19 Dec 2014

Taking BGV to the final frontier? How space startups could save the planet

By Jessica

Last week I had my mind blown by a series of talks from satellite startups and NASA scientists at LEAD, a leadership programme for social innovators in the Baltic region.

I’d read about Space X, Planet Labs and various crowdfunded rocket and satellite missions lately, but until last week I hadn’t fully appreciated how accessible some space technology has become, or just how many startups are emerging in this area, and, significantly, what this might mean for the planet.

For example, because satellites have got smaller and cheaper to build, there are now thousands of satellites orbiting the earth (see main image), and if you start making some of their data open and accessible for people then you can start using it to solve global problems – such as monitoring mining, or overfishing.

The LEAD programme brought together around 30 people from varied backgrounds for four months to learn about the ‘anthropocene’, ‘resilience thinking’, ‘social-ecological systems’ and ‘exponential technologies’ (read the background info below for definitions).

The result of mashing these ideas together with a room full of bright entrepreneurs was electric. There was a lot of excitement around exponential technologies – open data and satellites (Sky Truth, Planet Labs), artificial intelligence (IBM Watson) and the future potential of quantum computers (D-Wave) – and using these developments to solve environmental problems.

Throughout the LEAD programme the entrepreneurs were tasked with developing an idea for a project or startup, and almost every idea involved some use of satellite data. From creating a city wide platform for collective intelligence, to feeding super computers (i.e. Watson) marine data to create a predictive warning system for the Baltic Sea region.

While some of these ideas may have seemed a bit far fetched in the past, thanks to the opening up of satellite information they are now feasible and likely to happen in the next few years. It’s something I’m really excited about, particularly as we want to work with startups who are using technology to tackle sustainability challenges such as energy, water and food scarcity. Maybe we need to start looking towards satellites and space for the answers.


Background information

The LEAD programme was run by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in partnership with the Swedish Institute and Singularity University.

The Anthropocene is the name given to a new geological epoch that some scientists believe we are now living in, where humans activities have begun to have a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

Resilience thinking is an approach designed to improve the impact that we’re having on the planet. It acknowledges that humans and nature exist in a combined social-ecological system – and suggests that we need to manage this ecosystem so it can handle future challenges.

“In our globalised society, there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people and no people without the need for ecosystems and the services they provide.” Stockholm Resilience Centre 

Enter ‘exponential technologies’. This a term used by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near to describe technologies that are advancing at exponential rates and converging – such as quantum machines, biotechnology and robotics. Kurzweil believes these technologies can be used to help solve many of humanity’s ‘grand challenges’ and he co-founded Singularity University on this premise – to teach people about utilising these technologies for social benefit.

Main image credit: European Space Agency
Video Credit: Welcome to the Anthropocene