As part of the Walker's presentation of Designs for Different Futures (on view now), we will be publishing a number of texts from the exhibition catalogue (Yale University Press, December 2019), exploring the ways in which designers create, critique, and envision possible futures, big and small. The exhibition was organized by the Walker Art Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Sustainable Development Goals, curated by the United Nations, provide an urgent vision for creating a safe and just society on Earth.See United Nations, “About the Sustainable Development Goals,” www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/. Technology from space offers one set of tools to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We must also work to propose a vision for just communities beyond Earth as humans prepare to live as an interplanetary society.
I’m a going to lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Going to lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain’t going to study war no more“Down by the Riverside” dates to before the Civil War but was first published in 1918; for the version given here, see John Wesley Work, American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 202–3.
Technology that links people to outer space—satellites, rockets, telescopes, spaceships, and space stations—is available today in large part because of early investments in capabilities for military operations, national defense, and projects to bring prestige to individual countries. Later breakthroughs in space activity were motivated by scientific discovery and human curiosity for exploration as well. Since the early space era of the 1950s, the role of space technology has expanded dramatically. Today, space technology contributes to every facet of the infrastructure that enables our society, from transportation, communication, shipping, and energy to banking, construction, disaster response, and environmental management. Looking to the future, we will see a new relationship between humans and space emerge as more commercial activity takes place in orbit around Earth, humans prepare to establish communities on the moon and on Mars, businesses investigate the money-making possibilities of harvesting materials from asteroids, and scientists uncover clues about the prospects of life beyond our home planet. As we prepare for this new cosmic future, in which space will continue to be woven into the fabric of human society, let us actively consider how we can reenvision space as a medium to advance justice for all rather than accrue benefits for a few.
The term space is used to describe the vast expanse of reality beyond Earth that humans at once fear and revere. When confronted with the enormous possibilities of space, humans should be reminded both of our insignificance and of our power to influence or destroy the systems around us. Today, climate change shows us the results of collective choices made by the human race that have caused long-term harm to people, animals, plants, and the planet. As we transition to living as an interplanetary species, we have the opportunity to learn from our experiences about the importance of caring for life and nature on Earth. We also have the opportunity to consciously choose to design a better culture to enjoy the next chapter of human learning on Earth and beyond. We must seize this opportunity before it slips by! Change will not happen automatically. Many people are inspired by the possibility of uncovering new mysteries by exploring space. We have the potential to achieve great change if we harness this inspiration from space exploration and channel it to change our thinking about how humans live on Earth and in new locations. Let us decide to lay down our swords and shields and remake the space technology that was born of military urgency. Let us imagine a future of human communities in space that learn from history how to “study war no more.”
Today’s citizens of Earth face serious challenges that must be overcome in order to ensure that people of all backgrounds can live safely and flourish. One helpful summary of these challenges is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as developed through international dialogue curated by the United Nations.See United Nations, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to Transform Our World,” sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld; www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/envision2030.html. The SDGs provide a holistic description of the progress that the global community must make to ensure equitable access to health care, economic opportunity, and political enfranchisement. The seventeen SDGs were developed through a process that included input from many types of people, including the young, the old, those with disabilities, and representatives from every UN member nation. SDGs 1 through 8 focus on basic human needs; 9 through 12 address global economic systems; and 13 through 17 highlight the need for globally minded leadership to reduce the harm from climate change and preserve biodiversity in the ocean and on land.
Underlying the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are 169 aggressive, quantifiable Targets. The global community will need to use all the tools available to us to meet these Targets by 2030. There are six examples of space technology that have already been demonstrated to contribute toward achieving the SDGs by providing information, services, or useful technical capabilities. These six technologies are satellite Earth observation, satellite communication, satellite positioning, microgravity research, technology transfer, and fundamental scientific research. The following section examines several of these and their impact on sustainable development.
Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd “Follow the Drinking Gourd” dates back to the era of the Underground Railroad; it was first published in 1928. As with many folk songs and spirituals passed down orally, the lyrics vary; the version given here is that known to the author.
In the 1800s, runaways escaping slavery in the American South used the stars for navigation, such as by following the constellation the Big Dipper, known as the Drinking Gourd, in the northern sky. Humans have a long history of navigating using clues from the sky, such as the positions of the sun, moon, and stars. Today, satellite navigation systems help us identify our location and plan a route to our destination. Many cars, cell phones, and other electronic devices are equipped with radios that receive signals from satellite navigation systems. When a device receives positioning information from three or more navigation satellites, it is possible to calculate its location very accurately. Several national or international governments operate Global Navigation Satellite Systems, including the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China. These satellite systems provide both positioning and timing services that enable transportation, energy infrastructure, and even financial transactions, the latter often timed based on the highly precise clocks operated on navigation satellites.
