Project Witness: Simulating Alternate Economic Models Through Science Fiction

Posted on April 12, 2021


Project Witness is a participatory method. It uses science fiction to create space for alternative development paths and policy options to emerge through interaction and structured conversations between different society segments. It helps ground big, vague policy goals (like “green transition”, “circular economy”, “carbon-neutral cities”) in concrete dimensions, and generate shared mental models on how they affect different societal groups that may be more likely to build political spaces and buy-in for them.

The problem

The 21st century is a time of turmoil. Accelerating climate change, global pandemics, and other societal ills are putting enormous pressure on our species and its environment. We are told our societies must change. Fast, and in depth. 

This pressure has crystallized into policy goals that are ambitious, but vague: “green transition”, “circular economy”, “carbon-neutral cities”, “doughnut economy”. It is impossible for citizens, business, and civil society, to picture what meeting those goals mean in practice, for them. What would it feel like to live in post-green transition society? What would your workday look like? Would you have to give up your private car? How would you get to work? Maybe you would need to relocate from the suburbs to the city center. What would your children’s schools be like? Would your consumption habits have to change? How? What are the hidden costs and benefits? 

We just don’t know, so no one dissents now. The existing largely top down, linear, and piecemeal approaches, based on a stakeholder and consensus model, are not a good fit either for answering these questions or accounting for the multitude of voices, options and possibilities that emerge in response to policy issues like climate change (interconnected, complex, fast-moving, and largely unprecedented). 

As concrete policy choices get made, we are likely to see significant political dissent, and attempts to stop the policy in its tracks. This not only gets in the way of meeting adopted policy goals (like those of the Paris agreements); it limits the scope for ambitious countries and regions to lead. Twenty years ago a tiny ex-Soviet country, Estonia, was able to become a world leader in e-government services. We badly need the Estonias of climate change mitigation and, even more, adaptation. 

The solution

We propose to address this problem by borrowing a tool from speculative fiction, science fiction in particular. This tool is world-building – the activity of constructing an imaginary world to act as the backdrop for a book, a film, or a video game. Good world-building is rich in texture, and coherent. When it is texture-rich, an imaginary world has things like history, art, proverbs, even languages like Elvish or Klingon. When it is coherent, its pieces fit together in a seamless way. Humans are master storytellers, so they can immediately detect inconsistencies in poorly-thought through fictional worlds. For example, in Harry Potter, the Wizarding World using precious metals as a currency is an inconsistency, because wizards could simply magick more of it into existence, and cause hyperinflation. 

The Science Fiction Economics Lab has created a space for participatory world-building. Its main goal is to create “architect’s renderings” of economic models alternative to late-stage capitalism. It consists of the floating megacity of Witness. Set in a post-climate catastrophes future, it has weathered the worst of climate change, and is now home to tens of millions of humans. It is large and diverse enough to support several Distrikts, each with its own economic model: Nordic social-democracy on steroids, Hayekian-libertarian, anarcho-communitiarian and so on. 

Witness is participatory and open source. It runs on a public wiki, and anyone can participate. In its early stage, it has attracted an emergent community of about 100 people: science fiction authors, scholars from various disciplines, ordinary citizens, economists. This openness brings to bear collective intelligence: any single participant could introduce inconsistencies, but other participants are likely to spot them and propose a corrective change. As the work progresses, each Distrikt is described in ever richer detail: political history, main institutions, and so on. They feel more and more vivid and real.

Though Witness is barely two months old, there is evidence that it can be deployed as a platform to flesh out concrete, real-world policy objectives on concrete, real-world territories. For example, the city of Brussels is considering adopting Raworth’s Doughnut Economy as the model for its post-COVID regeneration. We can imagine the city’s government running a participatory exercise to create a New Brussels Distrikt on Witness. Citizens and stakeholders could join in imagining in detail how infrastructures, institutions, workplaces and daily lives could function. Artists could be involved in writing fiction based in New Brussels, or imagining its vistas. This would bring concreteness and transparency, and create political space for the city hall’s future decisions. 

Join us during our session on April 22 at 14:00 CET to learn more about Project Witness.


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