What would you put in an Interplanetary “Community-in-a-Box”?

Kick-starting conversations on building vibrant, sustainable communities in space

What would you put in an interplanetary “community-in-a-box”?

Imagine the scenario: It’s 2030, and SpaceX is getting ready to send a hundred space pioneers to Mars. Their mission is to establish a vibrant and sustainable community on the Red Planet, and to help them, they are taking a “box” containing a kick-starter kit with everything they need to succeed in their community-building.

What would you put in that box?

On one level, this feels like a nonsensical exercise — we’re way beyond using up valuable cargo space with physical boxes containing papers and other resources in space exploration. Yet, for all it’s seeming-naivety, asking the question “what would you put in an interplanetary community-in-a-box” is an amazingly powerful way of creatively exploring what it might take to succeed in developing off-world communities in the future, and even thinking more imaginatively about what it takes to build sustainable communities here on Earth. And one of the beauties about the question is that it opens the door to serendipitous insights as people from many different areas of expertise flex their creative muscles and share their ideas.

A Box of Possibilities

Some people may approach this question from the perspective of asking what we can learn from over 10,000 years of recent human history about what works, and what doesn’t. Others may look at the psychology of group dynamics; others still the challenges and opportunities of developing working partnerships with increasingly smart machines, building novel economic and political systems, or even exploring what success actually means in community building. Some people may even think about what the very concept of a box might mean here — whether this is a physical volume, a virtual resource, or even a metaphor for what’s in the collective heads of a group of space pioneers.

This is where opening up the concept of a community in a box (if you’ll forgive the pun) is an intriguing way to better-understand what it might take to ensure the health of space communities in the future. But beyond the intrigue, it’s also an extremely important exercise. The closer we get to human space exploration, the greater the need there is to understand the full breadth and depth of what this means, and how to move forward in ways which lead to success rather than failure. And the harsh reality here is that this will require a lot more than engineering know-how and a basic understanding of governance, policy and economics. Rather, it’ll require every ounce of our combined creativity, and inventiveness if we’re to succeed. And it will depend on the unexpected surprises and insights — the serendipity — that comes from listening to, talking with, and ultimately working with, people with very different skills.

In other words, building successful off-world communities is going to depend on a level of innovation that can only be achieved by kick-starting conversations and ideas that aren’t constrained by conventional thinking or preconceived ideas, and that transcend traditional domains of expertise. And one way to do this is to ask people to think about a deceptively simple question, and see what happens — like “what would you put in an interplanetary community-in-a-box?”

Into the “Box”

So what would you put in this “box”? Would you put in it a ten-step program for building an egalitarian society? Would you add a library of academic tomes on philosophy, economics, and government? Would you include art, and if so, what sort of art, and for what purpose? And how about works of fiction, whether novels (graphic or otherwise), movies, or otherwise? How would you prime users of the box for navigating the social complexities that always occur when people get together in any numbers— especially under extreme conditions? Would you include a template constitution, or maybe a whole portfolio of them? How about how to deal with issues like death and disease, or mental health? And what would you include that addresses education, and how to get it right?

Questions like these begin to unwrap the sheer complexity of developing a living breathing community of people. But they also stimulate new ideas and thinking that might just reveal opportunities that haven’t been thought of before. And that’s where the true power of a prompt like this comes in.

Getting the creative juices flowing

Over the next few months we’ll be publishing a series of thought-pieces here from experts in a wide range of areas, but all responding in some way to the question “what would you put in an interplanetary community-in-a-box, and why?” So please bookmark and follow us, and come back often to see where we’re at.

And of course, if you have your own thoughts about what you’d put in the box, let us know!

Kick-starting creative conversations around off-world community-building

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Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

Scientist, futurist & Professor of Global Futures at ASU. Author of Future Rising and Films from the Future. Writing about tech, society, & the future

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