Reaching for the stars: engaging with industry to build a smarter space sector

The work of Dr Marc J Ventresca and the Oxford Space Initiative (OxSI) team is exploring how social sciences research can influence policy for space commerce and governance. With the space economy continuing to grow apace, the aim is to contribute to the development of a responsible and inclusive sector.

“We're interested in the ways that the commercial space sector is developing – substantial changes in ventures and commercial funding, and the need for regulation and governance, and the jurisdictional issues,” explains Dr Marc J Ventresca (Saïd Business School). “Currently, data from satellites is a big topic and the focus of scores of ventures. These data hold promise to help us understand real-time developments in climate change, humanitarian welfare, migration, agriculture, floods and forest fires, and traffic congestion, so there’s much discussion around how to make these data useful.”

Digging into the social impact of space is one important theme of the work of OxSI. Founded by Dr Ventresca and Dr Lucas Kello (DPIR), with Michele Scataglini (Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School) and others, OxSI is building a multi-disciplinary research team that examines emerging space ecosystems through a social sciences lens.

Through research, stakeholder engagement, an MBA elective and communication activities, the team is building a strong network of relevant agencies and industry stakeholders across the UK – from start-ups to large public bodies including the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult (SAC), firms like Astroscale, and a dozen Oxford alumni ventures.

Mapping an emerging sector

The SAC has been a key project partner, says Scataglini: “Based at Harwell Campus in Oxford, the SAC helps organisations make the most of satellite technology. It also develops tools and resources to show how markets are forming around satellite data in the UK.”

The OxSI team has been analysing SAC’s outputs to see how stakeholders in the UK space sector are engaging with their resources. Dr Eddie Ross (the SAC’s Knowledge Exchange Manager) says: “This is going to be really useful for us, for the UK space sector as a whole. It will help everybody make more efficient, informed decisions.”

The SAC’s purpose is to convene perspectives from across the sector to innovate – so partnering with OxSI made perfect sense. “When you’re working with industry it’s a clearly defined scope and everyone’s moving towards that,” says Ross. “But working with Marc and his team is more like a voyage of discovery. You’re going to learn things that you didn’t realise you wanted to learn or needed to learn.”

Collaborating for inclusive space

Following successful projects funded by the University of Oxford’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, in 2022 OxSI secured a Social Science Engagement Fellowship for Ke Wang, co-founder of the Karman Project, a Berlin-based foundation that brings together a diverse range of leaders from across the space sector in annual cohorts of Fellows and Pioneers. These include early and mid-career engineers, astronauts, scientists, artists, founders and funders, and academics from many countries. The focus is on engaging a diversity of people and expertise, to support a generation of experts who look beyond technology to issues of humans thriving in a sustainable space.

During her time at the Saïd Business School, Wang delivered on joint Karman-OxSI activities, contributed to a pilot programme of courses and events, convened workshops that foregrounded artists and space and another that focused on UK – Africa linkages, and developed a roadmap for policy impact with OxSI UK partners.

“I can easily get immersed in the worlds of business and space,” she says, “but here, on a daily basis, you meet amazing people. One day I might be speaking to a professor of AI Ethics, the next, someone from Physics or the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We’ve had people joining from the Department of Philosophy, challenging us and asking questions. Every time it makes you think and reflect more. It’s so powerful.”

Ventresca notes “During Ke’s sojourn we started looking at the long-term potential for collaboration.” OxSI also invited a number of the Karman Fellows to join their inaugural in-person Smart Space MBA elective. Having the Fellows sit alongside Oxford MBA students to learn more about the opportunities and challenges presented by a global space industry is yet another example of the multi-disciplinary, cross-sector network-building the team does routinely.

“The work with Karman cascaded into several other working collaborations, now contributing to our COP27 activity, collaboration with the ASU Center for Science and Imagination, and excellent participants for the termly ‘Smart Space’ panel series,” notes Scataglini. “We are also keen to develop a collaboratory for engaging public and private agencies and drive awareness on this emerging agenda, to augment our impact on both policy and practice.”

The Engagement Fellowship has given OxSI fresh resource and focus, working closely and learning with the Karman team and their networks. “Oxford and these impact funds have enabled us to build a global network that links with a UK network around the nascent initiatives in sustainable space commerce and governance,” says Ventresca. “There's a whole world that we have started to consolidate through workshops and meetings, conversations, talks, and outreach. Now we’re coming back to research, much more informed by dynamics across the whole sector.”

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