Neel Patel has posted a great article related to orbital colonies: He and Joe Strout, a software engineer, took the city-building software of Sim City and translated it into an orbital colony in space, said software called High Frontier.  Then Neel operated it as administrator, to see what it would take to run such a colony.

Though there were significant engineering challenges, one of the biggest problems Neel had was getting people to come to his colony… and stay.  In fact, I had the distinct impression that Neel and Joe had spent all their time conceiving of the colony from an engineering standpoint, with the attitude of “if you build it, they will come.”  Not that that’s their fault; it’s the basis behind Sim City’s programming regarding social activity.

Sim OrbitalNeel, Joe and Sim City didn’t take into account that that premise applies primarily to tourist attractions (like Disney parks, ballfields in Iowa and pyramids in Vegas).  They did add typically Sim City elements like stadiums, museums, parks and other city infrastructure, and saw public activity as a result.  But once the novelty has worn off, you need a lot more to make people stick around… and more importantly, to make it a home.

For instance, what was the jobs situation?  Were there fun and lucrative jobs to be had there?  Were any major corporations setting up residence in the colony and offering desirable employment?  Or at least job opportunities that were attractive to people who couldn’t get jobs on Earth?  Did they consider offering residents a universal basic income, so they’d be free to work major jobs, lightweight jobs, or just live there with no job?  Those are major attractors to a stable population base, and must be considered up-front.

And speaking of attractors: Were stadiums, parks and museums enough?  If the amenities aren’t that different from those on Earth, they won’t be enough to attract anyone beyond tourists.  An orbital colony should have elements that can’t be had on Earth—such as low- and no-gravity sections, and facilities that take advantage of that for entertainment, science and manufacturing, health, sports and education.

inside an O'Neill cylinder in Earth orbitAnd none of that will attract people, unless they know about it, which brings up the issue of advertisement: How much time and money would be spent advertising your colony? With celebrities and other beautiful people in glamorous or lucrative activities, gorgeous scenery and relocation packages no one can resist?  The uniqueness of the colony needs to be highlighted for potential residents, as much as its viability as a long-term residence.

When I wrote Verdant Agenda, I described such an orbital colony years after it was constructed, with plenty of jobs, regular visitors and permanent residents.  I didn’t describe many recreational facilities, but then, my story was centered around a disaster and occupation… and no one thinks about Disneyland when lives are at stake.  Still, these things are important to create a place that people will want to visit, find jobs or put down roots.

EPCOT Center, 1979And speaking of Disney: Many have forgotten that Walt Disney’s original design of Disney World’s EPCOT Center in Florida was to be a city of workers and residents, a living example of modern life.  But even Disney couldn’t get it past the amusement park stage… and he knew showmanship and advertising better than most. (To be fair, EPCOT had a lot of engineering problems that couldn’t quite keep up with Walt’s conceptions of modern life.)  Instead, Disney World remained a tourist attraction, though it helped build the neighboring city of Orlando to support it.  Bending the will of the people to your way of thinking is always tricky, and Walt Disney stands as a reminder that even the greatest ideas and the best of intentions don’t always work out as you intended.

Though the simulation had its flaws, Neel and Joe should be given credit where credit is due, experimenting with the simulation as a first step.  Further simulations that take into account the elements Sim City does not, like social dynamics based on advertisement, job availability and colony uniqueness, should continue to provide useful data on how to build a colony, and how to settle it.

Neel’s article can be read on Inverse.