While at the UNISPACE +50 conference the Astropreneurs met Stefano Ferretti, who has been publishing extensively on the benefits that space technologies and mission can bring to our lives on Earth. We have asked him to share his perspective on space, sustainable development and the opportunities for astropreneurs. 

Sustainable Development and How it Benefits From Space Activities

In 2015 the United Nations developed a framework to channel global efforts towards economic development that would preserve and enhance our planet by adhering to principles of economic and social sustainability. This framework, called UN Agenda2030, encompasses 18 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that tackle issues such as climate change, clean water and sanitation, global health and food, have become the backbone of global development efforts, as humanity realises that if we continue with our present consumption and pollution levels we will not be able to ensure a prosperous future for our descendants. In addition to Agenda 2030, two other global frameworks look to improving our livelihoods: the COP21 agreement to limit global warming below 2 degrees, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction that aims to reduce disaster mortality and economic losses by encouraging access to early warning systems and international cooperation. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (Credits: United Nations)

Space has demonstrated a wide span of societal benefits in the last 50 years (2018-1968), and given the recognition of its potential to allow for sustainable development on Earth, highlighted also at the recent UNISPACE+50 conference in Vienna, it’s time to fully exploit the opportunities offered by Earth Observation, Navigation, Telecommunications, Science and Exploration.
There are many different ways in which space technologies can support sustainable development. For example, Earth Observation technologies enable the independent monitoring of different sustainable objectives especially in relation to climate, environment and pollution.  Indeed half of the Essential Climate Variables  can only be measured from Space! Moreover, telecommunication technologies can enable connectivity in remote areas, empowering populations and contributing to education and healthcare. Finally, space technologies, that are generally efficient, resilient and frugal, may have applications on Earth that foster sustainability through a more efficient use of resources.  

Customers and Key Stakeholders

New actors (for example the World Health Organisation) and stakeholders (such as Non-Governmental Organisations) are becoming interested in innovative solutions that can create economic value while improving living conditions in a truly sustainable manner. In a way, space has become part of our everyday lives, though many citizens do not realise it. And this could even be considered a success, as it indicated space-based services are so well integrated that they do not need to be visible per se. On the other hand, in order to fully exploit the potential of satellite information and services, the space community needs to ensure that potential customers and business partners are aware of of the precious treasure that flies above. One way of dealing with this is to enhance dialogue between communities of existing and prospective users and space-based solution providers. 

Blurring Frontiers

For example, the European Space Policy Institute has started blurring the frontiers between the supply and demand sides, bringing together not only institutions and governments but also new private and public stakeholders and end-users. These efforts resulted in interesting and unique dialogue platforms, discovering and addressing new needs of NGOs, citizen groups new spacefaring nations and entire sectors such as healthcare and transport. Now it’s time to set up capacity-building initiatives that could channel these opportunities into sustainable economic growth . This is not a choice, it’s a must if we want to achieve the goals and objectives of the Global Agendas.

Opportunities for Astropreneurs

Several astropreneurial endeavours have already successfully combined space technologies and sustainable development goals.

The most notable example is Planet. They have revolutionised the Earth Observation market through its deployment of small satellites with frequent revisit times, offering interesting data for a range of markets such as energy, agriculture, maritime transport and insurance. Their data is also actively being used for the support of sustainable development objectives. In the words of Will Marshall, Planet’s CEO, addressing the UN Sustainable Development Summit: “According to our analysis, Planet Labs’ imagery can be used to directly (or indirectly) advance 15 of 17 SDGs, and help measure more than 70 of their related targets. I’m going to mention three examples: First, monitoring deforestation, part of Goal 15: Today, we discover evidence of deforestation only after our forests are gone. Planet Labs’ imagery can enable us to monitor forests every day, to see illegal logging and enable proactive intervention. Second, combating climate change, which is Goal 13: Our imagery can monitor climate change with up-to-date data on the state of the world’s ice caps and carbon stocks. Third, ending hunger and establishing food security, which is Goal 2: Our imagery can measure the health of crops in every farmer’s field around the world, and provide vital information to them to increase crop yield. I’m pleased to say Planet Labs is committing to make our data available and accessible to efforts aligned with meeting the SDGs.” 

SpacePharma is promoting space-based medical research and currently designing small pharmaceutical factories in space that will contribute to more efficient medicines for curing diseases back on Earth. 

There are also several organisations actively working towards this goal.

The European Commission has recently allowed using satellite data to report on agriculture field usage according to the Common Agricultural Policy benefits system, ensuring less expensive and more comprehensive reporting on how whether subsidised crops are being grown as expected. This has opened up new business opportunities for firms able to convert Sentinel data into meaningful information towards this goal. 

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the World Health Organisation have conducted several workshops and conferences on Space for Global Health, where they have examined the role of Earth Observation/Remote Sensing, Telecommunications and Positioning and Space-based medical research, in improving global health efforts.  

Other interesting actors working on these issues in Europe include Young Sustainable Impact accelerator in Norway, the Copernicus Accelerator of the EU and the European Space Agency Business Applications and Technology Transfer programs. On a global scale the UNOOSA Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education are another resource that can provide support and capacity-building. 

A new frontier is opening up for entrepreneurs that are willing to chase new dreams, blurring Earthly challenges with Space opportunities. This is the upcoming gold rush of the 21st Century: and if you don’t want to miss it look forward and ahead, planning a sustainable living on this planet for the future generations, while building sound space programs that will allow humanity to discover the marvellous mysteries of the Universe.      

Posted by Stefano Ferretti*

*The opinions expressed are those of the author and not his current and past employers

Further Reading

Space as An Enabler of Sustainable Development, ICSD Conference: http://ic-sd.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/01/Ferretti.pdf
Space for Sustainable Development: https://espi.or.at/publications/espi-public-reports/send/2-public-espi-reports/13-space-for-sustainable-development
Space for Global Health: http://www.unoosa.org/pdf/reports/ac105/AC105_1091E.pdf
Engaging with Stakeholders in Preparation for UNISPACE+50: https://espi.or.at/publications/espi-public-reports/send/2-public-espi-reports/14-engaging-with-stakeholders-in-preparation-for-unispace-50
Conference on Space2030 and Space4.0: Synergies for Capacity-Building in the 21st Century: http://www.unoosa.org/documents/pdf/copuos/stsc/2018/ESPI-program_31-01-2018.pd
Yearbook on Space Policy 2016: Space for Sustainable Development: https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783319724645