December 14, 2022

Ari Popper on storytelling for meaning, structural frameworks, taming complexity, and creative synthesis (Ep43)

“I like to say stories is data with soul. Particularly when it comes to understanding potentially where your organization could be in the future that’s emerging, how do we help human beings, which are essentially storytelling animals, make sense of all that information?  Stories are a really good way to do that. “

– Ari Popper

Tim O'Reilly

About Ari Popper

Ari is the Founder and CEO of SciFutures, a foresight and innovation firm that works with leading organizations such as Visa, Ford, and NATO to create inspiring and insightful visions of the future to drive innovation and positive change. He is a frequent keynote speaker and his work has been featured in publications such as Fast Company, Wired, and BBC.



LinkedIn: Ari Popper

Twitter: Ari Popper


What you will learn

  • How does data storytelling create meaning (02:12)
  • How tools prevent us from shutting down under overload (04:23)
  • How do you identify important trends from today’s massive amount of noise? (07:11)
  • What is the value of finding trends early enough to get first mover advantage (13:20)
  • What are structural frameworks and buckets? (16:13)
  • How to turn synthesis into beautiful stories (19:45)
  • How to write a brief for prospective or existing clients (22:49)
  • What are some available resources discussing the future of technology? (25:24) 
  • What are some recommendations to thrive on overload (27:07)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Ari, awesome to have you on the show.

Ari Popper: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Ross: You run a very interesting organization called SciFutures. Tell us about that. What does it do?

Ari: Firstly, I want to say it’s great to be here. I’ve been looking forward to chatting with you. Thanks for having me. SCIFutures is a foresight and innovation agency. We’re 10 years old. I founded the company on the belief, intuition, and gut feeling that science fiction could be a really powerful tool for organizational transformation. My background was in management, consulting, and consumer insights, market research so I knew the power of stories, in terms of making data come to life. I thought if it applies to market research, we can apply it to the world of foresight and futures. I was also a big science fiction fan. I understood how sci-fi can capture the imagination and bought you into these future worlds in a visceral way. What I tried to do is bottle that and sell it. That’s basically what SciFutures does at a very high level.

Ross: So it’s getting you and your teams to write or convey stories about the future which are relevant to organizations so that they can be a little better informed or get a bit more perspective on the decisions today?

Ari: Exactly. Definitely, better informed because as you put out in your book Thriving on Overload, when you have so much information, how do you make sense of it? One of the great things that storytelling can do is it can help us create meaning and data. I like to say stories is data with soul. Particularly when it comes to understanding potentially where your organization could be in the future that’s emerging, how do we help human beings, which are essentially storytelling animals, make sense of all that information? And stories are a really good way to do that. Sci-fi, in particular, has done really well as a genre, as an entertainment genre. Our company, what we did is we took it and created it as a business tool. At a very high level, that’s what we do.

Ross: Pulling back to the present. Organizations and individuals are overloaded with information. One of the things you’re doing is using tools to be able to make sense of that. What are your reflections on this sense of overload that we experience as individuals? Even organizations, by extension, are also overloaded.

Ari: When you’re overloaded, as we all know, at least certainly for me, we shut down. We can’t function. That’s because there’s too many stimuli to take in so we start to shut out stimuli, or the stimuli that we have, we just cannot process it fast enough or in time. Actually, not only do you become in a neutral state, you become completely ineffective. At least as an individual when I’m overloaded, I just got to literally put myself in a room, close the door, put on my music, and regenerate that way. Part of that is the way that we as human beings process information.

Few of us are good at processing information in an intellectual cognitive way. That’s the tool of business, isn’t it? It’s slides and slides of data, and its management consultants talking to you and its engineers telling you about feeds and speeds, but it’s just too much. But what we are really good at is processing information in narrative, in stories. Stories help us make sense of the world. It’s a very successful medium. It’s one of the oldest technologies we have, the storytelling. Whatever most of us do and we’ve had a hard day at work, we come home and we put on the TV so we can watch stories. They are just the ways for us to process. Our approach to bring the future to life is to take the signals, trends, and information, create a structural framework for that, and then create stories to bring it to life so that you really enhance the key information that might have been lost.

