DESIGN VISIONSci-Fi meets design to shape hopes for the future:
Designer roundtable on DESIGN VISION 2021

DESIGN VISION, Sony’s design research project, focuses on identifying early signs of changes
in society and people’s consciousness, and attempts to foresee how they will develop.
In fiscal 2021, we introduced a new approach called "Sci-Fi prototyping," in which we worked
with science-fiction writers to invent a possible future, and then worked backward to plot out
roadmaps for how to get there. In this roundtable, Sony Creative Center designers who
participated in the process from around the world discuss the vision that came out of the
initiative, as well as new possibilities for design.

Backcasting from the future to guide the path ahead

Sony Creative Center has continually worked on DESIGN VISION*1 as a unique effort to capture signs of a future that is difficult to foresee with traditional methods. The project makes use of design’s diverse expressions to present a cross-disciplinary vision of such a future. The designers themselves undertake the entire process—ranging from preliminary information gathering through to field research, interviews, analysis, and putting together a report—and the insights they gain along the way give them new perspectives.

*1 DESIGN VISION, Sony’s design research project

DESIGN VISION reports for 2019 to 2021

In this era of VUCA,*2 various factors including the impact of climate change, social landscape, and technological advancement are intertwined in a complex mesh, making it difficult to forecast the future with existing methods. In these uncertain times, Sci-Fi prototyping is drawing attention as an innovative approach to finding a way forward. Its methods are characterized by the use of backcasting—imagining a possible future through science fiction, then working backward from there to reframe the present. At Sony Creative Center, we used this approach for the first time in the fiscal 2021 DESIGN VISION. Collaborating with four science-fiction writers, we completed the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 along with a future timeline and design prototyping. Combining Sci-Fi prototyping and design research was an unprecedented challenge. The thoughts and observations of our designers in Japan and abroad who participated in the project offer hints as we seek to find the way forward for Sony and the mission for design to accomplish.

*2 VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity): A business term to describe a situation that is difficult to deal with or predict using existing methodologies due to technological advances and societal change.

DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021:
Japan designer roundtable

Shigeki Ohno
(Senior Manager, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Takeo Inagaki
(Design Producer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Fumitaka Ozaki
(Research Producer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Ohno DESIGN VISION is a design research project that seeks to capture the world’s trends at an early stage, and propose a vision that will guide us for the next few years to our colleagues in the Sony Group. The project was launched seven years ago, and we used the Sci-Fi prototyping approach for the first time last year.

One reason we decided to give it a go was that the Creative Center’s range of activities has become highly diversified along with the history of the Sony Group. We now cover areas such as entertainment, finance, and business solutions, and we are required to have a crossdisciplinary perspective. This has made it difficult to do meaningful work only with traditional design development methods. Another reason was that COVID-19 made it challenging to do local field work and interviews, and we felt that online research alone did not provide enough new insights and alternative ideas.

The backcasting approach seemed to offer an effective solution to our challenges. Instead of forecasting the near future based on current events, it uncovers the issues that need to be addressed now by working backward from a far-out future. We thought this might open up new possibilities for design.

InagakiActually, it was our work for the 2020 DESIGN VISION that brought this approach to our attention. When we interviewed a Japanese startup that develops automated sailing yachts, they said they used Sci-Fi prototyping. That piqued our interest. Later, when the Japanese Edition of the Wired magazine opened a Sci-Fi Prototyping Lab, we decided to take a stab at it and asked for cooperation

OzakiThis time we set the target year to 2050, and the Creative Center designers worked together with science-fiction writers to create future stories. The four science-fiction stories were showcased at Ginza Sony Park in Tokyo and ROHM Theatre Kyoto, together with the results of design prototyping we worked on concurrently.*3

*3 Designing the future with science-fiction writers: ONE DAY, 2050 / Sci-Fi Prototyping

How was the backcasting approach different from the traditional design research?

Ozaki Let me quickly walk you through the whole process. First, we hired experts like think tanks and research firms to do preliminary research on future trends, as we have always done. Normally, we would start our research at this stage, but this time we worked with science-fiction writers to imagine the future in 2050. Once we had our future vision, we then created a timeline that leads to the present through backcasting. We analyzed this future timeline, the sciencefiction stories, and design prototyping results, and identified common threads. These became our research themes. Along these themes, we researched signs of the future in different geographical regions—North America, Europe, China, Japan, and AMEA (Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa). Then we analyzed our findings and put the results and our insights into a single report.

InagakiThe future forecasts of research firms tend to be vague, and very few offer an outlook twenty to thirty years ahead. That’s why we thought it was very effective for us designers to form a clear future vision and then flesh out the details leading to that vision.

