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How one film designer blends science fiction with fact

“The future cannot be predicted,” goes one of my favorite quotes, “but futures can be invented.”

Few films have bridged the gap between prediction and invention as well as 2002’s “Minority Report.” From 3D interfaces to autonomous vehicles, it’s no coincidence the world Tom Cruise inhabits in 2054 feels so real. Creative director and narrative designer Alex McDowell’s work is always deeply rooted in real world research and development.

This week he joins No Parking to discuss how the film came to be, his faith in a human-centric path forward, and the “art science” required to envision realistic futures.

“Anybody who’s been trained strictly in film or science,” said McDowell, “can’t negotiate the complexity of the world that we actually are moving towards, or are in the middle of.”

The difference between McDowell’s work and science fiction isn’t just in the research he conducts with organizations like NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but in how the learnings are applied.

Design fiction is a methodology we use a lot,” he said. “It’s taking the lead from something that you’ve seen and extrapolating forward to say, ‘If this can happen, and you add 10 or 15 years to it, why could it not do that?’ Not to follow the trend of where it looks as if it’s going, but really saying, ‘If it can do that, we’d really like it to do this,’ and then you throw it back into the present and you shift it.”

Today McDowell teaches at the MIT Media Lab, serves as Director of the World Building Institute and Experimental.Design, and consults for companies like Ford, with whom he recently collaborated on the future of urban mobility in the City of Tomorrow, which brought him full circle from his work on “Minority Report” two decades ago.

“We weren’t really trying to design autonomous vehicles,” said McDowell, “but the solution was ‘form follows function.’ [Director Steven] Spielberg asked us to portray a future that wasn’t science fiction. Even though there were components that were out of our reach…things like autonomous vehicles in 1999…what came out of that film was because we were asking questions about how Tom Cruise gets to work.”

There is no science fiction, he said, because prediction and invention will always be with us.

“There’s nothing that we imagine that we cannot do.”

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