There are lots of different ways to tell stories and create a connection with information and content. But the basic premise of it is if you follow the system one, system two processing, system two is the cognitive, analytical side, and system one is just got an intuition, and more emotional, visceral; what we’re trying to do is take all that cognitive information and then create a system two way of putting it. Another analogy I like to use is the iron fist and the velvet glove. The iron fist is basically that great research that you’ve done in the trends and all that information you’ve hoovered up and organized, and then that other club, the way it’s delivered, is through the stories or storytelling.

Ross: You’ve talked about the trends, then a structural framework, and then the story. Let’s unpack that, and coming from the trends, the information, the present, what do you do in terms of being able to identify what are the signals and all of the massive amount of noise that we have today?

Ari: Yes, it’s a really good question. The strong philosophy and this is a bit controversial I know in the foresight space, but I’m of the strong belief that the best way to predict the future is to build it yourself. I know that there are other foresight practitioners who like to try and plan as best as they can and create scenarios, they can do mental gymnastics to create the right what-if scenarios and levers but I think, in reality, that can just be a system overload too. What we want to do is to create well-informed stories about potential futures that excite and inspire the organization.

What’s the future we want to build? Let’s create visions, narratives, well-informed, we’re not making this up, and we’re not creating entertainment, but let’s create visions of the future that are inspiring and exciting. I wouldn’t say utopian, because we have a lot of challenges so we also need to be realistic in terms of what can be achieved and what can’t be. But let’s create what I call North Stars, well-informed North Stars. Those then become catalysts for the organization to galvanize and get behind. Now, whether those futures come to life exactly how they are imagined or not is almost immaterial. What’s more important is the fact that the organization is changing the way of doing things today.

You asked today what our work is about. It’s about accelerating change today, towards more, I would say, disruptive, although that word has become a bit of a naughty word these days, but more transformational futures for the organization. That’s really where we specialize, it’s building those well-informed visions. Now, what are the building blocks of those visions? That’s the question you asked me. It can be trends, it can be the big macro forces of change. Every organization has a different language around emerging technologies, weak signals, and strong signals. We often interview experts, subject matter experts, we interview experts within the company, and all of that is the raw data that we then use to inform the vision.

Another analogy I like to use is it’s like an artist’s palette of all the different paints and colors that you have and then those are all the signals and all that raw data, and then you can paint the picture using that as your toolbox. Even the process of doing that is incredibly valuable itself because what it forces the organization to do is to prioritize what’s in and what’s out. Oftentimes, they don’t know, but they happen to have those strategic conversations.

Ross: In Thriving on Overload frame, your purpose is the frame, which makes you understand what information is relevant and which is exactly in an organizational context. Either you have a vision or you need one.

Ari: Yes, or do you all agree that that’s the vision

Ross: That is part of the process. That starts to then filter what information is relevant and what isn’t. But there’s still this question of this process. As you say you’ve got strong signals and weak signals, but before you discern whether it’s weak or strong, you still got to see that there is a signal. Is there any practice? How do you individually look for information? Do you scan particular sources? Do you have feeds? How do you see what might be input into this?

Ari: We subscribe to companies that specialize in scanning, scouting, and signal identification. We also do our own, because oftentimes, there are common databases that companies have access to, but oftentimes, it’s unique people that you meet through your network. Our expertise is in identifying experts working on really interesting areas and bringing them in. It’s a combination of both. But we do a lot of our scanning, we create databases of companies around particular areas, we’ll use our client’s information too, but we typically buy into outside companies that do that all day, every day, and they’re good at it.