OhnoThroughout the whole process, we focused on depicting ways for people in the future to enjoy their lives, as a company that offers technology and entertainment. Sony’s Purpose upheld by Kenichiro Yoshida, our CEO, is "Fill the world with emotion, through the power of creativity and technology." This also links with the attitude of solving today’s societal issues with creativity and technology. So we felt that Sony and science fiction might actually make a good match.

Online whiteboard at the workshop between the Sci-Fi Prototyping Lab and DESIGN VISION members

Looking beyond
technology to
the nature of humans

Is there anything you tried to keep in mind as you worked out a vision of the future, instead of forecasting the future based on current events?

OzakiScience-fiction stories are often associated with a dystopian view, but literature has the power to depict human thoughts, culture, and humans themselves. We tried to highlight the positive aspects of humans, instead of focusing only on technology.

OhnoPut simply, I guess you could describe it as looking at human nature. I’m pretty sure that 30 years from now, humans still find happiness in interacting with other humans and the natural environment. In other words, our human nature won’t change that much. So we focused on human lifestyles, values, emotions, and other aspects that are hard to see, while forecasting the development of technology. One of the issues we needed to pursue was well-being, and the question of what it means to be happy.

InagakiWhy did humans develop such an advanced communication? What elements are missing in today’s digitalized world where a lack of communication is pointed out as a problem? It was very exciting to explore such questions.

The article on design prototyping (see link *3 above) also discusses the background to the collaboration with science-fiction writers to depict the world in 2050. What kind of themes did you get out of the future vision you arrived at?

Ohno: Looking at the work of science-fiction writers, I noticed how they leave some things unsaid to give the readers room for thought. By exploring that margin, the blank space that the 7 writers left for us to think of, and by analyzing our observations together with the examples in each area, we came up with one broad overarching theme and four specific themes.

OzakiWhen our science-fiction stories and future timeline were ready, we shared and analyzed them with our global members in online workshops. As we narrowed down relevant examples and interview candidates, we had to maintain a long-term perspective. This was a major change from how we used to work before.

InagakiWhat I found particularly challenging was searching for present signs based on the vision for 2050. Normally, we only have to catch timely examples as they occur, but this time, we had to dig deeper to uncover signs that lead to the question of "How will things change for humans?" Since this question concerns thought, philosophy, culture, and religion as well, it was interesting to see the differences between the regions.

OhnoDifferences between regions were also evident in the future outlook. We will be hearing from our overseas members as well, and they have pointed out that Japan has "unique characteristics unlike any other regions." This exercise revealed some uniqueness that we ourselves were not aware of.

Four themes representing the roadmaps leading to the possible futures derived in the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021

Idea behind
this year’s theme
of "synlogue"

What were some of the characteristics that were unique to Japan?

OzakiOne of them is that the idea of harmonious coexistence with non-human organisms and entities, including everything from common microbes to robots and AI, is ingrained in people’s minds. As thinker and anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa noted in his interview for the 2020 DESIGN VISION,*4 avoiding a dualistic view of the self and others might be effective in creating a positive outlook on the future.

Inagaki For example, Dominique Chen, an information science researcher we interviewed in Japan, has developed a robot called NukaBot, which focuses on communication with the bed of rice bran for making pickles. We discussed how the microbes that live in the bed of rice bran relate to the bacteria living in the soil and inside our intestines. This led to a broader perspective beyond dualism, encompassing the connection between humans and the earth.*5

OzakiThis led to the major theme of our latest report, "Synlogue, 2050." "Synlogue" is a term presented by Dominique Chen, and it refers to a type of communication in which the conversation is built up together by those engaged in it, without distinguishing much the self and others as in a dialogue. We want to apply this concept of synlogue not only to humans but also to other organisms and robots as a way to open up a path toward a new form of coexistence. That’s the idea behind this year’s theme.

*4 Interview: Shinichi Nakazawa (thinker, anthropologist)
*5 Interview: Dominique Chen (information science researcher) (To be published later)

OhnoThis report consists of four themes that also relate to this major theme. The first one is "Homo Dividual." This term represents the state of multiple virtual personas coexisting in a metaverse. We explored the question of how Sony will be able to offer support as it becomes common for humans to adopt various personas in the future.

OzakiThe word "dividual" is a concept proposed in the work of novelist Keiichiro Hirano and also in the context of cultural anthropology. The term removes the negative prefix "in-" (meaning "impossible to divide any further") from the word "individual," which represents the smallest unit 9 of human existence, thereby expressing the vision of an individual evolving to become a collection of multiple individuals existing at the same time. This theme was inspired by the idea of a "branchmind," which is something of a copy of yourself, that appears in Jobbing & Working, *6 the story written by science-fiction writer Taiyo Fujii.

