Designing Public Services for Mars

Government Innovation

Designing Public Services for Mars

19 Oct , 2018  

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Below is the text of my 2018 talk for FutureFest: Occupy Your Future, which took place on 6-7 July at London’s Tobacco Dock. The talk was designed as a thought experiment to reflect on Nesta’s work on new operating models for public services.

Ladies and gents, our time has come!

My name is Eddie Copeland, I’m Mission Commander for Elon 10, and this is your final pre-launch briefing.

Tomorrow the first flight of non-professional astronauts will be sent to colonise Mars.

I know that all of you in this room will be joining me on that voyage: 200 of us in total with all the most vital professions represented: Doctors, engineers, physicists, cooks… innovation professionals.

I’ve reviewed my checklist and I’m pleased to say everything is sorted:

We’ve got enough food until the next unmanned craft can arrive.

The oxygen and the water reclaimers are already up and running.

And please be assured that in the event of a catastrophe, Matt Damon has taught us that we can survive on Mars for at least a year on potatoes alone!

And yet, just between us – and seeing as we’ll all soon be neighbours – I do have a few concerns about the longer term.

Humans have never settled a planet before – there isn’t a blueprint for doing this.

Previously, the most we’ve ever done is send up teams of eight or so astronauts for missions lasting just a few months. They had years of training to develop great technical ability, physical toughness and psychological readiness. They were self-sufficient.

But this isn’t going to be a short term trip. Check your ticket because it’s one-way.

So here’s what’s on my mind:

Initially, I’m confident that all our material needs will be met by the company, SpaceMusk, and its investors.

After all, when we arrive on Mars, there’ll only be 200 people. To begin with we’ll need air, water, food, power, accommodation, a basic medical facility. Nothing too fancy.

But in 26 months they plan to send another 500 people, then more in each successive phase. We’ll be 700, 1500; thousands by the end of the decade.

How long can we behave like we’re on some sort of giant cruise ship where everything is provided by the company? That might work for a few hundred people for a short period. But what about for thousands, permanently?

We can’t all be trained like those earlier generations of astronauts to be so physically and mentally resilient.

Like it or not, our needs are going to get a lot more complicated as our population grows, when we have children, and when we get old and can’t work anymore.

When we get to that stage: Who will educate our children? Who will care for the elderly and the infirm?
Who will look after our mental health? Who’s going to run our transport? Who will run our justice system? And what would any of those services actually look like?

I guess we’ve only got our experience here on earth to go on.

So what do we know?

Human history seems to teach us that when a population reaches a certain critical size, people will demand some form of representation – at least a say in how things are run – some form of government will emerge to replace the company.

And when you have government, the usual path is that they raise taxes, which pay for a defined group of people – our public servants – to provide our services for us.

Once upon a time those taxes paid for priests to protect us from angry gods. Today, we like to think our needs are a little more sophisticated, but the model’s essentially the same.

Now I think about it, I guess that all seems pretty simple. That is the model.

But then, are our services here on earth the way they are because they had to be that way? Or are they just accidents of the way thing happened to turn out? We’re meant to be building a bold new society, remember. Could there be a chance to do things differently? Perhaps…

So where do we start?

Well let’s start from first principles: What’s the most basic question we can ask?

How about this?

Why do we have public services in the first place? What’s the point of them?

Are they there to ensure everyone’s most basic needs are met? Or those of the most vulnerable? Or should they help each and every one of us fulfil our greatest potential? If it’s only our basic needs, then what do we regard as ‘basic’?

On earth we seem to have added free wifi and a long battery life to the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But bear in mind that on Mars our basic needs will include not just food, water and shelter, but access to air, heat and protection from radiation.

Can we really indulge in aiming for anything much more advanced?

On the other hand, this mission is meant to be the culmination of mankind’s greatest scientific genius. Would it be a complete waste if our services weren’t geared towards fulfilling our loftiest goals?

Alternatively, if it’s all about protecting the most vulnerable, should it worry us that all the way from the Tudor poor laws to Universal Credit via the Victorian workhouse, the same debate has run on and on about whether you can have welfare policies that protect against destitution but without encouraging dependency? If we haven’t solved it in 500 years what hope do we have now?

Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe it’s much simpler than that.

Perhaps we need public services because they’re the foundation stones on which other things can happen or be built. The essential infrastructure that it’s not in any single group’s interest to pay for, but which everyone needs.

The provision of air, food and water is the foundation for us living at all. Our transport infrastructure is the foundation for being able to move. The infrastructure of our justice system is the foundation for our safety. Our digital infrastructure is the foundation on which we communicate and work.

But, still it feels like I’m missing something. Could the rationale for public services actually be much more profound?

In some ways, don’t we need public services to create our community? We’re trying to build a new Martian state, remember.

But which comes first: the state or its services?

It’s natural to assume that communities form, and then they create services to fulfil their needs. But might it be the other way round?

Doesn’t history show us that providing basic infrastructure like transport is what helps knit communities together that would otherwise remain isolated and distinct? Isn’t it true that having things like post offices, police stations and hospitals across an entire territory become the common icons that make us identify as citizens? And that having people employed as police officers, teachers and nurses builds our collective sense of loyalty and belonging?

