When people start new efforts, there’s normally a combination of drivers. There’s a problem to solve, a stakeholder group to serve, a possibility to reach, a win-win cycle to set in motion, a long term future to move the needle towards, and more.
It’s typical for the beginning of something to be motivated by a specific idea or image of the future, and a nicely constructed narrative of what could be achieved. As someone who has helped countless initiatives get their start, through incubators, labs, networks, mentorship, granting, fellowships and direct co-founding—I am sensitive to the trap that is easy to fall into where you pursue an idea that frankly ‘sounds good’. I’m also sensitive to the reality that people who are good at pitching get a lot of airtime, and entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily meritocratic.
Our focus at Open Lunar is creating impact toward a future on the Moon that we are all proud of, not just adding more to the lunar ecosystem for the sake of its growth. So, we place high expectations upon ourselves to apply diligence and intellectual honesty to our decisions of what to pursue and build. It’s important to us to look at what is going to meet a need, what’s realistic, and what will have the necessary leverage to have the intended effect. Our processes help us avoid pitfalls of investing in things which we’re excited about, and ensure we’re serving both long term outcomes and today’s stakeholders.
It isn’t possible to know what will work before trying something. There are some factors that you can make good estimates of, but ultimately, low-cost iteration is the effective route to validating or invalidating your assumptions. This again requires and reinforces the value of being honest with yourself about the difference between something that has legs and something that you have convinced yourself is a good idea.
All of this is baked into Open Lunar’s innovation process. We’re incredibly mindful of balancing rigour and action, and keeping our portfolio of projects moving while also applying a critical eye.
This post will expand on the very beginning of our process: Downselecting from a backlog of Ideas to Hunches worth dedicating research fellowships to. This begins by making a big pile of ideas sourced from across our community of multidisciplinary, global experts. Each idea is a candidate for an effort which could increase the likelihood of creating a peaceful, collaborative future on the Moon. We’ve recently compiled our big list for 2023 and assessed it with our community. We’ll walk you through that soon.
First, a slice of history.
A Living Method
It’s 2018, and we're sitting in an industrial office in downtown San Francisco in SOMA, with space agency executives, astronauts, space company CEOs, space investors, lunar science experts and engineers. Some have flown in, some are on Zoom. Laptops and snacks are strewn across a huge table. It’s a Sunday morning because that’s when people are available to think together and include folks in Europe. The discussion is about the issue of mitigating dust effects from landings on the lunar surface and the damage to other machinery. It’s also about the importance of uncovering the ground-truth data on water ice presence in PSRs. We’re uncovering the gaps in propulsion types that are available that supply the correct delta-V for translunar injection for small spacecraft. Open Lunar as an organisation and as a community is grappling with the dissonance between the actors wanting to mine lunar resources while others want untouched research parks. Neither CLPS nor the Artemis Accords exists yet, and the Lunar XPrize is keeping lunar startups alive. Within just these handful of topics exists a staggering amount of complexity, needs, barriers, and so lists and lists of ideas are being generated, discussed, and written down about how to address it all.
We used to meet like this once a month, and deliberately research and evaluate the potential of different approaches in the intervening weeks. Over time, we would hone in on things which looked more promising, and take a run at them. We would hire a small swat team, find partnerships and deploy minimum viable funding to get something moving enough to know if it was workable. All the while, we would continue to simmer on the curated backlog of projects awaiting the right timing, people and resources.
Throughout these conversations we developed first a system called a “Precedents Matrix” and then later an “impact on investment” analysis which helps to surface what activities a “third space” organisation could show important leadership in to set positive precedents. What is better done by a nimble, neutral, values driven non-profit than SpaceX or ESA or NASA? What is small enough yet powerful enough that an acupunctural effect would ripple across the sector if we apply our effort? What would genuinely help and not duplicate the work of others and all our allies running in a similar direction?
Interestingly, the issues that tend to rise to the top were not similar to each other at all. To improve and support an enormous ecosystem of global interdisciplinary actors co-creating our shared future in space, you can’t just build a lander or start a think-tank and expect it will be a silver bullet for nudging the entire community towards a peaceful, cooperative lunar future. Therefore, since 2018, Open Lunar has convened policy dialogue coalitions, built lander architectures, advocated for open standards, built novel legal solutions, assembled databases and architectures, invested in propulsion companies, and more.
