Build. Back. #1

At the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC) event held on the 23rd October 2020 I presented a few slides. The topic of the event was ‘EO during lockdown’ and my presentation was titled ‘Build. Back. Differently’. The reason I wanted to speak on this was because over the first lockdown period and UK’s brief summer months I had time to think about and investigate a few concepts around doing business in the Earth observation (EO) sector that I found interesting. 

There has been a lot of talk about ‘Build Back Better’ from all sorts of political parties, from the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the UK, Biden in the US, Greens in the UK and Europe, as well as affiliates to socialist parties too. I’ve not checked in any detail, but I’m guessing this message is spreading beyond my narrow assessment of English-speaking political parties. Certainly I’ve noticed that the UN has picked up on the message

But what does ‘Build Back Better’ look like? More to the point, what do we want it to look like? And more to the point again, what could (should?) it look like for the Earth observation sector, which has so much potential to make a real and defined difference?

Indeed, do we require a total change? Certainly in the wider environmental sphere there is a lot of discussion about how the uptake of active travel and the reduction in mechanised transport has been beneficial to many during lockdown. The concern of many is that ‘Build Back Better’ might end at just ‘Build Back’. As some bloke once said “it’s always easier to talk about change than to make it”. [By the way, said bloke was Alvin Toffler (an American writer, futurist, and businessman best known for his works discussing modern technologies, including the digital revolution and the communication revolution, with emphasis on their effects on cultures worldwide)]. 

With that in mind I started to think about what different business models might already exist that could be put to wider use. And in my hunting around, I came across some interesting sites and ideas. For instance, the “Don’t go back to normal” website is a good place to start. Not only does it make suggestions for alternative technologies, but also different ways of sourcing food, banking, making decisions and more. All of the links on that page are well worth following and investigating further – I’ve already switched to some of the suggestions that are made on the site. Not all are suitable in a professional context, but the conceptual thinking behind them could be a good starting point for making meaningful change.

Photo by Yasmina H on Unsplash

So, to build back differently, we need to consider the way things are done, what we or the client or customer wants, and how change can improve the way that is delivered. For instance, the first time I sat down to write this post, my home’s Virgin Media broadband provision had been out of service for over 14hrs. It’s frustrating and inconvenient and despite all the ‘marketing blah’ about how they do their utmost to support their customer, I realised that there is almost nothing I can do apart from wait for it to be fixed. Don’t get me wrong, I am generally satisfied with the speed and uptime for the service, but why does broadband (or any utility) have to be supplied in this old fashioned way? As far as I am aware, there is no issue with the local exchange, or the cables to my home. So why can’t I swap to an up and running provider just for the time I need it? I’d be happy to ’pay as you go’ for the period that my contracted provider was down. Or maybe we don’t need contracts at all. We should be able to move to the service provider that is giving the best service in the area at the time we need that – in fact, why isn’t that the case with all utilities? The bits going down the cable are no different no matter who is the provider, the only difference is the server at the end of the cable and who bills you. Indeed, the concept of peer-to-peer trading of electricity which is currently being developed and trialled will potentially allow just this – an automated way to deal with relatively complex billing, but which should provide a better service overall.  

Could such models be used in Earth observation? I would argue that for such a technical sector the actual business models that are most widely implemented by EO companies (at least those I am most familiar with) are reasonably conservative. There is certainly an opportunity, post Covid-19 and (possibly as a response to our good friend Brexit in the UK) to shake things up a bit and have a discussion about how business models and revenue generation could be changed. There is so much technical innovation in the sector that maybe some commercial innovation would work well alongside it. In part, the success of any changes is down to an open mindset by customers, funding bodies and the rest of the EO sector.

As the ‘#1’ in the title of this post alludes to, I am thinking of writing a short series of posts about this topic, so I will halt here and pick up some of my thoughts in a subsequent blog.