The way we do business could be out of this world
IMAGINE a world in which space could boost levels of food production, help travellers navigate from A to B without having to follow a map and enable people to have a conversation with a colleague thousands of miles away.
Reaching beyond the boundaries of our planet may sound like a pipe dream to some, but, as Will Whitehorn points out, you do not have to reach too far into your imagination. This is already happening now.
He said: "Going to space is not just about people who can afford it travelling to see Earth from another perspective.
"Our future on this planet depends on better access to space.
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"Nowhere is this better illustrated than our use of GPS (global positioning system) technology.
"The first GPS was used in space was for the US military. It was released for public use in 1996 and transformed our lives.
"From driving the car using GPS to increasing food production by allowing farmers to see exactly where crop yields are highest so they can plan crops accordingly and reduce the use of fertilisers and fuel – all of this was thanks to space.
"GPS has already increased food production by 10 per cent."
Prior to GPS being available for widespread public use, communication was much harder, slower and less effective.
With an illustrious career centred around communication, including more than two decades at Virgin, where he worked his way up to become known as Sir Richard Branson's "right-hand man", Will has seen first-hand the impact space has had on the way we work, live and play.
He said: "The biggest change in communications have resulted from space.
"Thanks to space, the streamlined communications we have today are instant, the volume of communications over broadband are astronomical.
"Before I joined Virgin, when I was flying helicopters in the North Sea, our only form of communicating was back to Aberdeen via a radio.
"Now, I can use my phone to communicate from a flight to New York.
"When I started at Thomas Cook, I remember learning to use a system which was a bit like Ceefax – in the end, it was quicker to ring the call centre.
"We have gone from receiving information by fax be able to communicate instantly, wherever we are in the world, via our mobile phones.
"It has been a revolution of unprecedented proportions, and this has sped up dramatically over the past few years.
"I am now in my 50s and I can barely keep up with it."
But Will's interest in space reaches far beyond what it can do in terms of improving our lives on Earth.
Joining Virgin in 1987, he was responsible for a number of projects, progressing to a director of Virgin Rail Group in 1997 and brand development and corporate affairs director in 2000.
However, the role that arguably captured most attention was in 2004, when Will became president of Virgin Galactic – the company's commercial space flights venture.
Helping Sir Richard go where no man had gone before – at least in a commercial sense – propelled Will into the media spotlight.
In 2007, he took on that role in an executive part-time capacity, also becoming special adviser to Sir Richard.
In 2007, he was also invited to join the advisory board of the British National Space Centre and currently sits on the recently founded Space Advisory Council.
Following its launch, Virgin Galactic captured the imagination of people across the globe – not just the scientists at NASA but "regular" people who realised space travel was not just a dream for a select few but could soon be a reality for many.
Will said: "Britain is already a world leader in space technology. There are now more than 60,000 people employed in Britain in space-related industries.
"Lots of people do not realise this.
"I will be speaking today in Bridlington about the Virgin Galactic project, why Richard Branson chose to invest in it and why space travel is necessary, in business sense as well as for our future.
"We have the beginnings of major industrial efforts in space but no way of getting there that is effective, inexpensive and efficient.
"This is where the idea for Virgin Galactic was born."
As well as lifting the lid on his time at one of Britain's most entrepreneurial organisations, Will says he is also looking forward to speaking to East Yorkshire businesses about their success, and what they can do to ensure they remain successful.
"This is not a terrible time to start a business," he said. "If you can start a successful business in a recession, you can do it at any time, as my boss used to say.
"I have been impressed by the success of the Yorkshire region in what is a very difficult economy, but it is not a doom and gloom story compared to the rest of Europe.
"One of the only economies in Europe doing better than the UK at the moment is Germany.
"Things are tough in the UK but it is a lot better than being in Spain or Portugal."
Will, who remains a consultant to Virgin Galactic and is now the non-executive chairman of the Loewy Group, said: "British companies have a very good track record of being on top of technological changes. We have a wired-up economy but some companies haven't quite got it yet.
"It is not for you to decide how your customers communicate with you. If your customers want to communicate through Facebook, you need to be able to give them that option.
"And you need to appreciate how fast technology is changing. What today might be Facebook, tomorrow could be Spacebook."