The Economic and Social Research Council has just announced the winners of its 'World in 2065' writing competition, and very good they are too.  The winning entry, by James Fletcher is called 'City Inc' and is a future vignette about the rise of the City State.  Other entries from Josephine Go Jeffries and Gioia Barnbrook, both explored themes relating to climate change and how they could impact on the future. 

Looking through these great entries, it does make you think about all the other submissions.  By necessity for short story competitions you do have to have a winner, that's how these things go.  But, if you think about it, the reason we commission creative exercises about the future is about getting ideas.  So, if you run a competition what happens to all the ideas and insights contained in the entries that didn't make it to the short list?

Now, generally there could be a good reason that stories didn't make it to the short list.  Probably, they were difficult to read, possibly they were incredulous or maybe they weren't entertaining enough.  The reasons they didn't make the cut will be defined by the selection parameters of the judging panel, in this case, a high profile one (including Tash Reith-Banks from the Guardian) really knows its stuff artistically.

But, I can't help reflecting on how short story competitions could be best used to gather ideas about the future.  We know that they don't really provide a more accurate view about what could happen, so what value to they have?

The value of ideas from short stories.

The real value from short story competitions comes in the ideas and possibilities they raise.  This is where they are so valuable and its so important for them to be creatively unconstrained and really highlight as wide a range of ideas as possible.

Unfortunately, this is where the traditional means of assessing competition entries fall down a little, as they only select and take forward a small proportion of the entries for further exploration.  It means all the ideas contained in the entries that don't make the shortlist aren't used.

As a futures analyst, I feel this is a shame as it wastes ideas.  But, I do understand, that for a competition, you do need to have a winner, and choosing an entry based on its artistic merit is a good way to go.  However, there is an alternative...

Data mining competition entries

In this data-led age its now possible to rethink how we run competitions.  So, as well as choosing an overall winner, you can also filter the ideas contained in all the entries, this will give futures analysts what they want - i.e. a broad a range of ideas about the future as possible.  Then when you take these ideas and map them, you get a real understanding of the bulk of what people are thinking when they write their entries.  For example, take the following map.

 Sample Map from the Scan of Scans.

Sample Map from the Scan of Scans.

This data visualisation is based on the content of around 300 foresight reports and summarizes that most frequently occurring terms.

Now, if you take this approach with all of your competition entries - you then have an additional source of ideas and material.  Which for a futures analyst is highly desirable as any one of these could be a potential lead on a trend in the future...

Unfortunately, at present most competitions aren't designed with getting this added value from its entries, however, perhaps as we become used to being more data-driven this could change in the future.

And, for those sci-fi short story aficionados out there - the data driven approach in journalism, was actually predicted by Paolo Bacigalupi in his short story called 'The Gambler' - in this media agencies track the most popular stories using a live data visualisation called the 'Maelstrom', a brilliant name for a living, evolving complex mess.  And its such things that can be a little daunting to work through.  But for the first time we have the tools and the know-how.  It would be great to start using them to get more value from short story competitions...

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