Shooting for the Moon: How can we make Social Missions as inspiring as Space Missions?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Medium on January 21, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

In the last couple of months, the world has seen the successful SpaceX ORBCOMM-2 launch and landing, heard US Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘moonshot to cure cancer’, and witnessed the unsuccessful SpaceX attempt to land first stage of the JASON-3 rocket on a drone ship.

Now, I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but a quick check on Twitter shows that Joe Biden’s cure for cancer moonshot announcement received 1,792 retweets and 4,307 favourites while Elon Musk’s successful landing announcement received 5,494 retweets and a whopping 11,100 favourites. I’d argue that far more people are impacted by cancer than they are about the future of space exploration. So this delta is intriguing for me, and raises a variety of questions.

How might social moonshots be as inspiring and compelling as, well, actual moonshots? What if we followed social missions as closely as space missions? What if we embraced social mission failures as learnings, in the same way as we did the recent unsuccessful drone ship landing?

As a trained aerospace engineer, having worked in the field for a few years and now working on things that help us do good better, I’m intrigued by these questions. There is such excitement, inspiration, and sense of possibility during a space mission launch. So where’s the wonder during a social mission launch?

I believe social missions can be as compelling and as inspiring for the future as space missions. For anyone who’s passionate about solving the world’s toughest problems, there are a number of course corrections (see what I did there) that we must consider for the future of social impact to be an exciting and inspiring one. Here are 10 ways that come to mind:

1. The narrative can’t be one of scarcity. 

People don’t say space exploration is needed because Earth has a scarcity problem or it needs fixing. This is almost never the narrative. It’s always been about extending human potential and building human capability. However, the narrative in the social impact space falls under “not having enough X” or “fixing Y.” Entire campaigns are built and run on this narrative.

The take-away: The scarcity narrative isn’t an inspiring one.

2. It’s about high-risk and high-value. 

There is a recognition of the quantum of investment and risk that’s needed to build a vehicle that can reach outer space. There is no room for ‘drip funding.’ One doesn’t hear, “Let’s commit to fins this year, perhaps guidance system next year, and maybe nose cone the year after. And to qualify for year 2, submit a report on how the fins are doing.”

The take-away: It’s easy to get distracted by drip funding but this often leads us to mediocre and piecemeal, not high-value solutions.

3. Find a sustained energy source. 

A sustained energy source is required for long space missions. Flying by Pluto takes time. In fact, New Horizons launched in 2006 and it only approached Pluto in mid-2015 — almost 10 years later. So, the spacecraft must be designed with the ‘right-sized’ energy source that can deliver on the mission as well as mild course-corrects, and not with a source that can only get it half-way. Spacecraft are built to mission and ambition specs.

The take-away: Building to ambition specs is inspiring.

4. Celebrate escape velocity (output), not securing the parts (input).

Reaching escape velocity (minimum speed for a spacecraft to break free from gravitational pull of Earth) is everything in a launch. This is celebrated by everyone. However, in social change, there exists a strange practice of, to use a food analogy, congratulating the chef for getting the ingredients. This is not inspiring.

The take-away: Let’s be mindful of celebrating inputs and be present to celebrate reaching escape velocity.

5. Jettison items that no longer add value. 

In space missions, the payload is exactly what is required (weight is everything) and in cases where redundancy is needed, extra equipment is worked in. When something is no longer relevant, it is shut down or jettisoned. Obsolescence is part of the design of a mission. Space missions cannot afford to service obsolete items or items that no longer add value as it might jeopardize the mission. However, more often than not, social programs and services are built with a sense of permanence in mind.

The take-away: We must design-in active obsolescence management such that programs and services stay relevant and inspiring.

6. Share the mission in real-time. 

Major space launches have been broadcasting live ever since live broadcasts were possible on TV and then on the internet. Today, anybody from anywhere in the world (this is key) can go to NASA’s website to get updates on any active missions. Launches, delays, blow ups, lost communications — you can see it all. In social change work, much of real-time progress is shielded, progress is typically shared in a closed-loop fashion with funders or donors. We have become accustomed to shield experiments, failures or delays from the public.

The take-away: When we share by default, we inspire.

7. Build with foresight. 

SpaceX could easily make a compelling business case just launching satellites — and potentially accelerate reaching profitability. Instead, they have decided that this isn’t enough. They bring a high degree of foresight to their work. SpaceX doesn’t just want to launch satellites the way we know how to do it today, but set the pace and build for how space missions might happen 25 years from now.

The take-away: If we build for how we want social programs 25 years from now, we would inspire millions.

8. Use natural forces as a slingshot. 

Gravity is our friend but can also be a nightmare. Once we reach Earth’s escape velocity however, gravity can be amazing and be used to our advantage — to boost the spacecraft farther and save energy. In space missions, everything (even natural forces) are viewed as assets. With an open mind, and a bit of creativity, we can look beyond classic forms of assets for social change. We could flip something that might appear to be a nightmare in one context but could act as a ‘gravity boost’ in another to advance the mission.

The take-away: Assets are everywhere in social missions.

9. Design to dock with a larger system. 

Interoperability is critical in space missions. Europeans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese and Americans all contribute components to the International Space Station. The parts are designed a bit like LEGO pieces — they are designed to “dock or connect” with one another. This level of interoperability makes platforms like the Space Station possible. Imagine organizations in different sectors working toward a shared social change ambition designed projects, programs or interventions with interoperability as a core function…we might have shared knowledge, shared assets, and shared human capital. We might even look at liabilities, governance, empathy, and risks in a shared way.

The take-away: Interoperability levels the playing field, gives us all peripheral vision, and allows us to bring our best ‘LEGO pieces’ to solving complex problems.

10. Steward ambition. 

People might come and go but leadership around an ambition stays. It is rare that a long-term space mission, like New Horizons gets unmonitored or falls to the bottom of the ambition stack upon change in people. Nothing is protected 100% of course, as there are always economical, political, and other factors at play. However, there is a recognition that space missions require a sustained level of ‘ambition stewardship’ by a variety of actors, and that a “start, stop, start” approach causes disruptions that ultimately causes setbacks to the mission.

The take-away: What if we moved beyond the 1 year, 2 year or 3 year support approach in social change and curated ambition commitments that last 10 or 15 years? This is inspiring.

This note is a thesis. My intention is to push us to disrupt ourselves, and to provoke a more nuanced way of thinking about our practice of generating social change. I hope you can use this to reflect on how you might make your social moonshot more inspiring, engaging, and compelling.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jason Pearman.
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Vinod Rajasekaran About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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