Lessons from the “Moving the Future” Conference

A blog post by GMTaC Affiliate Graduate Student Alan Zhang.

Moving the Future is a conference at Harvard Business School hosted jointly by the Aerospace and Aviation Club and Transportation, Infrastructure, and Logistics Club. I attended panel discussions and keynotes led by industry executives, and came away feeling a both hope and anxiety. Rapid advancements are being made in the built environment around and above us, spawning whole new industries while displacing the old at breakneck speed. The focus was on mobility, infrastructure, satellites and the burgeoning aerial and space economy.

In a session titled “Small Players in High Places: Start Ups Operating in LEO”, panelists expressed excitement about the entrepreneurial conquest of Low Earth Orbit. An HBS student and entrepreneur in the audience asked the panelists how startups can make an impact in such a high-capital game. “Focus narrowly” was the unanimous response. “Concentrate all of your resources and talent to perfecting a singular component of the supply chain”, “there is plenty of room in the market” suggested the President of Ursa Major, a startup whose sole objective is making efficient and reliable rocket engines.

 

The keynote on infrastructure was delivered by the Vice Minister of Transport for Argentina. Given the background of national capacity shortages and limited foreign investments, the projects on showcase seemed even more impressive. A strong central government was mustered to overcome internal political corruption and the drought of economic labor, and its efforts slowly encouraged foreign capital to enter Argentina. The past four years have witnessed astonishing growth in airlines, cargo rails, passenger trains, and roads. In addition, digital innovations have been rolled out at a national level to connect people. Citizens can now obtain digital driver’s license built on blockchain technology. SUBE transit cards can be charged on cellphones, and cellphones themselves, using NFC (near-field communication) technology, have become transit passes.

The future of logistics and transportation is complicated by the need for common understanding across industries and sectors. Bootstrapping entrepreneurs and federal governing authorities cannot push forward in isolation. The session on “Building the Drone Economy” emphasized repeatedly the need for public-private regulatory commissions that can foster data sharing and co-create industry standards. Passed in 2017, the Drone Federalism Act was welcomed as a step toward regional autonomy, shifting the regulation of unmanned aerial systems to state, local and tribal authorities.

While rules of engagement may be drawn at local levels, airspace traffic and flight-plan data need still to be shared nationally, perhaps even globally, to be useful. Commercial airplanes, parcel delivery drones, and aerial imaging vehicles are crowding the skies, and the number of independent operators and proprietary control systems are multiplying fast. This opens up room for industry partnerships, collision insurance agencies, risk assessors, asset monitoring firms, and other market stabilizing forces. 

 

The mood of people leaving the conference was positive and hopeful. However, there was also an unmistakable sense of urgency, the feeling that never before have so many opportunities been open for innovation. The startups, businesses, and government representatives in attendance talked mostly of the products they put into the skies, into space, on the ground, or in it. New planes, new satellites, new drones, new self-driving cars, new subterranean hyperloop shuttles. What followed in conversations and discussions, as was probably on the mind of most attendees, was regulation and surveillance. Who will be monitoring the increasingly cluttered spaces of movement, and how?

There was talk about satellite-based cloud solutions and digital twin technologies to process live-data in space that can track aircrafts and spacecrafts. A company in attendance shared its vision of creating a “Google maps” of space that could chart space trajectories, detect anomalies, map maneuvers, compute collision mitigation and debris avoidance paths. Another company demoed its drone-based aerial intelligence product that could create 3D renderings of industrial sites, remote mining zones, and household rooftops. As we populate the land and space with our technologies, it becomes very apparent very quickly that an infrastructure needs also to be built to manage our grounds and our skies.