OzakiThe second theme is "Convivial AI." All four works written for this project depicted some form of AI supporting humans, including Ophelia, the AI therapist that appears in Miyuki Ono’s science-fiction story. The coexistence of AI with humans in this manner is expressed by reference to the concept of conviviality put forward by philosopher and thinker Ivan Illich.

The next is "Wellbeing-With." As we tried to understand well-being from the perspective of coexistence, we became aware of the need for a new type of relationship in which "we," including other beings, work together to build well-being, instead of a more traditional, individualistic well-being, as in "me" engaged in self-care. The mask-type communication device—which connects memories and people through scent—in Itsuki Tsukui’s story also served as an inspiration in thinking about this relationship.

The last theme is "Multispecies." The pursuit of SDGs and sustainability requires a symbiotic approach that replaces human-centered design (HCD) at the core of today’s design. We wanted to conceive of such an approach from the perspective of "multispecies anthropology," which seeks to understand humans in a cross-species relationship with animals and plants. While this is another common element found in all four stories, the depiction of Tokyo Bay in Haruka Mugihara’s story, where coral has grown due to global warming, particularly stirred my imagination. The need for AI and humans to create the future together and the coexistence with AI as a new species are also discussed in our interview with writer and artist James Bridle.*7

*7 Interview: James Bridle (writer, artist) (To be published later)

DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021:
Overseas designer roundtable

The discussion by the designers who participated from Japan has shed light on the thought process in Sci-Fi prototyping, as well as various themes leading to the future, and it offers perspectives unique to Japan. In another roundtable, we asked for feedback from our global colleagues who participated in the latest DESIGN VISION project from our overseas Creative Center offices. Now, let’s look at what these designers thought about the project.

(top left) Wenjie Zhu
(Senior Designer, Creative Center (Shanghai),
Sony Group Corporation

(top right) Gerald Teo
(Senior Designer, Creative Center (Singapore),
Sony Group Corporation)

(bottom right) Sabina Weiss
(Designer, Creative Center (London),
Sony Group Corporation)

Tell us about your impression of Sci-Fi prototyping and how you approached the backcasting research.

Weiss It was a pretty new experience trying to imagine a future as far away as 2050. It even made me feel dizzy at first. I guess it’s sort of like sociologist Robert K. Merton’s idea of "selffulfilling prophecy," where you set a distant goal and move up the ladder one step at a time. That said, the big thing for me was that, even if a dismal future loomed ahead, I was able to feel that I could still change the future through creativity.

TeoIf you compared the traditional design research approach to casting a net into the sea to see what it would catch without setting any target, the latest approach is like trying to land an elusive fish with a fishing rod. Depending on how you approach it, I felt it offers plenty of room for further investigation.

Zhu I find it significant that the outcome of Sci-Fi prototyping was visualized in various ways, including a timeline and design prototyping, and made available to the general public, instead of just being compiled into a report. Our outside research partners were amazed at the innovative approach. Actually, this was my first time participating in a DESIGN VISION project. I had prepared for it by reading a book on writing trend reports, but I was stunned because the approach was the exact opposite of what I had read.

Did anything leave an impression in the course of your research and analysis?

Weiss: I was very fortunate to have the rare opportunity of interviewing Rama Gheerawo, who is a leading authority on inclusive design.*8 The strongest message he put forward was to "emphasize empathy." His words, "I am a designer, but a human being first," left a deep impression in me.

TeoThe research of Nadia Thalmann, a renowned expert on virtual humans and social robots, left a particularly strong impression. Whether robots, AI, and virtual humans can become good partners in promoting the health of seniors was something I found interesting from the perspective of active aging as well.

ZhuFor me, the interview with Lu Yang, a multimedia artist from Shanghai, left a strong impression. She has released avatars that challenge the notion of personal identity, and her exhibitions have been held in Japan as well. Some people criticize her provocative style, but I felt that many people are probably emboldened by her works that address topics considered taboo in China, like gender issues.

*8 Interview: Rama Gheerawo (Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art) (To be published later)

Societal issues unique to
each geographical
region and
a different future for each

WeissThis project made me think a lot about the future of AI. One example is an AI avatar that is designed to put humans at ease, like those that sleep when you’re offline. Humans provide 12 AI with data to affect its behavior, and AI grows as an existence that incorporates human elements, affecting us in return. We tried to provide an insight into this kind of relationship with AI by using the phrase "Familiar Stranger."

TeoWe gained many insights, and in particular I found great potential in initiatives that might be referred to as "digital reincarnation," like in an example from South Korea where a deceased artist was brought back to life to sing and perform a new song live. In the future, it would probably be possible to have a conversation with a dead person in real time by leveraging AI. If people can gain a deeper understanding of death or have more options for treating grief associated with loss, wouldn’t that be a great way to use technology?

