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24 Jun '17

TOPIA: Building a future we can't yet see

Thomas Kurz, Technology & Innovation

​Everyone is talking innovation, but what is necessary to create – to invent and not only to improve what is already there? With TOPIA, our speculative design lab, we investigated how we get rid of our current mindset and investigate future business opportunities.

In September 2016, we contacted the University of Applied Sciences and selected the top talent from Information Technology & System Management, Design & Product Management and Multimedia Arts and worked with them to develop speculative future scenarios and consequently prototype products or services for these speculative “TOPIAs”. All students volunteered to take part and meet every three to four weeks to explore TOPIA.

The idea behind TOPIA

We are shaped by our past. Our memories define our identity, our action and our way of thinking. Our picture of the future is shaped by what we have learned and experienced. What is wrong with generating innovation based on what we have learned? Nothing is wrong – but our experience is so dominant in our brains, we often find ourselves merely improving on ideas and concepts, and not actually innovating. TOPIA steps out of that thinking process and creates fictional scenarios that act as new reference points for innovation. TOPIA might even live outside of preferable future scenarios. After creating these speculative scenarios, we need to understand basic human needs and how they can be addressed by creating products and services for these speculative scenarios.

Reverse Engineering the future

How do you find your way without the existence of light, how do you compensate social interaction in a future where nobody can leave their flats or how does digital marketing work in a future without digital displays? Science fiction already proved to be a perfect playground for products that became normative paradigms of future realities, e.g. the communicator in Star Trek, that acted as a role model for the development of clamshell phones. Consequently, TOPIA is simply about reverse engineering fiction instead of improving the present.

The process in a nutshell

To give you a glimpse into our journey, we want to share some basic building blocks from our first year with TOPIA, on some exercises and how we travelled into the future and back. We met approximately once a month and every building block represents one three hour session of TOPIA.

  1. Think the future
    You are the last person who knows what a newspaper is and how it works. Write down headlines for a speculative newspaper, living 150 years from now.
  2. Reach out
    Develop a speculative future scenario and provide a graphical representation of the scenario. Envision society, environment, architecture, rules, food, myths language and social interaction.
  3. Shape the future
    External guests challenge the scenarios and introduce interventions, i.e. disasters, mutations or superpowers.
  4. Driving forces
    Introduce anthropological constants, identify basic human needs and understand how they could be satisfied in your speculative future scenario.
  5. Sketch 'em
    Prepare approaches, products and/or services to satisfy the previously defined needs.
  6. Design reductionism
    Learn about the creative power of Design Reductionism. Simplify your products and services to the edge of recognizably, pass it on to the next group and try to recreate.
  7. Create, recreate and prototype
    Create first prototypes for the speculative products and services. 3D prints, models, tangibles, mock-ups, videos – everything that shows how your approach will enhance your speculative future.
  8. Exhibit
    In July 2017, TOPIA EXHIBTS for the first time. A celebration of creation and innovation and a place to get inspired.

What have we learned so far

Our first TOPIA lab provided us with three key takeaways that can be implemented in future TOPIA ideation labs:

  • We got confirmed that letting go of the past, the present and the future as we know it today is much harder than we thought. The first ideas were spinning around “Amazon doing …”, “Vienna philharmonics are testing …” or “Apple introduces …”. Nevertheless, it was exciting to see how the future scenarios became the new reference points for every discussion.
  • We had to learn that it takes even a bigger effort to leave your discipline behind. Especially the perception of time and expectation of results was significantly different. Every discipline was challenged in a specific time during the process.
  • What we have to improve the most was the availability of a continuous time frame to guarantee time and availability.  Synchronizing the schedules of four facilitators, four external speakers and 12 students was sometimes more than challenging. Consequently, we will try even harder to get these activities represented in the curriculum of participating Universities to provide the space that is necessary for true innovation.

What comes next?

We will take all these learnings with us to our next round with TOPIA, starting in autumn 2017. In Summer 2017 we are facilitating the first three weeks intensive Innovation Lab based on the TOPIA concept. This time there will be a focus on an industry driven ideation process that focuses on the creation of ideas for one internationally operating organization. Motivated by a request of a private Austrian University to offer lectures, showing how ideation works with the TOPIA concept, we are even thinking of offering similar labs to other Universities as well.

If you are interested in learning more about TOPIA or just want to participate in the next lab – get in touch with us via topia@agentur-loop.com! We are happy to take more people on our journey to future and back.

Thomas Kurz

Technology and Innovation Consultant at LOOP. Working in several international R&D projects before joining LOOP, Thomas perfectly understands interdisciplinary creation and facilitates ideation processes with a strong sense for upcoming technologies.