ‘workers’) or has to do with recognition, culture fit or having to perform tasks that drain someone’s energy instead of giving extra. A philosopher like Andrew would take that situation, and look at it from many sides, until he would start to analyse and question the very nature of work and how modern society makes the mistake of equalling work with identity.

Philosophers excel at turning a situation around, asking different questions, offering a unique perspective and digging until they get to the core of a problem or a concept. They are perfect partners for those who need to get away from groupthink and business as usual.


Anthropolgy is “the science of humanity”: it studies human beings and their behaviour in aspects ranging from biology and evolutionary history to culture. If you think that does sound relevant for trying to better understand customer behaviour, then you are probably right. Companies like Google, Intel and Microsoft certainly seem to think so. Google, for example, hired an ethnographer to find out the true meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world. And the reason why they do so is that what customer want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different.

Working with an anthropologist, helped Adidas see that it had misunderstood its customers for a long time, at first assuming that people bought athletic gear to gain a competitive edge while they actually just wanted products to help them lead healthy lifestyles, not win competitions. So what’s the difference with an anthropological approach and standard corporate research, then? Well, firstly, it’s very difficult to get around your own preconceptions. Even if your analytics are fresh, you’ll read old assumptions into them. And customers often have a hard time reporting on why they (dis)ike something. They are sometimes just as biased about their behaviour as companies are. So instead of (just) asking them direct questions, studying how people behave in their ‘natural habitat’ helps offer a more clean-cut and representative perspective (though of course, anthropologists can be prone to biases and interpretations too). And this real-life studying is something that even even the smartest computer vision-induced machine learning can’t do (for now).

Intel Corporation, for instance, hired anthropologist Alex Zafiroglu, a user experience architect, to study people in their homes - even their bathrooms (which for tablet television watching parents can be the one place where they can get away from their family) - to understand how they live, what they value and what their daily lives are like. She does the research and creates strategies of usages around what domestic life and “home spaces” will be like in three to five years with new Internet-of-Things technologies. “Increasingly, companies have come to realize that if you start from an experience perspective and not just a straightforward technology perspective, you have much better results in the uptick of your products,” Zafiroglu explains. The Delaware University article about her also offered a quote that reminded me of my conversation with practical philosopher Andrew Taggart (coming up on the nexxworks blog in the coming weeks. He explained how companies tend to think in (assumed) problems and solutions, while philosophers look at fundamental questions and answer them, opening up context and perspective in significant ways. Zafiroglu said something similar: “engineers like to solve problems — give me a problem and I’ll solve it. Anthropologists like to create new and different problems that engineers haven’t thought about before. [Engineers] want to stay in a solutions space and I want to stay in the problems space.”

Though these are of course not the only possible cross-industry, cross-science pollinations possible in companies (there are for instance many beautiful examples of companies working with the academic sector, or with governments), I just wanted to offer some examples of how it’s possible for organizations to look beyond their own products, services and industry. Especially in these times of fast changing consumer habits, the blurring of industry lines and the absolute necessity of changing production, selling and working habits to further stop destroying our environment and climate, working with people - from both inside and outside of your company – who think and work very differently than you and your (other) employees offers many advantages, especially when it comes to innovation and reinventing your products, services, markets and business models:

  1. Cognitive flexibility: Colliding views and insights help open up minds and allows people to shift perspectives and thoughts faster. It’s about learning and developing an agile mind.
  2. (Cognitive) diversity: Working with different minds helps you accept that your view is just one of many, and not necessarily the best one. Innovation often get sparked when different opinions and visions collide: part of the Beatle’s magic came from the clash between John Lennon and Paul McCarthy. True genius never surfaces in a group-think mode.
  3. Industry-cross pollination: if the lines between industries start to disappear, and your competition could come from anywhere, then it’s good to start experimenting today with moving between very different industries. Innovation tends to live between the edges of separate systems, at the points where they collide.

But above all, reaching out to people who will help you think and see the world in a very different way, is fun. So even if you don't have the funds to pay a dedicated artist or writer to help you "see" the future, visit an art exhibition, go to a concert, read Liu Cixin's 'The Three-Body Problem' or anything else to help you look beyond your own self and company. There is more to life than work.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
See author page
Join us on our next experience
calendar icon
Get front row access to the latest scoop and new upcoming experiences, bundled into a monthly newsletter
You may opt-out any time. 
Read the .
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
calendar icon
February 6, 2020
New York