How the UK Space industry can benefit from the historic growth of Internet companies

The other side of the street –
How the UK Space industry can benefit from the historic growth of Internet companies

A man searched under a streetlamp for his watch.

Asked: ‘Did you drop it here?’

‘No, way over on the other side of the street’ he replied.

‘So why are you looking here if you know it’s over there?

‘Because this is where the light is’ came the answer.

If the UK’s ambition of achieving 10% market share of the global Space sector is to be realised – the search for growth must be focussed on the other side of the street.

I’m a Technology lawyer heavily involved with the commercial Internet for over 20 years, but crucially at the very outset of e-commerce and the advent of all commercial applications for the Internet.

This minor, localised experience is why I want to draw parallels between the growth of the Space sector in the UK and the historic development of the Internet.

The terms ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ are used in characterising the Space sector. I contend it is the ‘downstream’ companies that will render the UK Space industry the success it deserves to be.

But those companies will be wholly new innovations – certainly not anything currently envisaged. In fact, they may hardly be labelled ‘downstream’ at all. They won’t necessarily be suppliers.

Space will enable them. But Space won’t define them.

That is the experience at every stage of the Internet’s career. It was the commercial applications that nobody foresaw which succeeded and forged what is now a daily experience. They were undoubted beneficiaries. They didn’t do the CapEx heavy lifting. But they unleashed a dynamic explosion of ideas.

The new Space companies will adopt the same modus operandi as their digital forbears.

When Amazon started, it didn’t have to build a logistics infrastructure system to deliver parcels – there was a postal network in place. It didn’t need to build a remote payment system – there were already credit cards, and there were computers which enabled access to the Internet. The long-distance phone network became the backbone of the Internet – and it already existed.

So, what if the Internet entrepreneurs benefitted from the offline investment that went before. It was they alone who were capable of effectively telling the market what consumers and business needed from the Internet. They disrupted established markets – and used other people’s tools to do it.

The point is, I suspect the Government, and fervent supporters of the Space industry (of which I am one) don’t know who or what these new actors will be (nobody does).

That’s ok. The architects of the Internet didn’t foresee Facebook. They didn’t design the social networks, video sharing services, or online sales channels.

How then to achieve the confluence of the known ‘upstream’ Space sector with the Space entrepreneurs who will write Space into everyone’s lives?

To liberate a new generation of Space commerce – the would-be participants first need to be enthused by this rapidly evolving second Space race. That means make sure Space and its new role models – individuals and corporates – (we know who they are) should be remorselessly promoted to the mainstream. In the schools, universities and silicon clusters. But not to indulge in what has gone before. Rather, to throw down the challenge:

What can you do for Space?

This ‘Ask not what Space can do for you’ approach is needed because the industry must recognise the new Space participants will come to the challenge from a wholly different perspective. With a different vocabulary – and if they’re not looking at Space yet it’s because of the illusion that a conversation has happened just because two parties have spoken to one another.

The key then is to move the discussion away from the assets and technical know-how which is the reality of the Space industry. It’s complex. It will always be. Complexity equates to inaccessibility.

The new Space contributors needn’t understand it.

The focus of policy makers and the Space industry should be irrigation of the landscape where the new Space actors reside.

Use the groundswell of enthusiasm for Space which is undoubtedly underway.

Don’t look under the streetlamp.

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