In addition to navigation services, satellites offer other practical benefits to Earth’s inhabitants via satellite observation services. Earth observation satellites provide information about changes on Earth’s surface by taking pictures and measuring key features of the atmosphere, land, water, and ice. Earth observation satellites are designed with customized sensors that collect different types of energy in order to measure what is happening on the planet. For example, one set of satellites takes measurements using infrared and microwave energy that help us build computer models to predict the weather for the next few days. Another set of satellites uses radar and microwave energy to measure rainfall and snowfall. Yet another set uses infrared measurements to identify large sources of heat that may indicate fires. These and other environmental measurements are visualized and combined with information about human activity to help development leaders make decisions in support of SDG 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).
Other societal benefits of space technology come from applying the knowledge and innovative ideas that result from activities such as human space flight, microgravity research, and fundamental scientific investigation in areas like astrophysics (study of the universe) and heliophysics (study of Earth’s sun). Each of these activities can support the goals of sustainable development if the knowledge and skills derived from them are consciously transferred in support of development efforts. Consider the example of microgravity research. Since the year 2000, an international agreement between Russia, Canada, Japan, the United States, and several European countries has allowed people to live continuously on the International Space Station (ISS), which currently serves as the primary human destination in space. There are facilities on the ISS to support research experiments on the influence of the microgravity environment on the human body, plants, animals, and materials. Because the ISS is in orbit around Earth, the station itself and everything inside it are in a constant state of free fall, so the effects of gravity are not felt. For humans and animals, this causes physiological changes because bones and muscles are not working against gravity and the fluids in our bodies behave differently. Physical processes such as combustion, protein crystallization, and thermodynamics change. Researchers from all around the world send experiments to the ISS to investigate these changes, which inspires design innovations on Earth. For example, astronauts use exercise in space to keep their bones and muscles healthy; their experience is similar to that of people on Earth who face long periods of bed rest and must exercise to recover or maintain their strength. In addition, findings from studies on combustion, protein crystallization, and manufacturing are enabling potential new approaches on Earth for designing fire safety systems, medicines, and fiber-optic wire.
The Space Enabled research group within the MIT Media Lab is pursuing a mission “to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space.”Space Enabled overview, MIT Media Lab, www.media.mit.edu/groups/space-enabled
/overview/. One way that Space Enabled is pursuing this mission is by redesigning the six space technologies to make them more useful in addressing the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Space Enabled builds relationships with development leaders who represent multilateral organizations, national governments, regional governments, native communities, universities, and entrepreneurs. When collaborating with these development leaders, Space Enabled utilizes a six-stage cycle to support their initiatives. This includes (1) applying Design Thinking from engineering, business, and creative fields to understand the problems and needs of the collaborators; (2) practicing Art in response to the knowledge shared by the collaborators; (3) studying the context by drawing on methods from Social Sciences such as anthropology, history, and economics; (4) building Complex Systems Models by using computer software to simulate interactions connecting human actions, environmental forces, and technology; (5) designing new Space Systems such as satellites that collect measurements about the environment; and (6) applying methods from Data Science to create decision support systems that help pursue an SDG. In 2019, Space Enabled is working to apply this six-stage cycle in several projects, including working with government agencies and entrepreneurs in Benin and Ghana to monitor forests and invasive plants, working with city government leaders in Brazil to understand mangrove forest health, learning about goals for pursuing new space activities in Bermuda, and sharing ideas with national agencies on how they can apply satellite Earth observation data more effectively.
But can space-enabled designs advance justice and development? A graduate class I teach at the MIT Media Lab asks precisely this question. Before considering the potential role of space technology, the class reflects on the meaning of justice and development by reading the work of leading social scientists in these fields. For example, students are assigned the book The Rise of “The Rest” (2001) by the late Alice H. Amsden, who studied the experiences of countries in East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America as they pursued industrialization in the decades after World War II. Another key text is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), by Ibram X. Kendi of American University in Washington, DC. This book is used to explore one example of global-scale, systemic injustice in the form of racism. In his deeply researched text, Kendi shows how leaders who shaped the consciousness of each generation from the 1600s through today have used racist ideas to justify policies that led to systems of discrimination and injustice constructed along racial lines. Many of these racist ideas have been consistently held, with only slight variations, for more than four hundred years. The impact of the racist policies they inspired is deeply entrenched in the social, political, economic, and governing systems of the United States today. Kendi’s book demonstrates how injustice resulting from social hierarchy is not primarily a problem of individual behavior but of systemic barriers built upon discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, education level, income, or other human characteristics.