That’s part of it. Certainly, you want to make sure that you have the right foundational content. Maybe you want to prioritize what you think is more important than other pieces of content but it’s quicksand, you can get completely buried and swallowed up in that work. Ultimately, just be reasonable about what the signals are and what our foundational material is. But then let’s say, Okay, if this is the case, now, what potential futures could we create? What do we want to be when we grow up? What will motivate us? What will make us money? What will inspire our company or inspire our customers and stakeholders? Now let’s create narratives of that future. Now you’ve got something tangible, a strawman or some North Star that you could then work towards.

What’s unique about SciFutures is we do that, but we also help our clients prototype and build towards that future as well. Over the last 10 years, we know that the act of prototyping and starting to invent solutions around your North Star, that’s a creative act in itself, and the more you learn, the more you earn what you can and can’t do. Yes, ultimately, you might have had that as a North Star vision but now that you’re doing that hard work, you’re realizing that it’s probably going to look more like this. Then within the same time, the world is changing as well. The context is changing around you as you’re doing that.

Ross: Part of the point is that when you’re looking at these visions or possibilities for the future, you’re hopefully writing a trend, or understanding where are the directions, what it is that you can ride, or harness, or unleash, or work with because that’s part of the signal. It’s not the present state but where things are heading and that’s where you can’t necessarily completely turn the course of history but you can maybe tweak it, or write that in various ways, but you still need those inputs as to where we are heading.

Ari: And you need to be ready, ready to pivot, or ready to be able to jump on it. You don’t want to learn about something that’s transformational happening too late, because then it’s too late. If you can get in early enough and you have the language around it, organizationally, you have the competencies around it, then you’ll be able to jump on it may be quicker than your competitors and have a solution. It’s also developing competencies internally to be able to handle sometimes ambiguous, emerging, amorphous, but potentially very transformational ideas. Obviously, cryptocurrency is a great example of that, but there are lots of them.

Of course, the danger with that is the hype cycle, you get a little too excited or exuberant, it’s too early and it doesn’t eventuate how you are, it’s kind of a balancing act. But what I’m most interested in and what our clients struggle with the most, and these are Fortune 500s, is like, we just keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to have the same outcome or we did very well making money and became successful doing it this way, we really need to be open otherwise we can see the writing on the wall. What this work really does is it helps them rehearse the future and helps them practice, develop language, understand it, and experiment so that they can be a little bit more malleable and flexible. It’s easier said than done, of course, but that’s really what I’m excited about, is changing and getting out of that fixed way of operating into a more flexible, open way of doing things.

Ross: I’m from scenario planning. Rehearsing the future was one of the phrases I learned very early in my training, that’s a wonderful crystallization of what it’s about.

Ari: Yes. Exactly.

Ross: You mentioned earlier the structural frameworks. This is making very much the framework for which I put together for Thriving on Overload, so frameworks, yes, love it. What are those structural frameworks? How do you put them together? What is the process? What do those look like?

Ari: We don’t have a great process for it but we do have very smart strategists that we work with, that are very good at distilling. Their dream job is to take all that information, figure out the themes, figure out the commonalities, and then create meaningful buckets that the client can digest. For each client, those frameworks are different. It also depends on the brief of what we’re trying to achieve. I apologize, this is probably a terrible oversimplification of it but essentially what it is is it’s a way to tame complexity in a way.

Those frameworks are where taming complexity in a way that you can double-click on different areas, you can still get the complexity underneath it but it’s to meaningfully organize a lot of information, that’s what frameworks are, and there’s a real art to it doing it well, isn’t there? There can be genius creativity in creating these beautiful, elegant frameworks. You know it when it’s done. It’s like, Ah, it’s perfect. But oftentimes, it takes a lot of time to get that right framing. We tend to let that happen organically. It’s almost like we’ll know when we see it, but it also depends on the client, what language they are comfortable with, what they use.

Ross: You mentioned buckets?

Ari: Yes.

Ross: What’s a bucket? And what’s in a bucket? And how are buckets connected together?

