In 2007 (which seems like so long ago now), 16 young engineers, technologists and scientists at NASA came together to write a paper (PDF link) about the role of “participatory exploration”. Our goal was to influence NASA senior leadership to adopt a more participatory, collaborative and transparent approach to the way government does business, and to proactively engage citizens to help address the many challenges facing the Agency. We were young, passionate and convinced that if the space agency we loved truly wanted to remain relevant to the world around us, we had to start thinking about things differently.
In that paper we made many great points that still resonate with me today. Here are a few that stand out:
- Participatory exploration allows citizens from outside the NASA workforce, as well as within, to contribute in meaningful ways to their space program.
- Participatory exploration creates a mechanism for NASA to engage non-traditional audiences and to leverage the diversity and volume of this talent in tangible and meaningful ways.
- Participatory exploration is critical for sourcing new ideas, solving difficult problems, and executing the Agency’s mission more efficiently.
- Collaborative web technologies can enhance participatory exploration initiatives by scaling participation and focusing the development of solutions on relevant real world challenges.
- NASA’s public image, and its ability to return value to taxpayers, would benefit immensely from leveraging user-generated content, fostering online collaboration, and publishing content consistently and openly.
- Participatory exploration can help NASA address some of its most pressing challenges, including the changing demographics of the workforce, the effects of globalization, the need to keep pace with accelerating technological innovations, flagging public interest in NASA’s work, and the need to accomplish an increasingly audacious mission with increasingly limited resources.
At the heart of participatory exploration is the basic assumption that to truly accomplish the impossible task NASA is given, we have to develop new ways to enlist citizens everywhere to contribute their time, talent and creativity to help us solve the grand challenges of our time. This is especially true in times of shrinking budgets, constrained resources and increasing demands for a more open and transparent government.
Six years ago we could have never predicted how much the world would change in such a short amount of time. Of the 16 co-authors, only 5 work still at NASA today. The idea of instituting an office for citizen engagement or participatory exploration at NASA, as recommended in the paper, was born and then died almost immediately on the vine. Yet, there has been some forward progress. There still exists a core group at NASA who hold firmly to the goal of opening up the space program to everyone. We press forward with a deep conviction that NASA must innovate on how we innovate and focus on developing technologies that advance humanity into space while more directly involving citizens in developing the solutions. We stubbornly believe that participatory exploration initiatives are invaluable to our future – a future that will be defined by the hackers, engineers, technologists, scientists, designers, artists, educators, and entrepreneurs that will create it.
It’s not only about inspiring the next generation of explorers, its about inspiring today’s scientists and engineers as well – all those brilliant rocket scientists who temporarily put their dream to work for the space program on hold for whatever reason and are ready and willing to contribute if someone would just ask them.
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how best to engage as many people as possible in space exploration and in just 4 days, we will hold our largest experiment in participatory exploration ever. This weekend, more then 6,000 people and 330 organizations from around the world will come together in 83 cities across 42 countries, as well as online, to engage directly in their space program through the International Space Apps Challenge. The event – which will literally be the largest hackathon ever attempted - is the culmination of months of planning, years of experimentation and thousands and thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people across the globe who share in the excitement of building our collective future. It is a shining example that participatory exploration is not only alive and well at NASA, but evolving based on your direct contributions and feedback.
Our space program, more then ever, requires the active engagement of the public to co-create our future. Thank you to all of you who are so selflessly contributing your time, energy and talents and working with others to develop new solutions to our toughest challenges Thank you to those of you who will work with others to hack, build, invent, and remix data, software and hardware all in the name of creating new technology to improve life on Earth and life in space. This weekend will demonstrate the true potential of participatory exploration and what can happen when a government agency like NASA takes a chance on engaging the untapped, unexpected, and uncharted know-how of thousands of passionate citizens around the world.