Why does a class seeking to apply space technology in support of the Sustainable Development Goals need to reflect on the writings of Amsden and Kendi? Before students work with development leaders and design systems using the six space technologies to support the SDGs, they need to ask themselves several challenging questions. The first of these is, What forces led to today’s unequal society? The key texts assigned to the class help provide an answer through their emphasis on the roles of colonialism and racism, as powerful elites worked to maintain their hegemony at the expense of others. The second question the students are asked to consider is, How have long-standing forces such as colonialism, racism, gender inequality, and class structure formed our current societies—and how do these forces continue to create barriers to reaching the SDGs? Third, students are asked to examine the question, How have today’s six space technologies grown out of the prevailing world, in which a few countries or groups dominate politically and economically? Space technology is the product of an unequal society, so students are invited to consciously imagine redesigning this technology to create an equal society. This redesign can be achieved by humbly listening to leaders who are working to achieve development and reduce the impact of social hierarchy in their own communities.
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table
One of these days
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table
One of these days“I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” was written by Hollis Watkins during the civil rights era; for a partial quotation from that period, with slightly different lyrics, see Margaret Walker, Jubilee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 70.
Looking beyond the Sustainable Development Goals and the year 2030, now is also the time for humans to consider the interplanetary future before us. We can take a vital lesson from our history of living together on Earth: when we prioritize national or elite benefits over global well-being, we are acting in ways that harm current and future generations. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been defined by the initiatives of governments, nonprofits, and researchers seeking solutions to global challenges created by self-serving corporations and countries. These challenges include climate change, industrial pollution of our water and air, and systemic poverty for billions of people. As the lure of space beckons a new generation of humans to create societies on the moon, in Earth’s orbit, on asteroids, or on Mars, will we continue with our traditional patterns? Will the first companies and countries to land on these new space outposts set the local rules and create jurisdictions based on capitalist optimization or neocolonial expansion? This outcome is likely because the first people or robots to live and work on the moon or on Mars may represent a small set of companies or countries from Earth.
The Sustainable Development Goals can be applied now to consider how we want to build a future interplanetary society of humans beyond Earth. We don’t need to wait until we have created problems that are almost impossible to solve, as we have done on Earth. Instead, we can put in place new guidelines, policies, and cultural norms that will establish our future space societies on foundations that support economic equality, gender equality, sustainable consumption, and sustainable communities. These ideas do not assume that future space societies will be utopias. Rather, they challenge us to grasp a narrow window of opportunity to consciously apply fresh thinking to future human societies in space, rather than allowing current human systems to become the default foundations.
What will it take for humans to consciously design future interplanetary societies based on the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals? It will require starting a movement that fosters reflection, dialogue, and action. It will take reflecting on the lessons of political economists such as Amsden and historians like Kendi, who teach us about the heritage of unjust human colonialism. It will require creating a global dialogue that invites people of many backgrounds to provide input, building on the lessons learned in creating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It will necessitate deploying multidisciplinary design approaches, such as the six-stage cycle developed by the Space Enabled research group to learn through design thinking, art, social science, complex systems, engineering, and data science. It will require listening to those who have experienced the harms of violent colonial expansion, especially members of indigenous communities. Finally, it will entail inviting today’s youth to envision designing interplanetary communities for their own future and for their children’s future. What this will look like in practice is universities offering courses to invite students to study and debate how humans should live beyond Earth; government representatives continuing to dialogue on international space policy through established channels such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space; and existing organizations such as the Space Generation Advisory Council continuing to invite students and young people all over the world to share their visions for human activity in space. It will look like governments and nonprofit organizations collaborating to host hackathons and to crowdsource the best ideas for the design of future interplanetary human societies. It will involve entrepreneurial companies forming in every region to propose novel business models that foster responsible and equitable human interactions in space.
Now is the time to start this movement and invite the next generation to help create a just, interplanetary human society built on the lessons of the Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s ask the question, What type of society do we want to call home—on Earth, on the moon, on Mars, and beyond? ▪︎
DANIELLE WOOD is the Benesse Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Research in Education within the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and the Aeronautics and Astronautics department at MIT and founder of MIT Media Lab’s Space Enabled research group, whose mission is to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space. Wood is a scholar of societal development with a background in satellite design, systems engineering, and technology policy for the United States and emerging nations.
The catalogue was produced by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with design by the Walker Art Center. It was edited and conceived by the exhibition’s curators: Emmet Byrne, Design Director and Associate Curator of Design, Walker Art Center; Kathryn B. Hiesinger, The J. Mahlon Buck, Jr. Family Senior Curator and Michelle Millar Fisher, formerly The Louis C. Madeira IV Assistant Curator in the department of European Decorative Arts after 1700, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Maite Borjabad López-Pastor, Neville Bryan Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design, and Zoë Ryan, formerly the John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design, the Art Institute of Chicago.
Text and compilation © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and The Art Institute of Chicago