Ari: Yes, it could be big bets, it could be opportunity areas, it could be the macro forces. It’s the one we’re just working on, why is it slipped my mind? Maybe I’m not allowed to say that’s probably why it’s my unconscious telling me not to, not to talk about it.

Essentially, there are big grouping areas that are contextual, may be mutually exclusive from the others, although it’s harder and harder to…because everything is intertwined but essentially, there are key ideas that can sit fairly independently on their own. That’s a good explanation of a particular area as distinct from other areas. We’ve seen them all, we’ve seen houses, Venn diagrams, pillars, there are just lots of different frameworks.

Ross: I have to ask are any of these public? I’m sure they’re all for corporate server-internal use, but nothing there which…?

Ari: Unfortunately not because it’s strategic to the client. It’s really where they’re going to focus their transformation efforts so it’s very difficult for a client to agree to share any of that work. It’s even more sensitive than sometimes they’re like, downstream work, like the stories and narratives.

Ross: You want me to try to get a pro bono client or so we can share something? Because that’s a part of the crystallization. The crystallization, of course, is in the stories, these applications, this is the future world and all, I can see, yes, this is possible, this is what we’re going to do to be successful in that world. But the frameworks are part of what a lot of companies don’t necessarily recognize as a critical step between the vast amount of information and making sense in a way that’s useful to them.

Ari: I totally agree, it’s that iron fist, because otherwise, you’re just sort of of finger in the air.

Ross: What you are doing, of course, is synthesizing. You are pulling together unlimited information and synthesizing that into something coherent, ultimately a story. You already shared some aspects, is there anything else you can say about yourself individually, the people in your team, the process, or how it is that you are enacting that beautiful act of synthesis?

Ari: It is a beautiful act, and it is a creative act. What I’ve learned through my career, and particularly my 10 years at SciFutures is that people have different skills and different passions. What I found is, for some people, their dream job is to literally spend all day doing research and looking for signals, and for other people, that’s a complete nightmare. For some people, I suspect it’s you, Ross, it’s to synthesize information and create structures and knitting beautiful, elegant frameworks. They love doing that. So, for me, what I found is finding the right people to do the right jobs. Then everyone’s happy, they’re in their flow, passionate about doing their research, they’re in their flow, passionate about creating the structures and the frameworks and the foundations.

Then the storytellers, the creatives, they can take that, and this is your brief, the structures and frameworks is what you need to use as your source material for your imagination. What I found works best is finding the right people to do the right jobs and then you’ll get really good work. Where it becomes difficult is when somebody who hates research has to do the research, or somebody is not a structural thinker, they’re just completely wild creators, it’s just a nightmare. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to identify good people. Occasionally, you get people who are very good and are passionate about one, two, or three. They are almost unicorns in the world of our world. I actually think it’s a bit like a personality type that it’s rare for people that have multiple, it can happen, but it’s rare.

Ross: Neal Stephenson or William Gibson?

Ari: Exactly.

Ross: Nice examples if you could put them all together.

Ari: Exactly. They’re unique. I’ve seen a couple of them in my career, and then they just go off and have these amazing jobs, because they’re super rare, and people hire them and they have these fantastic careers. Our business model is we have a very small team but we have a lovely network. I like to say it’s like my jewel box of precious jewels, and it’s like, we’ve got the client, and it’s like, okay, sounds like we need this person, that person, and then we assemble the team, and then we do really good work. Yes, it’s fun.

Ross: You’ve already described a little bit, but just to flesh out a little bit, that idea of a brief to the writer. You’ve got a sci-fi writer. As you say, if you just let them loose, they might go a bit wild. What is the nature of the brief that you give them? What do you give them so that they can write a story that’s relevant to the client?

Ari: This is another thing we’ve learned over the last 10 years is that you can’t expect extremely creative science fiction writers to write what I would call, a strategic narrative as science fiction, they just don’t know how to do it, because they don’t know the language of corporations, they don’t know the language of consumers, marketing, innovation, foresight, so you need to find the right type of creative that understands the world of business and commerce because those are most of our clients, not all of them, most of them, and also very creative, and those people are fantastic.

