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Think tank: City life on Mars? Creating human centred communities in space and beyond

Cooperation between nations should be at the heart of building any settlements in space.


The space race is well and truly on with outposts planned for the moon and settlements in preparation for Mars. As of February 2021, there are three separate Mars missions landing on the red planet - China, United Arab Emirates, and the USA. Last week’s awe-inspiring images of the red planet from NASA’s Perseverance space rover just shows how much space exploration continues to capture our imagination.


But, as with humans’ major voyages across the seas some centuries ago on our own planet Earth, the primary focus seems to be on bragging rights and monetising whatever resources are there. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has embedded in the terms of service on its Starlight project that he will not adhere to international law but will create new legislation once on Mars. Based on how he treats the humans that work for him on Earth I’m going to hazard a guess that anyone brave, or poor, enough to journey to a planet many years away is not going to have a strong union to ensure they are being treated fairly.


The United States has broken with tradition by leading the Artemis Accords, which critics say carves up the moon’s resources for participating nations. Prior to this there were two UN led treaties - the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty. In these agreements the moon and other celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, their environments should not be disrupted, and the UN should be informed of the location and purpose of any station established on these bodies. Unlike the Artemis Accords, these agreements state that the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible.


We are now at a point where we have major decisions to make that will affect the future of humans living in space. The Covid epidemic and climate change are global phenomena that are revealing the systems that, in their best light, bind us together and provide support and at their worst create divisions and suffering for many. We are feeling the effects of colonisation and capitalism that have been weaving threads for hundreds of years and that are harming our planet and our people.


We are moving into space quickly, and in many ways quietly. My guess is that many of us have no idea the scope and scale of what is already taking place above us and how many billions in dollars are being invested.

Along with these capital investments, there are many groups that are looking at the incredible science that takes us into space and helps us learn about our amazing universe; many that are looking at alternate resources for our resource strapped planet; and there are discussions about the incredible engineering and design that will be needed to provide space travel and housing.

Many of us have no idea the scope and scale of what is already taking place above us

In all of this, I have found very few that have talked about the creation of cities in space. Human places where we have families, make friends, cook, read, play sports, worship, paint, write and build. Where we are born, grow, age, and eventually die. The everyday minutiae and the big dreams mixed together. We spend a great deal of time in government in the development of liveable cities. Cities where people work, live and play. Cities that are equitable, inclusive, safe, and secure. Cities that are creative, fun, and allow for human connections. Space communities should be no different. These ideals need to be planned into these spaces as they are being built rather than as an afterthought.


Looking to the stars, inspired by Earth


This is where smart cities can weigh in. Across the globe questions about equity, community, governance and digital rights have become a key topic in smart city conversations. We can look to places like Estonia and Barcelona to see human centred ways of approaching space communities. These communities can provide examples of good governance and developing engaged communities. For example, Estonia has declared the internet a human right and has also built citizen focussed government services that are based on trust.


In Barcelona, e-democracy has been implemented where citizens’ data are both protected and used for their benefit. This includes the citizen participation platform Decidim, which helps citizens, organizations and public institutions self organise democratically at any scale. This will be important as new communities develop in places that are foreign for everyone. Building communities in space will require careful thought and a lot of communication as everyone figures out the new societal norms and rules.


Digital infrastructure and communication will be the primary mode of communication throughout human communities in space including hotels; mining, engineering or communications companies; government science ports such as the International Space Station; medical stations or hospitals as communities grow; entertainment and other social spaces such as recreational facilities; and this is just scratching the surface.


These are areas that smart cities excel in and have been working on for many years - much longer than the term ‘smart city’ has existed. Again we can look at issues that have arisen around the digital divide and that have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fair and equal access to digital tools must be available to all humans in space, no matter what their job is or how much wealth they have. A cleaner or a line cook at a space hotel should have the same ability to communicate with their family members on earth as an astronaut, CEO or celebrity.

So we need to ask, will we build these technological cities based on open, democratic and human principles as originally sought in The Outer Space Treaty or will we succumb to the issues we sometimes are having on Earth with technology in regards to division, authoritarianism, surveillance, and loneliness? The time to think about this is now before a culture is established that will be hard to erase.