Oxford-Cambridge Arc: Space, Satellites & Sustainability

Co-author Neil Gridley


The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is a world-leading innovation district combining nine universities, industry, business and government. It represents the forefront of the UK’s capacity to meet the economic, environmental and social challenges of the future.

This ecosystem of organisations are working to identify opportunities, big ideas and policy direction for the development of the UK space sector. The goals are to drive meaningful change that will unlock future economic growth, respond to our climate crisis and support inclusive and sustainable growth nationally.

Steve Lee and Neil Gridley were invited by Lois Fulton and Dr Simon Jackman to design and facilitate discussions and activities through six innovation workshops that would create several ambitious proposals (our ‘Big Bets’) to propose as business cases for investment to the UK Government.

The UK space sector has tripled in size since 2000, and remains a government priority post-brexit. With the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference approaching, there is a climate change imperative that must be met. At time of writing, the project had just won funding amongst the participating universities and support from the UK Catapult to take the ideas forward to COP26 and a full business case to the UK Government.

Dr Simon Jackman has kindly provided supporting quotes throughout.


Three areas of focus for the future direction of the UK space industry were selected to drive thinking and activities. Each area featured two workshops to bring together diverse expertise, organisations and backgrounds and apply innovation methods and tools – the first workshop of each area seeking to think expansively, and the second to evaluate and focus on fewer, more robust possibilities to propose to the government. The starting points for each of these three areas, and the initial ideas that emerged from them is described below:

Image: Unsplash

Using data from space and Artificial Intelligence to enable improved environmental management. By monitoring the resources and habitats of our environment, we can keep an ever more informed eye on humanity’s impacts, and how we can best manage and support our ecosystems and achieve net zero goals. 

  • Supporting Nature Recovery: Real time monitoring of degrading (or improving) natural resources and ecosystems.
  • Sustainable Me: Connecting consumerism to climate change by empowering individuals and organisations with relevant information so that they can act consciously and responsibly.
  • Sustainable Finance and Policy: Finance and policy incentives and direction to make climate change embedded in our wider systems and behaviour of our businesses

Image: Google Creative Commons

Connecting devices and systems: From communications to the Internet of Things to autonomous cars and energy systems. By stepping up as a provider of information infrastructure in orbit and on the ground, the UK can enable smart systems, smart cities and reduce waste and inequalities across regions and nations.

  • IoT networks supported from space: In the future all IoT devices will use a space-based WAN infrastructure that is available globally. You can manage devices in your home from your workplace, and vice versa, or even from the other side of the world.
  • Addressing the Digital Divide: Connectivity for all, regardless of location or income. Improving access to digital networks in rural areas and supporting technology breakthroughs that can fix market failures and redress regional inequalities.

Image: Unsplash

UK launch, return and in-space capabilities: By providing more capability and better technologies in orbit, we can better support our daily activities which increasingly depend upon them. As the number of objects in orbit around the Earth increases exponentially, safeguarding these sensitive devices and removing ‘space junk’ becomes more vital.

  • Monitoring and Removing Objects in Orbit: Satellite based sensors and systems that provide an additional vantage point to collect and process data on other objects in orbit. Active Debris Removal (ADR) to chase, catch, move, assemble, disassemble, and then safely dispose of large items in orbit.
  • Robotic Manufacturing in Orbit: Reducing the need to send people, equipment and even materials into space by iteratively creating both a factory in space (for materials and manufacturing developments) and a staging post in Low Earth Orbit – to enable training and autonomous robotic operations. 


Due to the pandemic, these workshops were all conducted online – reflecting a wider trend of hybrid working and playing to the strengths of both working remotely and in person. As facilitators and designers, we can see many trade-offs, workarounds and new possibilities in using platforms such as Miro and Zoom, and combining the best elements of remote and online programmes to play to the strengths of both.

Each of the six workshops began as discussions with the core team around the objectives, which could be broken down into different activities that formed a coherent journey from the participant’s perspective. Before each workshop, we would walk through a draft Miro board and deck, checking the logic of the activities, and refine where we saw moments where participants could possibly get lost or go too far off-piste. 

We combined videos, slideshows and documents on the subject matter needed to bring everyone up to speed with active sessions to get people discussing, creating, refining, debating, evaluating, voting and reflecting. Each activity was designed and carefully calibrated in advance to be clear in its use and function, and considerate of the different interpretations, interactions and eventualities that could come of it each time we went live.

The facilitator experience had to also be taken into account, as multi-tasking multiplied the applications, screens and devices we each had in front of us from our home offices. Not exactly Nasa’s control room, but headed in that direction. Sidebar conversations between facilitators are key in workshops to ensure that course-corrections can be made quickly, and for this we used a separate Whatsapp room which was a lifeline during breakout room sessions to compare progress and offer advice.

Each workshop was individually designed on Miro to best facilitate discussions and decision-making

Two Insights on Expansive and Contractive Thinking Online

  1. Online working helps to democratise discussion and processes and elicit insights and ideas from more people

Expansive thinking – generating questions, challenges, ideas and observations to build our field of collective knowledge and add detail to the objectives – benefits in some areas through being online. This is particularly true for the democratising effects of levelling the more vocal, extroverted and even dominant participants with the more pensive, introverted and passive members. All can provide amazing insights and ideas, but as we know from many years’ experience, creating the right in-person environment, tone and mechanisms to encourage this is a delicate and dynamic balance.

“The sorts of the approaches you designed for us worked brilliantly because…academics, industry, everybody can work like that. That process of leading us through the steps and activities – and many times that’s not the case – you find that if you’re doing this in a room there’s a danger of other people over-talking and others not participating.

