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Illustration for Scout’s what-if story on colonizing Venus instead of Mars, “The Venusian.” (Scout Image)

Organizations may do better in planning for the future by thinking less like business leaders and more like science-fiction writers.

That’s the idea behind the Seattle startup Scout, a subscription website and community that develops near-term, what-if scenarios based on deep analysis of current technologies and trends. If using science fiction and analysis in this way sounds untried, Scout co-founder Berit Anderson said it reflects the approach of well-known tech industry figures such as Elon Musk and Vint Cerf.

“I really saw how strategic foresight and science fiction impacted and shaped their world view,” Anderson said. “Not just how they think about the future, but also (how) a lot of science fiction creates kind of a blueprint for some of the world’s top technologists and CEOs.”

Berit Anderson, Scout CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

As a result, Anderson said Scout was started to combine science fiction with original research and reporting. “It gives us the ability to speculate and to think about multiple possible futures and all of the different parameters around that, which is a pretty powerful tool,” she said.

Anderson, who is Scout’s CEO and editor-in-chief, joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on science fiction, the arts, and popular culture. Anderson is a former managing editor of the Seattle news site Crosscut and has also worked for a decade with the predictive technology newsletter Strategic News Service. Scout launched two years ago following a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign.

Listen to the episode below or subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast to listen in your favorite podcast app.

Scout tackles tech developments ranging from artificial intelligence to augmented reality, all with a forecasting time frame of no more than two-to-seven years. “The idea behind this is as humans, we’re really bad at predicting anything more than 10 years ahead of time,” she said.

But that leaves Scout’s team no shortage of possible technological topics, focused by three core problems Anderson says they’re interested in solving without getting into political beliefs.

“One is that climate change is an existential threat to humanity,” she said. “Two, A.I. and automation will at some point demand a renegotiation of the social safety net … we believe that there will be a need to change our relationship to work in some way, whatever that looks like. And then the third is that democracy is broken and in need of an upgrade. It’s just not functioning the way it was designed to, and it’s really become corrupted through a lot of different economic and political factors.”

Scout analyzed implications of near-earth satellites that provide near real-time video. (Scout Image)

So far, Scout’s reporting and writing has explored implications of technologies such as near-earth satellites, one which Anderson finds fascinating. “It’s this industry that is just starting to take off, but really hasn’t gotten that much attention because there are other parts of space that are sexier,” she said.

Recent developments that have made near-earth satellites more interesting include a shift from radio to laser communication, allowing faster transmission of satellite video, and a decrease in deployment cost as some satellites have shrunk to, as Anderson says, “the size of a breadbox.”

And the what-if potential of “millions” of near-earth satellites all sending near real-time video?

There’s the stalkerish. “Say there were advertising companies that were then able to access those video feeds to see exactly where you were,” she speculated. “Analyze your facial expressions, for example, while you’re walking down the street to see how you reacted to specific businesses that you were passing.”

There’s the positive. “For example,” she said, “climate tracking. So tracking of ice flow or melt or seawater rise, these are all things that we’ve never really been able to measure in real time … it creates a very powerful feedback loop that could help us actually deal with that in a much more interesting way.”

Anderson says Scout has already had its successes. She cited Scout’s analysis of what it called the “weaponized AI” of Cambridge Analytica and what it might mean for future elections. Published in February 2017, the analysis led to Scout’s team being called conspiracy theorists — all before, Anderson said, many of the details became common knowledge from mainstream media coverage.

Then there’s more science-fictional speculation, such as Scout’s story about what it would mean to colonize Venus instead of Elon Musk favorite Mars. “Venus came to mind because it has actually a much more habitable atmosphere not on the surface, but a little ways up,” Anderson said. “So there’s this story that we wrote … about a dirigible colony that was able to exist within the atmosphere of Venus and recycle all of the CO2 and turn it into graphene.”

Scout’s Cambridge Analytica analysis was controversial. ( Website Image)

Anderson says Scout’s approach, mixing analysis and science fiction to help organizations make near-term decisions with less risk, has led it to attract subscribers from “all across major tech companies.” Subscription remains by invitation, and once a request for membership is approved, costs $12 per month for the regular analysis and science fiction as well as additional features.

Ultimately, Anderson sees Scout serving a purpose that gives technologists and others better perspective.

“What we’re trying to do is to use our imagination and to help our members and our readers understand how to use your imagination as a strategic tool,” she said. “Because the thing that the tech industry most often misses is not just how technology will affect the world, but how the world will respond to technology. That often can make or break a specific product.”

Previously in this series: Seattle Art Museum’s first-ever CTO sculpts SAM’s technology future on a non-profit budget

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