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Peter W Singer, Managing Partner at Useful Fiction, on the power of storytelling to produce change in the space sector.

How does narrative and non-fiction products help organizations tell their important and real stories in space? Find out with Peter W Singer.





Peter W Singer is a strategist at a nonprofit think tank called New America, and also a managing partner at Useful Fiction- a company that brings together narrative and non-fiction products to help organizations better tell their important and real stories. 

You can follow Peter on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus Space Daily podcast. Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content that takes a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program. We hope you enjoy. Now, today, we're joined by Peter W Singer. Peter is a strategist at a nonprofit think tank called New America, and also a managing partner at Useful Fiction -- a company that brings together narrative and nonfiction products to help organizations better tell their important and real stories. Peter is also a futurist, with some really fascinating perspectives on how all kinds of technology, including cybersecurity and space technology, could be used in commerce or conflict in the future. We start with Peter's take on what useful fiction does.

>> Peter W Singer: So maybe the way to go after it is is with a story. My background is that I've written a number of nonfiction books on topics that range from cybersecurity to robotics, the future of warfare. And yet, it was when I teamed up a friend and now my business partner, August Cole -- who was the defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal. So had done a lot of space work as well. We teamed up and we wrote a novel called Ghostly. Ghostly was a novel that imagined what war between the US and China and Russia might look like. But it's different in that the form of the novel was really a way of sharing nonfiction research. It was a novel but with 27 pages of footnotes. And every single technology in it, every single trend, even some of the quotes from the characters were actually pulled from the real world. It had a very important space element to it, helping to introduce to readers both, you know, what's going on in space, particularly Chinese efforts, but also the importance of space to not just the modern economy but to the military. And that if there are vulnerabilities there, it could very much hamstring the US military. What happened is that book, it sold well, but even more, it ended up having a greater policy impact than any of our nonfiction products. We were invited to share its real-world lessons everywhere from the White House to invited to testify to Congress four different times to briefings on the deck of aircraft carriers, you name it. What was really interesting, and this points to the power of story, is that it wasn't just briefings on, you know, share the real-world lessons, change policies. There were three different government investigations launched to keep things that happened in our novel, our useful fiction, from coming true. So, you know, it didn't predict the future but prevented a future. The flipside is there were a couple of programs launched to make things in the book come true, most notably a $3.6 billion Navy ship program that they titled Ghostly. Gave me zero dollar for it. But what came out of it is that we realized that there was effect that could happen when you bring together the power of the oldest communication technology of all, story, but apply it to nonfiction, apply it to real-world problems. And so we launched a business around it. We basically do two things. We'll take organizations' white papers, strategy reports, conference proceedings, anything that an organization think is really important but isn't connecting well with their target audience, and we'll take that and turn it into a scenario; turn it into a story. And then the second thing is that we run leader training conferences on how to do strategic narrative.

>> Maria Varmazis: Thank you for the intro. I appreciate that. And yeah, there's so much going on in space, especially in this new space era that we're in. And you were mentioning earlier that you've done some work for both the DoD and for the conference Inter Astra. Can you tell us a little bit about the items that you did there?

>> Peter W Singer: Inter Astra, if folks are not familiar with it, is a really fantastic conference on exploring the present and future of space. People behind it are Che and Charlie Bolden. Che, former Marine officer turned just wonderful business entrepreneur. And then Charlie Bolden, you now, former head of NASA, astronaut, Marine, general, you name it. So they created this event. It was different in that it brought together a wider set of people than certainly is the norm that I've experienced, where you had folks from across the space industry. And so that, you know, means not just the big companies, you know, the traditional government contractors, the new big entrants, I mean, people know their names. But also a lot of small companies from around the world. But they also had people with backgrounds that range from, you know, working on new science products in everything from food to energy that all have space applications, researchers, to experts in space law, to creative types. Also, a lot of folks from government, software companies, you name it. It was after trying to drive a different conversation related to space. And so what we did for them is two things. One, we created a different kind of pre-read. They identified a couple of key issues that they wanted their conference to explore, had different panel tracks around it. One was around the questions of the future space looking outward but looking back -- what benefit will it cause for planet Earth for the rest of us, not just for a small number of individuals? Because if it doesn't, then we have a very different discussion around the space economy. Another was about who is in the future of space, relates to diversity questions. And a third was around questions of future competition and even conflict in space, and how do we keep it from ruining it for the rest of us. How do we manage that? You know, and that's everything from great power rivalry to, you know, space situational awareness and deconfliction. So what we did before the conference is took those themes, took those nonfiction nuggets, and turned it into both a short story and some visual artwork that essentially envisioned the future of space. We told them through a -- essentially it was a fake newspaper profile of a space entrepreneur 30 years out. So it was a woman who's in the space business. She's imagined, but through this almost like a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, you know, meet so and so, who is this new, interesting person. And there were some artwork for it as well. But through telling her story, we kind of built her off of both real-world people in the space economy today but also the story of Levi Strauss. So, you know, if space -- if the hope is that it's the next gold rush, right, some people struggled, a lot of people did not. And the same thing's happening in the real space economy right now. But kind of the long-term effect where the people like Levi Strauss, that went out there and said, I'm not going to be a miner, I'm going to create a hardware store. Oh, by the way, I'm going to supply the miners what they need. Oh, by the way, I come up with a new different kind of product, blue jeans, and that's how I make it. And so I don't want to give away the whole story, but it's kind of around structures and regulate, which is like not as exciting as rare Earth minerals, but.

