The Practice of Creativity

Arlan Andrews and Sci-Fi Writers in SIGMA Think Tank Help World Leaders Imagine Better Futures

Posted on: July 22, 2012

Although for the past ten years I’ve lived less than an hour away from the well-known Rhine Center, in Durham, last week was the first time that I had a chance to attend one of their programs.  The Rhine Center has a long history in research on parapsychology and human consciousness and is composed of a research center and an education center. The Rhine Education Center “provides professional education in parapsychology and public events at the Rhine explore psychic abilities, experiences, techniques, and the culture of ESP throughout the world” (Rhine Center website).  On Friday, July 13, they were featuring  a science fiction writer that I didn’t know—Arlan Andrews and his talk ‘Science Fiction and the Future of the Paranormal’ caught my eye. The novel I am writing examines the effects of uncontrolled ‘psi’ outbreaks, so I thought Andrews’s talk created a good reason to make the trip.

Dr. Andrews is an engineer, science fiction writer, and author of hundreds of articles, stories and columns on the paranormal, science fiction, futurism, ancient civilizations, future technology and politics.

His began by discussing how he got interested in science fiction, and his experiences investigating paranormal activity with his wife (a noted psychic). His talk was chock-full of intriguing concepts, great stories and photos of him, Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers at conferences during the 1980s and 1990s. But, what I found the most fascinating was how he founded SIGMA, a think tank of professional science fiction, fantasy and game writers who provide pro bono futurist talks to the U.S. government (and paid consulting for corporations). He developed this think tank after working as a Fellow in the White House Science Office in 1992-1993. Given science fiction’s enormous role in shaping  and imagining technology and the future, he wanted to bring the expertise of the science fiction community to inform challenging public policy issues. He started SIGMA, in 1993, with a modest group of nine PhDs (he stressed that in the beginning, he had to have people with doctorates to get over the ‘giggle factor’ by Washington officials), and has grown it to 40 plus members.

What? A group of distinguished science fiction writers (many of whom are scientists and engineers) giving talks to U.S. government officials and world leaders on how to stretch their thinking to solve global dilemmas and imagine a better future? Sign me up!! How do I join? How do I get invited? Well, I’ve probably got a bit more publishing to do before I get invited (and hmm maybe a doctorate  in a science field wouldn’t hurt either)…but hey, I’ll put getting invited to SIGMA on my bucket list!

SIGMA has spoken to the U.S. government, over the years, on national security issues, evolutionary technologies and futurism. He showed us pictures from some of these meetings on ‘science fictional thinking’ in which they stress the importance of imaginative and associative thinking, and turning problems upside down in order to generate innovative ideas.  My creativity coach’s heart pumped three times harder as I learned about SIGMA (and was surprised that I’d never heard of them before). The talent of the SIGMA group is extraordinary and includes many writers you know: Elizabeth Moon, Nancy Cress, Greg Bear, Dr. Yoji Kondo, Michael Swanwick, S.M. Sterling, and Dr. Larry Niven to name a few.

Earlier this year, as invited guests, SIGMA presented a panel on “Disruptive Technologies” at the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This panel generated great buzz. The conversation inspired computer engineer Yasser Bahjatt to create a TEDx talk about how Arab science fiction could dream a better future and he’s created an open platform to support artistic expression and a new culture of science fiction writing. Check out the inspiring video and his vision.

Arlan Andrews didn’t look tired after giving a rousing two-hour talk. I’m glad that I went (thanks to my partner, Tim for finding out about this event and buying tickets!) and learned so much. I’m sure that my future will include more visits to the Rhine Center. I talked with Dr. Andrews about a possible interview exploring his ideas about creativity. I’m expecting that will be a blast, too!




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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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