Introducing the Center for Science and the Imagination

On Monday, September 24, 2012 we started something new at Arizona State University: the Center for Science and the Imagination. Our mission is to foster creative and ambitious thinking about the future. We want to bring writers, artists, scholars, scientists and many others together in collaboration on bold visions for a better future. But more than this, we want to share a sense of agency about the future, to get everyone on the plane thinking about how our choices inflect the spectrum of possibilities before us.

One of our axioms in pursuing this project is the recognition that humans are story-driven. We understand ourselves, the world and even the passage of time as narratives. So if we want to think differently about time and extend our field of vision farther forward, we need more stories that imagine our possible tomorrows. To that end both of our flagship projects this year embrace the speculative power of science fiction and other narratives to tell better stories about the future.

Hieroglyph, which will be starting up later this fall, pairs science fiction writers like Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow with scientists to collaborate on ideas for techno-optimistic stories set in the near future. Inspired by the ambition and optimism of the Apollo missions and our previously widespread belief in the idea that life is getting better, we are asking writers to explore radical extensions of technologies and ideas that exist in the lab today or can be glimpsed just over the horizon. The project will end up as an anthology of science fiction stories, but it will also be a running experiment in hands-on collaboration between two groups that tend to tell stories in very different ways.

Our second initiative is equally exciting, and it launched on Monday. Working in collaboration with Intel and the Society for Science & the Public, we are hosting Tomorrow Project USA, a writing competition open to college students everywhere. The goal of the Tomorrow Projects is to foster fact-based conversations about the future. As Intel's resident futurist Brian David Johnson puts it in this video introducing the project, "the way that you change the future is you change the story people tell themselves about the future that they will live in."

Both of these projects extend our center beyond what a typical university does by working with a wide range of creative thinkers outside of the academic comfort zone. Or maybe I should say academic comfort zones, plural, since different elements of university departments engage with science fiction writers (and other imagination professionals), major corporations and broad public audiences, but almost never do all three. In that sense one of our major roles is to function as a hub for existing pockets of like-minded thinking everywhere, linking up art-science collaborations, innovative writing projects and interdisciplinary research groups.

Tomorrow Project USA and Hieroglyph also embrace what I like to call thoughtful optimism, or the notion that we can create a better future by imagining it. This isn't blind optimism or a panglossian assumption that everything is good and getting better, but rather an assertion that the future of humanity is ours to shape. Thinking critically as well as constructively about tomorrow, we can create better dreams for the world we want to build.