Now jump back to today in 2023, where Open Lunar is home to a humming innovation pipeline of community driven projects funded iteratively to create lunar stewardship in practice. We know we want to demonstrate good governance, responsible resource access, prevent monopoly and other priorities. We know how to down-select projects that fit our niche. We know how to methodologically assess about thirty project ideas per year, internally.
And now we’re opening it to a more collaborative community process.
A Community with Criteria
For an idea to be worth graduating to a “hunch” in our pipeline, it needs to meet our impact criteria. These criteria evolve a little each year, and will continue to change in years to come based on lessons learned and sector insight. When ideas score highly on these criteria and progress to being a hunch, it means they are allocated a part-time researcher to conduct a Fellowship dedicated to that topic. We don’t jump straight to building the solution, that comes later after feasibility is assessed. Up front, the impact criteria simply helps determine a project’s raw potential for impact.
The criteria we have today to assess potential for impact is 9 points, they are:
Increasing the Responsible Stewardship of Resources: This criterion measures the project’s role in promoting the responsible use and management of lunar resources.
Developing Effective Non-State Commons Management: This measures the extent to which the project supports a management model that involves multiple stakeholders, such as non-governmental organizations and the international community, in the governance of common resources. Non-State Commons Management refers to managing shared resources like the lunar surface or space, in a way that is not solely controlled by any government but involves collaborative stewardship.
Avoiding Monopolies & Increasing Diversity of Access of Resources: This evaluates how the project ensures that lunar resources and opportunities are accessible to a diverse range of entities and not dominated by a single organization or country. It encourages equitable participation and prevents the monopolization of resources.
Increases Governance Capacity for Commons and Public Goods: This focuses on the mechanisms and ability to govern shared resources effectively. It involves creating structures, policies, and institutions that can manage and oversee the use of resources such as lunar minerals or data for the greater good.
Cooperation and Conflict Reduction: This criterion measures how the project contributes to fostering cooperation among different stakeholders involved in lunar activities, and how it addresses and reduces potential conflicts that might arise from the use of common resources.
Shared, Open Access Infrastructure/ Resources: This evaluates the project’s ability to develop infrastructure and resources that are openly accessible to various stakeholders. This can include data, research findings, or physical assets that can be shared for collaborative benefit.
Relevance/Readiness at the Present Moment (Readiness + Long Termist Outlook as an Exceptional Option): This criterion gauges the project’s alignment with current needs and its preparedness for the long term. Evaluating"Relevance" is determining how well the project addresses the existing demands or challenges of lunar exploration and development. The "Readiness" aspect considers whether the sector has the necessary interest to support effectively implementing a solution in the immediate term. On balance, the “Long Termist Outlook” aspect involves examining whether this strategy may make a sustained impact and continue to address evolving needs and challenges in the future.
Non-Duplication and Unique Value: This criterion assesses whether the project offers something novel or significantly different from existing efforts, ensuring that it adds unique value and doesn’t simply replicate what others are doing.
Addresses a market failure: Evaluates the additional value created by the project being led by a non-profit. This could include greater transparency, community engagement, or social impact that may not be present in a for-profit initiative.
Right now we’re processing around 22 peoples’ scores for 34 ideas. This will all be pulled together and analysed by our team. Making sense of the results and deciding what research we will invest in from September – April is the focus of our staff efforts internally. Please keep an eye out for our updates on what hunches we will be focusing on.
As we do this, we learn so much. With criteria like this, some projects score well on many criteria and yet can be vastly different from each other. We’re looking forward to narrowing down to a set of hunches that will add value to the lunar ecosystem in 2024. If you want to learn more about how our whole pipeline operates, please check out the blog on our innovation process overall.
Enter the Dojo
Thanks for all your interest and support of Open Lunar as we craft our process to its highest efficacy. We hope that communicating more about how we operate will enable us to find allies, supporters and talented individuals who may wish to jump into this work alongside us and join this dojo of rigorous, iterative, impact.
Your best point of contact for getting involved in this part of our work is to have a conversation with Rachel Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org), our Innovation Program Coordinator at Open Lunar.
Thanks to the members of our Board, Fellows, Affiliates and community who made the time to rank and assess the merit and fit of ideas in the 2023 July Ideas to Hunches process. We’ll share the results soon!