The road ahead for the democratisation of space

Over the years, space technology and applications derived from satellite signals and data have been contributing to the socio-economic development of society, responding to the many challenges that our society has to face, from connectivity issues, to environmental ones, risk management and even telemedicine. In addition to this, big data, IoT, x-rays, and other data are now integrated with space technologies.

Whilst in the past, civil space activities were mostly oriented towards space exploration and science, recent years have seen a surge in projects and funding opportunities aimed at turning space-based data and signals into fully fledged business models. Turning points towards more and accessible down-to-earth solutions have been, on one side, our growing need for ubiquitous connectivity and digitalisation, and on the other, the ability of space industries and institutions to respond to such needs through technology transfer policies and solutions. Such trends have paved the way for setting up a fertile ecosystem for space applications that respond to societal needs.

However, while technology development is advancing, we may sometimes find ourselves out of breath in our struggle to keep up. Governments and decision makers are often uncertain about the benefits deriving from adopting space-based technologies to respond to macro-trends: funds and legislation are sometimes a hurdle to their full deployment. But, this is not always true. Different cases around the world, as examples in South America and in Europe showcase, are demonstrating that it is possible to make some efforts in facilitating the adoption of specific services that integrate satellite-based technologies. Just to mention an example, in Brazil, Ghana and Guatemala, SAR technology can be used to enhance early warning systems to reduce the damages deriving from natural disasters. 

The whole space sector is also undergoing a series of changes. The advent of New Space trends is trying to overcome the traditional image of the sector while pushing for a more sustainable and accessible use of space. The idea is to transform the space sector into a non-exclusive technology and science-oriented field, a more open one, that could include different actors, like NGOs or local authorities.   

Slowly , the space sector is shifting to a new strategy more oriented towards the end users of their products and, in some cases, it is fostering the creation and development of a downstream sector in those emerging countries that are willing to implement their own space-based infrastructure and to start developing a local space-related economy, creating new job opportunities and decent economic growth. Such a shift is resulting in the creation of start-up incubators, competitions and events that aim at raising awareness on space applications in the non-space sector.  

In the background, the United Nations Agenda 2030 – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the Space2030 Agenda provide a framework where space technologies are proving helpful to respond to specific challenges and to generate socio-economic returns. Some examples might be the current and potential uses of satellite data for climate change (SDG 13-Climate Action), for telemedicine solutions (SDG 3- Good Health and Well-Being) or to support the creation of more efficient and sustainable urban environments (SDG 11-Sustainable Cities and Communities).

The topic of accessibility and inclusiveness has been central to one of the latest events Eurisy attended. Last October, we participated in the United Nations/International Astronautical Federation Workshop on Space Technology for Socio-Economic Benefits: “Ensuring Inclusiveness through Space-based Applications and Space Exploration”. The workshop – organised in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) taking place in Washington DC this year, had as a main objective the idea of providing insights on how space applications contribute to empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality, demonstrating that space applications can help achieve the SDGs.

Workshop attendees argued that accessibility is not just related to technology and science, but there is a primary interest in making everyone aware of the potential of space-based technologies, and in particular of satellite-based ones, to enable sustainable development.

Indeed, the variety of existent applications could support the evolution of entire regions of Europe. Rural regions and their complicated access to connectivity – satellite technology can easily offer a solution to allow for enhanced coverage or make agriculture more precise and thus more profitable.

Accessibility has different means, targets and objectives. At Eurisy, we have the privilege of working at the intersection of space and non-space sectors. In turn, this allows us to have a realistic perception of the difficulties that non-space users can face when using satellite-based technologies and help them expressing their needs. Over the past thirty years, Eurisy collected many case studies that touch upon different sectors, such as culture, emergency and rescue, telemedicine, sustainable cities etc.

During the workshop Eurisy brought forward two of these examples where satellite-based applications can have an immediate return on investment: telemedicine and Advanced Mobile Location (AML). Both cases show that the integration of satellite-based data and technologies in such contexts can help save lives and facilitate faster access to emergency rescue services.

The so-called “democratisation of space” which we hear about more and more often, is indeed an opportunity for space and non-space actors to meet halfway. The idea of making space accessible to everyone should bring to a series of changes in the sector itself. One of them could spring from empowering youth. One such example is World Space Week. Similar to our own, the World Space Week’s mandate is to bridge space and society, this time using education and dialogue as their main tools to patch existing gaps. Indeed, education can be crucial to favour equal access to space technologies and raise awareness about the corresponding opportunities, to a future workforce. As the Executive Director of the World Space Week Association, Maruska Strah, stated during the workshop, over the years the Association has incurred a grown of about 30%, reaching a record in 2018, when 5,422 events in 86 countries. Preliminary results for 2019 show over 6,200 events in 96 countries.

But accessibility implies also favouring the deployment of solutions emerging from a political dialogue that would facilitate the creation of financial schemes to support end-users in the process of adopting such technologies or to work with specific data. Some solutions are already put in place by academia, space agencies or other institutional actors, but more work needs to be done.

During the UN/IAF workshop, many different actors working at different levels showcased their initiatives aimed at making space appealing to everyone in every area of the world. From student activities in Africa to risk management solutions, to gender balance initiatives to form a future workforce where women can also have a primary role, the agenda was rich in examples.  

For Eurisy, the workshop has been an opportunity to increase our network and knowledge base on world-wide initiatives focused on making space accessible to everyone. On the Eurisy side, we will continue working to make satellite-based solutions accessible to everyone by involving users, creating bridges between space and non-space actors and by presenting the potential return on investment through hands-on examples and case studies.

The full report of the 27th UN/IAF Workshop on Space Technology for Socio-Economic Benefits is available here.