>> Maria Varmazis: Pretty cool, though.

>> Peter W Singer: Yeah, cool stuff. But through my telling her imagine story, you got those themes that they wanted people thinking about, engaging with, before they got there. And then it also allowed people in attendance to reference something in the conversation. So the cool thing of this event and, you know, similar conferences, you get people from a lot of different backgrounds, but that means they don't have as many shared experiences. And so what you can do is give them what we call a synthetic experience where they can say, oh, it's just like in that story when. And the other people like, yeah, I know that. So we both did support on the front end. And then what we're doing now for them is after effect. So there were three days of, you know, really great conversations. And what we've done is taken those thematic conversations and turned those into narratives. So what are the important findings of bringing together all these great people? You know, you can generate out a conference report, and those are great. But, you know, most people don't read conference reports. So we turn those into stories that envision it in a manner that strikes home. So one was on the concerns among people from across the space industry that if we don't figure out deconfliction and space situational awareness, you know, it's going to ruin it for the rest of us. That accidents could cause major, major affects. A subtheme on that was, hey, US, you need to have a little bit of modesty. You've been a space leader, but you're not the only player. And if you don't watch out, you could not be one of the leaders of this next conversation. And so kind of taking some of those themes, we built out a scenario that is in a -- it's a post-mild Kessler effect.

>> Maria Varmazis: Mild Kessler. So somewhat usable LEO?

>> Peter W Singer: But that's actually -- there's the general view of Kessler effect, which is like, we'll never be able to use space forever. And the scientist would say say, actually, it's not really like that. And so it's the way like a space expert would reference it as opposed to like sci-fi. And so it's in the wake of it, and it's at an international negotiation, where a lot of what happens in, you know, real-world arms and control, you don't get the negotiation until after the bad day. But it's told from the story of, the negotiation is happening in Africa, area of kind of future space economy. But it's told from the perspective of the US government ambassador, who's sort of on the sidelines of this event, because they've been blamed in part for why things went bad. And so the other new space powers, both private sector but also the Africas, the Brazilian Space, they're basically like, hey, you in Russia, you had your time. You're still in there, but we're not going to let you lead the conversation anymore. And so it's just, again, we're not saying this will happen. It's solely to give someone a way to visualize, to understand, hey, what would a Kessler effect really look like? When you say Kessler effect, what would it mean for industry; what would it mean for telecom, etcetera? And then the second part, hey, when we say there's a world where the US might not be leading the conversation, it's we basically took the experience that US negotiators have at like certain environmental treaties and replicate that on the space side. And say, hey, this has happened in environment, where you're on the sidelines; this could happen for you in space negotiations. And that's why you don't want it to happen, right? So I know I've -- but like the result of that -- that scenario came out of multiple hours of the space leaders meeting and talking about these issues and then, you know, these are the prime things they said, nonfiction, we want to share with people. We want them to understand risk of Kessler effect, but also not the crazy sci-fi version of it.

>> Maria Varmazis: Grounded in reality, yes.

>> Peter W Singer: Yeah. We want them to understand, you know. A different one was on it was about the role of crowdsourcing and space projects. And so we created a scenario to tell about it. And the idea was, you know, from the space economy side, we're learning new means of using the wider public not just as an enthusiast but like to be part of space missions. And so that's cool. That's exciting. Let's envision. Okay, what does that mean? What would it look like in execution?

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back after this quick break.

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Given that especially Russia has said within the last year that commercial targets in space are kind of a valid target in a war situation, should private organizations be going through wargaming scenarios kind of like what you described? And if so, what does that look like?