In short: might we need some universal public services in order to build a sense of Martian community and identity in the first place?

Without that community, what are we left with?

Clearly there are some good reasons to have services, but on what principles should they be based?

That people get what they need, or what they personally paid for? Haven’t we seen that governments around the world have struggled to fund public services? So maybe we should ration them, or get people to pay. But for which ones?

This reminds me of story I once heard:

There was once a wealthy Roman governor called Marcus Licinius Crassus, who created the world’s first fire brigade. What a guy, you might think. But he was no hero.

Back in his day, Rome was rather prone to fires because of its closely packed buildings and the heat of the Italian summer. Crassus created his brigade of 500 men who would rush to burning buildings at the first sign of trouble… then stand around negotiating a good price before beginning to fight the fire.

I’m inclined to say that might not be desirable on Mars where even the wealthiest amongst us may feel a little more vulnerable when only millimetres separate us from the endless vacuum of space.

Perhaps at least some of our services should be universal and guaranteed. Perhaps you’ll say that’s a political decision.

Ok, how about something we should all agree on: That all service should be designed and built based on evidence of what works.

Aren’t all services based on evidence, you may ask?

Well, let me tell you, you don’t get to a position like mine without at least a brief tour in government and administration. And the picture ain’t pretty.

The norm here is not so much “evidenced-based policy making” as “policy-based evidence making”. Decide what you want to do, then make the facts fit. I’ll give you one example.

A few years ago, across the English speaking world there were a number of initiatives that took troublesome adolescents to prisons so they could meet the inmates, and see for themselves what life on the inside was really like. Scare the hell out of them so they avoid ending up there.

Great initiative. Politicians loved it. And what did the evidence show: well, it proved it did the precise opposite. Show the kids prison and all you do is normalise it. You actually increase their chances of ending up there. And the politicians? Still they loved it.

On Mars we’ll have more data on more things than any society before us. That data will only make a difference if we’re smart enough to act on it.

And just as we’ll have more data from day one, we have access to more technology – extraordinary tools – than any human society has ever before.

But can we agree one more principle: that we as we design our services, we focus first on the outcomes we want before the tools we use to achieve them.

Yes there’s blockchain, but it doesn’t mean we have to have blockchain for social care. Yes we have AI, but it doesn’t mean we have to profile each citizen’s needs and behaviours. Yes we have big data, but doesn’t mean that data captures everything we need to know about a problem.

Whether they’re on earth or Mars, public services deal with the most complex social issues imaginable. Smart tools don’t negate the need for people smart enough to use them in the right ways.

Alright, so what about the people. What about who delivers our services? We’ve established that the norm is to have public servants.

But just because the conventional way of, say, caring for our elderly neighbours is to pay taxes so that someone else can visit them, does it mean it’s the best or only way of doing it?

Hasn’t our experience taught us that government doesn’t have to solve every problem and address every need itself? In fact – that it can’t do that – the problems are just too big. And they matter to all of us.

So might there be a different operating model?

Here on earth we have jury duty: everyone dedicating a few weeks to administering justice for the public good. Why stop at justice? On Mars we could have educating duty; policing duty; caring duty; policymaking duty?

If that’s a little too Utopian for you, and we must have public servants, couldn’t we find ways for them to tap into the knowledge, the expertise, the time and the skills of all of us – of all of you?

It is possible.

I’ve heard of cities whose governments know they don’t have all the answers, and so they announce the problems they’re trying to tackle and engage the whole community in proposing the best solutions.

I’ve heard of cities where they know they have limited budgets and resources, and so they let everyone suggest ideas and vote on how the money is spent.

I’ve heard of health services who know they can’t be everywhere, and so respond to urgent calls for help by sending their own emergency crew; but also use technology to alert trained first aiders in the vicinity of a victim in case they can get there first and save a life. They increase their own effectiveness by intelligently engaging volunteers. Think what else we could apply that to!

I’ve heard of communities who support each other not with carers administered by the state, but by matching those with certain needs with those who can provide for them. Meals for the elderly; shopping for the immobile. Rooms for the homeless. It’s government as dating agency not as service deliverer.

And I’ve heard of governments who are smart enough to realise that in every society there will be groups who care about the issues facing their neighbours and who will happily volunteer their time, or come up with solutions themselves, if only government will support them or get out of their way.

There are other operating models for public services. What a waste it would be if we didn’t learn from these examples.

All in all, I think I’m beginning to realise that designing public services for Mars is not quite as simple as I first thought.

All services are based on choices, and we’ll need to make those choices once more.

You may think it’s far too premature to be worrying about all this. But unless we consider now where we’d like to end up, we risk sleepwalking into something we always wanted to avoid.

On reflection there do appear to be one or two more things I’d better sort before tomorrow.

Right – enjoy tonight’s departure party. Soon you’ll be 250 million miles away from the nearest beer so enjoy your drink, responsibly.

We can pick up this conversation again on our long flight.

For now, thank you for listening to this briefing.

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