This year, we celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence in space. Such a momentous milestone gives us an opportunity to reflect on this accomplishment, the impact it has on our everyday life, and what it means for humanity’s shared future in space. The International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory has been used by hundreds of students, academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and commercial entities across myriad disciplines and sectors—all for the benefit of life on Earth—and today, this unique facility in low Earth orbit (LEO) is more accessible than ever.
But this is just the beginning. We are at an inflection point where our efforts to expand access to space have succeeded, and we are now faced with a humbling task of helping to catalyze economic development of LEO. We must help establish research and development (R&D) in LEO as a national priority, so that generations to come can continue to experience the knowledge generation, commercial product enhancement, and healthcare breakthroughs possible through space-based R&D.
Moreover, a booming market in LEO requires participation from more than aerospace experts and microgravity researchers. Humanity’s shared future in LEO requires diversity—diversity of professions, ideas, and backgrounds. People need to be front of mind, because it is people who will make or break the success of a future LEO economy. As we evaluate what else we can do as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), manager of the ISS National Lab, to stimulate participation of all kinds in the growing LEO market, we encountered another opportunity for reaching new and eager minds in our quest for innovation: design thinking.
Bill O’Conner, director of the Autodesk Innovation Genome project, defined innovation as “the art of establishing something out in the real world that is different or new and has a significant impact.” What stands out in this statement is the strict requirement for something tangible to be established in the real world. Technical excellence alone is no longer enough. In order to establish something out in the real world, it is a prerequisite to understand and meet the needs of stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, customers, the community, the market, and more. “Design thinking” synthesizes needs, possibilities, and requirements for success from these various stakeholders in an attempt to make innovation centered around the people, not just the problem.
Toward this end, the World Design Organization (WDO) is commencing a two-week virtual Design Challenge from September 28 to October 9, 2020 to apply design thinking to space-based research, specifically in the areas of sustainability, education, and entrepreneurship. The WDO is an international nongovernmental organization that promotes the profession of industrial design and its ability to generate better products, systems, services, and experiences; better business and industry; and, ultimately, a better environment and society. The WDO call for participation is open until September 7, 2020, and CASIS will support this challenge by offering insight and advice about ISS research and technology development.
As we consider what the next 20 years of economic activities in space will bring, one thing that is certain is that there will be an increase in the volume and variety of activities—and people will be in the center of every aspect of that economic activity and growth. Design thinking embraces human-centered design, which holds deep empathy with the people at its core. We hope that our collaboration with WDO will be one step toward designing a future where space is an integral part of everyday life for all of us.