>> Peter W Singer: Yeah. So I think there's two types of wargaming, so to speak, that needs to happen. And it's a parallel. I know you've got a cybersecurity background. It's a parallel for any company that's, you know, working in cybersecurity, but now, frankly, you know, any major corporation that might be touched by geopolitical events. And I think there's two parts particularly to the space economy. There first are the issues of, you know, what are your assets up there; and what are the potential threats to them? Because, bluntly, you are -- whether we want to have kind of a legal debate whether you're off-limits, the hard reality is that at least some of the actors don't think you're off-limits. And we've seen that, you know, in certain means in Ukraine related, you know. So we didn't have ASATs going off, but we did have longer conversation but basically cyber digital and targeting of space assets. And, oh, by the way, in turn, we saw certain private corporations, not just in the space industry but in technology and software, decide to be players in the fight in some way, shape, or form. So there is one of, hey, what are my assets up there; what is potentially at risk; game out, what might be my response to it? Okay, there's a second part. This part's going to be a little bit more awkward for people. How are you owned by China? And I don't mean directly owned but I mean owned either in terms of supply chain vulnerabilities, market dependencies, or financing, indirect ownership, etcetera. And that would apply to China most particularly, but you also should think about it relative to, you know, other large authoritarian state actors out there, whether they're in the Middle East or whatnot. In any kind of international tension but particularly if there was a risk of, you know, the United States and democracies versus China -- a Taiwan Straits crisis or something like that. The issue is not just, oh, someone might go after my satellites. It's all the other means of pressure that might be brought to bear. And so, you know, I will speak about a particular space actor. I wrote this during Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter, where I said, you know, look, a lot of us may own Twitter right now but China and the Gulf states own Elon Musk. They don't actually own him, but they both were crucial to his ability to purchase Twitter. You know, he's much wealthier than I, but he was cash poor, because it's all kind of wrapped up in stock. And so he actually needed money from other actors to buy Twitter -- multiple billions of dollars, via Saudi and Qatari investors and wealth funds. But also, you know, most of his money is bound up in not SpaceX but in Tesla, Tesla stock. And Tesla depends on the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party for its ability to continue to manufacture to expectations and to make sales and profits. It's its most profitable market. And so there is both kind of a voiced if you do -- and we've seen China do this to other actors. If you do X, I will pressure you in this other way. I will shut down your factories. I will cause restrictions to what you buy. But more powerful with these actors is the unvoiced. And so, you know, we've seen this related to Twitter, where there's a lot of discussion around censorship. But there's also self-censorship -- who you're willing to criticize, who you're not willing to criticize. And that's where I give an example of a single major space player, but again it applies to almost any company that's, you know, doing business in China or vulnerable to China in some way, shape, or form. You are working with an authoritarian state or working in an authoritarian state that has previously shown a willingness to put pressure on corporations and/or individuals through, you know -- and it might be on you, it might be on your employees, it might be on your stock price, it might be on your supply chain. Stop kidding yourself. And so those are the two, you know, kind of wargaming or what we call "red teaming." You know, direct threats to your space assets. But what are the indirect threats? And frankly, the second ones might be more meaningful because those are the things that shape the environment before the crisis, that shape, you know, what people are even willing to contemplate. But again, what I'm after is not just the deliberate, you know, like my supply chain has been cyber hacked or it's been slowed down. I'm talking about more the pressure put upon it by an authoritarian state that either doesn't like what you're doing or, more subtly, the threat that they might do so and how that changes what that corporation is willing to do or say. So it's kind of -- let's do a non-space parallel. There was a lot of controversy around like the NBA and the NBA not being willing to criticize China. And it was after China basically pressured their TV broadcasts, and there was a lot of like, why doesn't the NBA stand up? And I'm like, hey, guys, there's certain technology companies and even aerospace and space companies that you seem to love that actually have the same phenomena going on, and didn't have the very direct pressure put on them the way China went after the NBA. But you watched it and said, oh, crap, what if they did that to me?

>> Maria Varmazis: I think it's good to say it a little more out loud, explicitly, that these really need to be planned for or at least not just sort of hoping the worst won't happen. So certainly.

>> Peter W Singer: The ostrich strategy has never been a good business or security strategy.

>> Maria Varmazis: No, it has not, that's very true. Given that you are a futurist, what space technologies are you looking at? I know we're talking potentially decades. What are you excited about? What's coming from the new space era?

>> Peter W Singer: Oh, gosh, how long do we have? A couple of things, you know, just right off the top of my head. I think the democratization of space and the ability for -- and I'm not talking about a couple private companies. I'm talking about the ability of, you know, launch to be democratized, but also like cube sats and just what that unlocks for us back on planet Earth. And "us" being everything from, you know, think about what happens when, you know, everything from individual military units having their own cube sat not, you know, the overall US military network but the individual unit, to when a real estate company has its own cube sat or whatever, or a high schooler, you know, that part. And all the benefit that that potentially brings when you think about like, you know, the environmental potential, all that. Okay, so that's one area. Second would be the, you know, use of space to go after like rare Earth and how that, you know, both maybe solves some long-term economic issues that we have here, as well as, you know, sets off a whole new kind of wonderful, cool, exciting economy out there. Two other materials that excite me: water, location of water; who owns that real estate, so to speak, and how did they cooperate out there means that -- because they can either compete or they cooperate when you think about all the different state governments, state agency, but private sector, academic actors, etcetera, that might be all around the same locale on the Moon. And then, like I said, you know, regulate -- kind of boring, mundane, the concrete of space. But, man, if you get that going, you allow cheaper long-term habitation, protection from radiation. So we're going to end on that one.

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>> Maria Varmazis: And that's it for T-Minus Deep Space for June 3, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of our podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com, or submit the survey in our show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth. Mixing by Elliot Peltzman and Tre Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thank you for listening.

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