Good Fiction Jumpstarted Medtronic

Design Fiction Tells Stories with Artifacts from the Future

Artifacts from the future can initiate all sorts of conversations no one ever anticipated. It is these conversations that will help individuals and teams, and companies plot paths forward.

A story fragment:

Patient-Visit Event #14223—August 31, Near Future

“What’s the tricorder say?” I asked Blanche, the Nursebot.

“Weight gain, unfortunately, and blood pressure still too high,” said the bot, snapping the tricorder lid closed aggressively. “Your pulse is also elevated, like last time. What frightens you about this office?”

This bot must have the new mental health module, a welcome set of questions that blended almost naturally with the patient-visit event. I didn’t mind reflecting to the machine a bit about my ongoing doctor-office hang-ups. Mental health AI has come a long way since the early days of simply mimicking questions and keywords.

“Hold that thought,” said Blanche. “The doctor finished her appointment early and is on her way. I am downloading your readings. Please tell Dr. Janssen about your fears—she is a good listener and has 4.17 extra minutes to spend in human conversation.”

Uhura & Her Tricorder/Artifact from the Future

Was the tricorder from Star Trek our healthcare North Star? Probably not. But like the fragment of the story above, it told about a future that seemed almost believable.

RIP, Nichelle Nichols. Get your own Uhura tricorder image to grace your cubicle wall:

As an artifact from the future (well, a science fiction future prop on daytime TV), the tricorder seemed to say something about how things could be. The tricorder did scans, recorded data, and data analysis—it seemed to solve all sorts of problems, health and otherwise. I think of the tricorder as fiction that might not be all that far off—created by science fiction that may have been “design fiction” all along.

The Near Future Laboratory defines design fiction as

the practice of creating tangible and evocative prototypes from possible near futures, to help represent the implications, outcomes, and consequences of decision making.


But these fictions are more than words on pages or screens. Sometimes stories proceed with prototypes that function as artifacts from the future—like the tricorder from Star Trek. Says Julian Bleecker in his 2009 essay:

Design fiction objects are totems through which a larger story can be told, or imagined or expressed. They are like artifacts from someplace else, telling stories about other worlds.[2]

Our series on storytelling (Part 1 & Part 2) had a lot to do with how to turn our typically didactic presentations into stories that engage people –versus sending them to their phones for boredom relief. In this post, I want to go one step further and posit that “story”—our stories—may be the salvation of innovation. Or perhaps our stories have always guided us forward.

Earl Bakken + Mary Shelley

Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, had an early interest in Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein. The fiction of animating a corpse with electricity had something to say to Bakken’s interest in stimulating the heart and his invention of the implantable pacemaker. That fiction is celebrated in The Bakken Museum in South Minneapolis (“Mary and Her Monster”), as well as in this video from National Geographic:

Story Forward

If it seems like innovation is all about hunches and spreadsheets and conferences, it is. But human curiosity must be triggered and engaged for truly novel things to happen. Stories can trigger curiosity, and so can an artifact from the future. Both of these can lead to the kinds of uninhibited conversations that managers of innovation teams relish: where smart people pull from their disciplines to connect the dots on something brand-spanking-new and located in the near future.

Creating a discipline and culture around this kind of storytelling might jumpstart a few more creative folks who will lead us forward.


[1] Near Future Laboratory.   

[2] Julian Bleecker. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. March 2009. Near Future Laboratory. 

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