As history teaches, structural changes within society will produce new societal needs and fundamentally change existing ones. In order for space to respond to these needs in a timely and effective fashion, European policy and decision-makers – both on space and on non-space – will have to make sure that the proper evolution and interface mechanisms are put in place. In this report, ESPI assesses how exactly space can contribute to the challenges and needs of the future European society. The report starts out by looking at space from a general and historic perspective as an environment to benefit humankind. This look reveals that space – and the fields of science and technology of which it is part – interact with society in a dialectic fashion. On the one hand, paradigm shifts regarding innovation have changed the way society approaches space. On the other hand, space itself has played a role in changing humanity, by creating universal understanding and strengthening the processes of globalisation and environmentalism. Looking at the future, it can be expected that this mutual relationship will continue to change society and space utilisation. This non-linear, dynamic development process has to be taken into account when peeking into the future.
Thereafter, the study identifies a set of unfolding mega-trends that are bound to generate profound transformations in the global environment in the decades to come. The most visible appear to be those that relate to the ageing of the European population, the likely growth of urbanisation, the increasing mobility of people, and the consolidation of the information society, and pressures related to the state of the environment and the use of natural resources. In tackling these multiple challenges, space appears to be able to make a strong contribution, and key examples are provided to demonstrate this great potential. It is then analysed how space-based solutions could play an important and at times essential role in responding to future European challenges. New services centered on citizens’ needs could integrate navigation, Earth observation and communications space systems with ground infrastructure. New services may support the creation of better living conditions on Earth through the full implementation of climate change agreements, as well as ensuring the exploitation of integrated mobility solutions and delivering innovative welfare solutions to the ageing European population. But space can also play an essential role in fulfilling the vision of a new European renaissance, supporting the upcoming industrial revolution 4.0 and delivering new transport solutions, such as ultrafast point-to-point transport moving through air and space.
The report builds on these findings to propose a way forward to structurally capture societal needs in the future, looking at the role of some potential instruments that could be developed or used in different ways compared to today. It is proposed to deploy new mechanisms of dialogue not only to qualify societal needs, but also to rank different needs and for measuring the preference intensity of those needs so as to establish preference patterns and truly stimulate the “societal pull”. In order to consistently ensure a successful European strategy in the long term, dedicated investment in an innovative education system embedding space derived data and experiences more fully should also be envisaged in order to prepare the future society to the new challenges ahead, as well to ensure the furtherance of European innovation. In this context, it is also proposed to put in place governance mechanisms that can consistently ensure the alignment between the proposed technological solutions and the needs from which they originate.