The brief will typically include these people who love information. We’ve created a nice brief, there’s usually a deck that supports it, and that’s the structure, the frameworks that we’ve developed. We share the frameworks. This is the opportunity area, this is the framework, these are the areas that clients are interested in, then they’ll use that, and then we’ll say, okay. Usually, we start with seed ideas, so rather than go out and create big works of art. To be clear, our stories aren’t always although sometimes they are just like short stories, they can be podcasts, magazines, articles, videos, or short videos, there are so many different ways to tell stories.

We like solicit seed ideas. This is the foundational material, this is what the client is trying to achieve, and that’s really what the brief is, let’s hear some of your seed ideas. Now, with creatives, as you’d probably know, some are more introverted and want to do that on their own so they’ll go away, and they’ll do it on and then come back, and then some like to brainstorm and dance with each other, so we have a combination of both of that. Then ultimately, we’ll take those seed ideas, present them to the client, and go, look, these are all the different ways we can tell your stories, these are the different types of stories we can tell within the lens of the strategic work that we’ve done. Then basically, we pick the ones they’re most excited with. It’s a collaborative process because the client has politics to deal with their own internals…

Ross: This is so inappropriate!

Ari: Yes, exactly. But ultimately, you’ll get to this happy, middle ground where it’s well-informed, it’s creative, but it’s also going to fit the culture of the client.

Ross: One book, it’s very generic, it’s not company specific, but is really nice is AI 2042 by Kai-Fu Lee, some beautiful, well-structured, pertinent scenarios for future AI. I’m just wondering if there are any other public reference points or other writers or things where you found that there are pragmatic, tangible applications of the future.

Ari: A publication I really liked was Twelve Tomorrows which MIT used to put out, I don’t think they do that anymore, unfortunately, though, they were fantastic. But I quite like the short story anthology format myself. Because in a short story, there’s enough space to really tell a good story, but also flesh out ideas. I’m a huge fan of that. Some anthologies are quite good, some aren’t that good. The XPRIZE did some interesting work for a client, if you’ve seen those, I think it was for All Nippon Airways (ANA), they created a fictional website, where each seat on the airplane was a different story. That was cool. There are some interesting ones, but they’re rare, I haven’t seen that many of them.

Every now and then Microsoft will do an anthology, which can be quite good. We’ve done a couple of public ones. We did one for NATO on the future of warfare, which we’re repeating right now, we’re doing it again, which is cool. It’s interesting to see how much has changed from when we did the first set of stories to where we are today and to reread those stories is fascinating. But yes, there aren’t that many, unfortunately.

Ross: To round out, from your role and what you do, what are any wisdom, insights, or recommendations you would share with our audience on how it is they can thrive and prosper in a world of lots and lots of information?

Ari: For me, it’s like, remember that humans are storytelling creatures. Don’t expect them to be able to process huge amounts of information. Although certain people can and they’re amazing and they typically are engineers but most people have short attention spans and the way to help them process information is through a story, well-informed, well-written stories, and when you say story, create a character that someone can relate to, give them a challenge, see them overcome their challenge or not, build a world that you can empathize with, and then implicit within that, there’s all the content or the messaging, I would strongly suggest that, that’s a very effective way to communicate in times of information overload.

You’d be surprised how powerful it can be when you get it right. It just can become part of the public imagination and science fiction has done that, you’ve got the HAL, you’ve got the Terminators, they’ve totally created a vision and almost a belief that this is what technology can do when it goes wrong or eventually will do. No one agreed that, the person who was creating those stories didn’t intend to do that but somehow, someway, collectively, we’ve realized that that’s our future. They’re powerful both in the good sense and in the negative sense.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights. That’s been a fascinating conversation.

Ari: Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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