What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Sci-Fi: Previewing CU Law's Event

By Michael Davidson

On Friday, the University of Colorado Law School’s Silicon Flatirons Center will host its annual conference on entrepreneurship. This year the event comes with a twist: instead of discussing a topic such as fundraising, the conference, titled Sci-Fi and Entrepreneurship: Is Resistance Futile?, will be about what entrepreneurs can learn from science fiction. Brad Bernthal, director of Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and a law professor, gave us his thoughts on the topic in this Q-and-A. He is one of the event’s organizers.

Xconomy: In the past, this conference was devoted to topics like angel investing and venture capital. Why take the conference in this direction?

Brad Bernthal: People come to Silicon Flatirons events for insights that are one-to-three years out. When Silicon Flatirons is on its game, attendees peek around the corners of what might be coming next, and what the causes of those events will be.

At the university, we can push the envelope in two unique ways. One role for us is to move the frontiers of knowledge. When we do a conference on early stage finance, like angel and VC investing, we tap into scholarship and experts, and we simply go deeper than most organizations. A second role for us is to cross boundaries to see what happens. We have access to world-class experts across diverse domains. When we cross the streams, to borrow a Ghostbusters metaphor, it jars loose new patterns of thought. This year’s conference takes advantage of the second type of contribution that we can make.

Silicon Flatirons’ agenda this year includes a lot of investigation about where novel ideas come from. Creativity is increasingly of interest to me, which may strike some as bizarre since I’m a law professor. But I think creativity—conceiving of something really new—is one of the highest human values. Whether an author crafts a spellbinding sci-fi thriller, or an entrepreneur comes up with a really new product, I’m fascinated as to how this miracle happens. Mounting evidence suggests the powerful effects of combining knowledge across industry and disciplinary lines.

We recently released a roundtable report, Boundary Jumping: Understanding the Value of Modest Anarchy in Entrepreneurial Networks, which explains why the exchange of information across disparate sectors is uniquely disruptive.

X: Why focus on science fiction?

BB: Brad Feld had a throwaway line at an event five years ago. Brad was asked what business books he would recommend. His answer: “I don’t read business books. I read science fiction.” That caught my attention. Around the same time, Michael Arrington wrote a TechCrunch piece that made a similar point. Shortly thereafter, a friend gave me canonical sci-fi books Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Accelerando. I got it.

Sci-fi’s prescience in anticipating what would come in the future blew me away. For example, in 1984 Neuromancer discussed “jacking in,” a phenomenon that 30 years later we do on a daily basis. Snow Crash’s notion of the “Metaverse” in 1992 anticipated the Internet and its successor in ways far ahead of its time. It convinced me that, in order to understand what is coming ahead, I should pay more attention to sci-fi.

X: What are some lessons science fiction has to teach entrepreneurs?

BB: Any founder that tries to do something disruptive, one, has to work out a plausible world that does not exist, and, two, convincingly share that vision with others. Science fiction authorsin the same enterprise. Science fiction is about intentionally constructing worlds that could plausibly occur, yet need to be created by someone in order to exist. It is a fascinating mix of research, creation, and storytelling. This process—i.e., conceiving of a new state of the world, and somehow sharing that vision with others—strikes me as fundamentally entrepreneurial. My hypothesis is that entrepreneurs have a lot to learn from sci-fi authors.

X: What do you think will be some highlights of the conference?

BB: I can’t wait to hear some of the national voices who are involved with Silicon Flatirons for the first time. John Underkoffler is the technologist, visionary and founder of the startup, Oblong Industries in California.

Oblong’s work with real-time computer graphics and visualization techniques has been popularized in movies such as Iron Man or Minority Report. I’m midway through science fiction author William Hertling’s new book, Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears. People who know artificial intelligence respect his thoughts on the singularity. Hertling’s discussion with Brad Feld should be terrific.

MIT researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner teach a course on sci-fi and entrepreneurship at MIT. That should be fascinating. Other great minds are involved, too. The lineup is better than I ever imagined it would be.

Overall, my aspiration is that the conference adds a layer of insight about ways to unlock creativity. Unusual juxtapositions dislocate our typical patterns of thought. Such juxtapositions either, one, yield insights and memorable discussions, or two, massively fail because people talk past each other. We’ll see how this breaks on Friday.

X: Finally, the big question: Is resistance futile?

BB: Sci-fi is a medium of “what if.” In addition to fostering creativity, “what if” also allows us to think through scenarios that suggest caution and ethical reflection. A large chasm between entrepreneurs and sci-fi relates to this. Entrepreneurs often have a faith in technological progress. They believe things will work themselves out.

Sci-fi posits that technological progress creates novel problems worthy of a book’s dramatic tension. Looking back, going back to Orwell, Huxley, and others, sci-fi authors probably have the better of this argument. Our third panel is well situated to take on the question of what privacy and surveillance will look like ahead and, equally important, what that will mean for our understanding of how humans intersect with technology and create meaning in the world.

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