ZhuWhat made me think was the relationship between science fiction and technology. The Chinese government is actively promoting works of science fiction to foreign investors by offering rewards to science-fiction writers. They are doing this to attract investments in space development technology. To obtain a reward, the work might need to be written in a style that the government demands, but such initiatives are starting to create touchpoints among sciencefiction writers, scientists, and engineers, with mutually beneficial impacts.

Teo In the AMEA area that I’m in charge of, digital twins, which refers to the high-quality digital reproduction of one's physical likeness, along with digital avatars, are receiving greater attention. At the same time, people are debating how to create an inclusive society where seniors can enjoy greater wellness, as more developed countries grapple with the aging population time bomb. For island and coastal countries, rising sea levels is a critical topic. The sense of urgency felt on these issues in these parts of the world is probably something that differs considerably from Europe.

WeissYou might be right. On the other hand, in Europe, the issues of human rights and environmental protection are considered mutually related, and people’s awareness has matured now. I believe EU will lead the world in these areas, including legislation, and spread similar initiatives in other parts of the world, facilitating a shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism, and a pursuit of greater well-being.

ZhuAnother thing that is attracting greater interest in China, in addition to science fiction, is metaverse. Social media, gaming, sports, and technology industries will merge and recreate the world where we live. In fact, Chinese youths go wild over idols that don’t really exist, make virtual friends and romantic partners, and pay money on digital sneakers and real estate. I think this trend will continue to gain momentum.

The cover of DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021

Depicting hope for the future
with the power of
a story spun by a designer

Lastly, we asked the following questions to the designers based in Japan and abroad who participated in putting together DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021: What did you feel as you engaged in Sci-Fi prototyping? What thoughts did you bring in creating the report? Let’s see what kind of vision and message came up through the experience of each designer.

OzakiUnable to travel and engage in field work, I was able to arrive at a vision and get a positive feel for the future by creating an uncharted world inside my head. I think the biggest achievement in this project was that we were able to gain new insights while maintaining a sense of an ideal future, instead of a future forecast that doesn’t feel real.

Let me share the following comment I received from a designer at the Creative Center. "This project offered a great opportunity for each designer to think about the future on their own from a broad perspective, consider how to connect now and the future, and develop a narrative that sounds plausible. By considering various scenarios, I was able to think about what kind of technology is needed as a foundation, what Sony already has, what it doesn’t have, how much time is needed to make it happen, and where we should start."

InagakiWhat a great pleasure to hear such a comment. Through my work as a designer, I myself have witnessed how Sony has expanded its business domains to encompass areas other than just audio-visual, and how the company has deepened its engagement with humans. That’s why we need to work toward the future with a big vision. That said, what I felt through this project is the importance of exchanging opinions on various possibilities and thinking about what to choose and how to contribute to society. This project offered a major opportunity to think about our mission as designers.

OhnoI hope this project encourages both designers and other employees to imagine the future. Personally, this project made me think about how we can create a world in which young people can fantasize with excitement about a future they want to realize, without assuming it’s impossible or worrying about immediate risks. It is said that technological evolution will greatly accelerate in the next 30 years, so it is all the more important to lay a foundation that allows people to have hope and faith in the world they wish to create. I intend to continue thinking about how we might be able to contribute as designers toward that vision.

This Future Timeline was created in conjunction with the process of design prototyping.
*All the information in the graphic is entirely fictional. Nothing in the timeline has any connection with Sony products or services.

TeoWhat I noticed through Sci-Fi prototyping is that there are many existing technologies and products that were inspired by science fiction, such as the submarine and cellphones. What’s also important to note is that many works of science fiction are actually grounded in real science. I believe the symbiotic relationship between science-fiction writers and those who look at science fiction as a development approach will continue to grow further. For Sony, I think continuing this project is meaningful in that it gives us a good foundation on which to remain relevant. Going forward, we must continue to think about ways to play key roles in society while engaging in broad exploration without being bound by existing frameworks.

ZhuThe benefits of Sci-Fi prototyping are hard to notice in the near term, so I believe this should be an initiative that leads to long-term research. As a high-tech company, adopting this approach will be extremely meaningful in giving full play to our imagination, envisioning the future, and developing the creativity needed to realize that future.

WeissI agree. A company that doesn’t have a long-term vision will end up just following competitors with a short-term view. Such a company won’t be able to produce anything creative. The fact that the latest report is presented as an extended proposal for the whole humanity is another positive point. I say this because it represents a major departure from the traditional view of people as "consumers," and that’s how we can engage more closely with people that Sony’s products and services have not reached in the past and deliver positive impact. The latest DESIGN VISION project showed us the power of a story that captivates people. I hope this power does not stay within the Sony Group but will spread to people around the world.

(Japan designer roundtable) Held at a satellite office of the Creative Center on January 14, 2022
(Overseas designer roundtable) Held online on January 25, 2022