If visionaries like Elon Musk have their way, interplanetary connectivity will soon become an important topic for the human race. So, for this article, KPMG International's Richard Threlfall takes a trip into the future and off the planet to try to see what a Mars colony might mean for people, companies and infrastructure providers in an interplanetary society.
I won’t say there wasn’t great surprise when the four BFR Space-X rockets made a near-perfect landing on Mars in 2022. Yes, the cargo – a rudimentary kit designed with no real knowledge of Mars’ atmosphere – was fairly useless. But a rapid succession of other landings over the next two years resulted in a small, yet habitable, series of ‘pods’ spread across a small area of the planet. It was a real foothold. And it was ready for human habitation.
For the first two years, those ‘living’ on Mars were entirely dependent on dispatches from Earth. Everything – from water and oxygen through to building materials and technologies – was shipped in increasingly massive rockets. But that meant that the potential for any real growth was severely limited.
The issue of governance also came to a boil in those first two years. After finally building consensus around the need for the colony to be ‘non-aligned’ politically or nationally, world leaders (both political and business) agreed on the formation of an independent body – the Mars Development Corp or MDC – that would hold responsibility for making the key infrastructure investment decisions for the new colony.
Made up of some of the most brilliant minds on Earth – and representing nearly every region of the world – the MDC’s mandate was to develop and then execute a viable, practical and yet, importantly, equitable development plan for the new planet. While the MDC was structured into distinct ‘working groups’, each member was required to sit on two working group teams to ensure maximum interoperability and collaboration between teams.
Recognizing that our infrastructure challenges on Earth were largely a result of incrementalism and a piecemeal approach to planning, great emphasis was placed on developing the Mars Infrastructure Plan (MIP). All new ideas were welcomed and encouraged. And this led to amazing innovations and models that – ultimately – unlocked the growth potential of the new Mars colony. Prioritization was driven by establishing the long-run, whole-life value for money of alternative investments, which may have cost a bit more at first, but ultimately delivered services to Mars residents at a fraction of the cost they were on Earth.
The Climate, Energy and Water working groups, for example, spearheaded the development of a massive organic ‘climate envelope’ that would keep temperatures within optimal levels for human and plant life, generate energy from geothermal sources and deliver sustainable fresh water through the development of a mini ‘water cycle’, similar to that on Earth.
The Infrastructure and the New Resources Development working groups collaborated to identify elements on Mars that could be adapted for use in 3-D printers. The stronger-than-steel compounds can last up to 500 years without decaying but can also be dissolved and reused when no longer required, giving infrastructure on Mars the flexibility it always lacked on earth. Buildings, technologies, appliances and consumer goods are now all fabricated using locally-sourced materials and power.
The Transportation working group and the Aviation working group agreed that solar-charged drones (of various sizes depending on their role) would be used to transport everything on Mars. “I traveled in a rocket ship for 55 million kilometers to get here; I’m not about to go back to driving a car,” noted the head of one of the working groups. With no need for roads, rails or other hard transport infrastructure, the two working groups eventually combined.
In retrospect, those were some of the easy problems facing the MDC at the time. The bigger challenge (no surprise here) was how all of this development was going to be funded and who was going to 'profit' from it.
In the early days, a wide variety of traditional financing and funding options were suggested and then rejected: government-/taxpayer-funded (too political); user pays (too unaffordable); investor-led (too many risks and little guarantee of returns); developer-led (too unequitable).
What eventually evolved was a hybrid between a Special Economic Zone (initially funded by government grants, investors and 'founding' corporate tenants) and a consumption tax-funded system. Corporations pay for the operation and maintenance of their own infrastructure - though costs are extremely low due to easy access to distributed solar and thermal energy, extraordinarily high levels of automation, and new self-contained water and waste treatment and management systems. Consumption taxes are used to pay for 'shared infrastructure' such as the Space Port and the climate envelope.
The profit question was a bit more sensitive. Given their mandate for equitable growth on Mars, the MDC was keen to ensure that all of the benefits - financial, social and economic - would flow to the human population on both planets. Deep social concerns that Mars would become an 'elitist' society sparked a number of protests on Earth; tensions ran high. Ultimately, a quasi-'sovereign wealth fund' structure was developed to invest a certain proportion of the surplus on Mars back into infrastructure and development projects on Earth. And, for now, the agreement has helped reduce tensions.
What about Earth? It, too, has found ways to leverage the Mars project to improve its own sustainability and prosperity. New technologies - many of which were by-products of the Mars Innovation Initiative - have been developed and implemented to better manage a range of pernicious earthly challenges: climate change, energy security, resource management and natural disasters, to name but a few.
Like other space programs before it, the Mars project catalyzed a massive surge in innovation and innovative thinking across Earth. Entirely new service areas and revenue streams were created almost overnight. The benefits of automation - used so efficiently on Mars - were warmly welcomed by humans who quickly lost their rather archaic fear of machines.
Interestingly, connectivity between the 'blue marble' (i.e. Earth) and the red planet has become less of an issue. Both planets are now (relatively) self-sustaining; any commerce or interaction between the two planets is largely digital. Dozens of low-cost and luxury 'spaceliners' ply the route between Mars and Earth, bringing millions of tourists, business people and new colonists to the planet every year.
Things may be going very well on Mars, but there are still a number of difficult challenges looming on the horizon for humankind. You can almost guarantee that the Mars - Earth Equity debate will once again reappear, most likely once most of the major corporations have relocated to Mars and human jobs on Earth are 'hollowed out'.
Demand for Colonization Permits (largely from retirees seeking a new adventure rather than young families) will soon require the MDC to develop a new spatial planning strategy for the planet - one that will guide development for the next 1,000 years or more. New technologies will also need to be developed and commercialized to deal with a human population at a larger scale.
No doubt there will be other challenges. But, given the massive steps we took and the difficult challenges we overcame in the first few years of the project, I have no doubt that we will solve them with collaboration, innovation and human ingenuity.
As the Secretary General of the UN said when he opened the new terminal at the Mars Space Port, “We set out to Mars to escape the problems of Earth. But, in the end, it was our journey to Mars that helped us solve them.”
The point is that we are now living in an era of massive disruption. And while most of these disruptive forces will be incremental and somewhat predictable, there will also be disruptions that - from today's educated viewpoint - seem wholly unlikely or implausible.
But what if they are not? What if just a small portion of the above story came true? How would that impact your current business models, your forecasts and your long-term vision as a company? How would it influence your planning and investment into new technologies? And, more importantly, how can you start planning for the shifts that you can currently see disrupting your markets?
While he should never be counted out, Mr. Musk's vision of landing humans on Mars by 2024 seems far-fetched. But what if it isn't? What's your plan for the interplanetary era?