“The approach allowed everyone, no matter how quiet or noisy you are, to have their say – sometimes even this in a physical setting doesn’t work because of dynamics and I would say this worked even better. And that can work with academia and industry where you have different personality types- where there are gentler or quieter people for whom the thinking is clear and they have got really good ideas, but you don’t always get those in a setting where people talk [in plenary].”

-Dr. Simon Jackman

  1. Online working provides compromises and opportunities for convergent thinking

Co-creating in person lends itself well to synthesis and convergent thinking. We can collaborate and/or show in real-time the editorial decisions that are being made and why, so that people are included or can at least see the broader strategic principles and criteria being applied. Crucially, this provides the wider audience with a more tacit understanding of the direction of the project in a more meaningful way than, say, the opening slides of an online session. Should there be valuable offshoot discussions, or challenges to the direction, it is easier when in the room to provide the physical time and space, and regroup people on the fly to accommodate and capture the thinking.

With our online workshops, strategic breaks and sidebar discussions were used to bring together the core team and discuss any course-corrections needed, or whether the session was unfolding within the parameters we expected.

In order to accommodate deviations from the core thread through the online sessions, it was important for us to have back-up exercises and activities in our ‘back pockets’ should we need to call upon them. Preparatory sessions included discussions on what different alternate routes the sessions could take.

In this sense, there is less organic flexibility to online sessions, often due to the time needed to set up online models and interfaces for discussion, or seeking to avoid eroding the participant experience online. But this process of preparing for different eventualities also was valuable for the core team to think through and sharpen in advance exactly what we were asking and expecting of our participants. Everything required more care and empathy.

“I regard the workshops as a great success – the right balance of structure, pace and style was crucial to that – to keep people moving without being exhausting [particularly while working online / on Miro]. That zooming in and out and alternating ways of doing things…really helped move things forward and get some clarity to what we were going to focus on.

“The process led to more robust and rounded understanding and proposals of what to do…if you think about it as designing better outcomes it certainly, certainly did that, and allowed for a lot more discussion between people, so you’re bringing people up to speed with an area quite rapidly.”

-Dr. Simon Jackman

Image: SpaceX


The objective of the programme was to develop robust, sustainable ideas and the business cases behind them in order to  secure investment and improve our society, economy and environment across the UK and globally. The aim of these workshops in particular was to build awareness, consensus and momentum amongst participating institutes, organisations and individuals so that the ideas would build on the unique strengths and capabilities of the ARC.

How the ideas and areas developed through the programme are being received:

“[The evidence base we created through the programme means that] definitely the planetary stewardship work on how we look after our planet…and providing data to bring the financial sector more into sustainability are high priority with the Government, and are felt very strongly with COP26 approaching. It has also helped reflect [with regards to] spacecraft: What is it that the Arc does that adds value to the rest of the UK? [This includes] the smart bits that go into spacecraft, which comes into the management of the space environment area, which includes data, AI and other relevant technologies.

“We put together good pitches for government and spoke to ministers, leaders and the vice chancellors of each universities…We were able to connect the work to what the Arc means [in terms of our space industry capacity] to the region, what’s going on with green aviation and life sciences and developing vaccines and drugs.”

“We can definitely say that the reputation that we generated through your workshops has led to the further funding that we got…equivalent to 300-400k in cash and resources.

“[Chief Executive of the Arc Group] Bev Hindle came along to the workshops and thought they were so brilliant that he kept telling people about them afterwards – he loved it and thought they were a great way of moving things forward – for people like that it was/..an important step for me that this project was being well run and exciting and that is in no small measure down to yourselves.”

-Dr. Simon Jackman

What difference the workshops have made to the momentum of the programme:

“[The workshops] generated a helpful kickstart to all this…some people on this programme are already working together more. There have been partnerships and proposals put forward that I think wouldn’t have happened without these workshops.

“You enabled us to do something we couldn’t have done on our own, and you were very agile and flexible as things changed – to have people we can trust…from day one you had a handle on it – that’s really critical for someone in my role, where I know the system but I’m quite time poor, and I can’t spread myself too thin!

“I think that the workshops we did were a really good learning point for me to use this sort of approach more in future – and I will in future…be able to structure a process more like this.”

Image: Unsplash


Having now secured extra funding and resources, the business cases for the initial ideas are being developed for government consideration in a year that greets the UN Climate Change Conference COP26; the largest summit on sustainability and the environment that the UK has ever hosted. Immediate outcomes of this programme that illuminate the path towards COP26 and beyond are:

  • 8 robust opportunity areas – ready to further develop the business case 
  • Further funding equivalent to 300-400k in cash and resources
  • Knowledge and awareness spread further because of the Chief Executive of the Arc Group’s positive experience when joining in our sessions 
  • New partnerships and proposals put forward that wouldn’t have happened without these workshops
  • A blueprint for future collaborative working sessions

The dawn of the space sector was defined by the romanticism of outward exploration, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Apollo program. In 1968, the environmental movement was catalysed by the Earthrise photograph, taken from the surface of the moon and showing our delicate blue sphere suspended in nothingness. Today many more devices look back toward the Earth than out into space. It is this introspection, from the monitoring of our planet’s changing weather, climate and terrain, to experimenting in orbit and communications satellites that have enabled forward leaps in our society and have shaped the last half century. As COP26 approaches, it is this understanding of ourselves and our actions on the planet which holds the key to saving it.

Image: Nasa – Earthrise, William Anders

Cover Image: SpaceX