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What is the fewest number of people one would need for a completely self-sufficient colony, assuming no lack of resources and modern or near future tech?

While these people would be able to communicate with the rest of humanity, they can not exchange goods or services with others. They also want to still be able to have many of the luxury goods that other people have, and their robotics is not much better than our robotics tech for automated production of goods.

Any service that can be just a transfer of information (such as any creative medium, including music, books, film, etc.) can be left to the rest of humanity. As such, only one computer programmer is needed, to respond to things that need responding to urgently and possibly to integrate code sent by other programmers to the colony.

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    $\begingroup$ Is the colony intended to last indefinitely with no further input of people? If so, you need quite a few people just to have enough genetic diversity. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 24 '16 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ In the Information Age, communication = the ability to exchange services (e.g., offworlding certain software development). $\endgroup$ – Ghillie Dhu Jul 24 '16 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ You need two people and one G.E.C.K.. $\endgroup$ – aroth Jul 25 '16 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ The obvious problem with having only one of any is that if something happens to that person, you are left with nothing. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 25 '16 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ "many of the luxury goods" / "only one computer programmer". Not to disparage myself and my colleagues, but you might be over-estimating what one programmer can achieve, in terms of supporting the industrial manufacturing base required to produce modern luxury goods. It's a bit like saying they only need one mechanic, to change the oil in the production-line robots. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 25 '16 at 10:07
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There are several constraints, the answer is the most constraining:

  • Technology Bootstrap, or how do we get set up. Compare the hundred or so people forming a village in Lucifer's Hammer to the few thousand in Freedom's Landing. A hundred of so people means it likely that some know woodworking, there might be a geologist, one science guy, and some gardeners. They rapidly build up to a small dark ages village. A few thousand means you have lots of people and so lots of skills. Several people have done some mining, some smelting, some forging, and some crafting. You have running water, metal pots, and such within the first days. Figure a 1910s lifestyle within a few weeks.

  • Psychology Minimums. We like to have a minimum in our tribe. People to nuture, argue with, fall in love, and have a diversity of experiences. Notice that any story with only a handful of people rapidly goes polygamous due to human nature. Think of your own blindspots when writing. Will there be children, slightly out of control teenagers, elderly, long term disabled? What about education, addiction issues? You might look at the series Ascension. The better the communications, the smaller the group.

  • Genetic Minimums. Lots of answers here, though frozen sperm diversity is well within our capabilities now. Many U.S. war casualties are fathering sons as they left frozen sperm samples with their wives before their demise. Farms typically do not have sufficient genetic diversity without the services of inseminators.

Taken together, one can pick almost any size colony. The film Moon has a single person outpost that can sustain itself for many decades but not forever. Take what fits your story.

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  • $\begingroup$ Technology bootstrapping is something I find really interesting $\endgroup$ – JamEngulfer Jul 25 '16 at 0:38
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This is the conclusion I came to with the idea of having self sustained colony, but having new people coming in to the planet all the time, but a single colony drop could be isolated and thrive...

Crew/Colonists

166 Children
036 Farmers
002 General practitioner (Doctor)
002 Botanist
002 Geologist
002 Astronomer
002 Zoologist
002 Meteorologist
002 Mechanical Engineer
002 Electrical Engineer
002 Civil Engineer
002 Chemical Engineer
002 Mining Engineers
002 Aerospace Engineer
002 Biomedical Engineer
002 Mechanic
002 Software Engineer
002 Cardiologist
002 Anastheseologist
002 Dentists
002 Ob/Gyn
002 Colonologist
002 Pediatrician
002 Podiatrician
002 Oncologist
002 Physician
002 Urologist
002 Vetinarian
004 Trauma surgeons
060 Guard/Soldiers
020 Hunters
020 Construction Worker
010 Teacher
010 Professor
010 Administrator
112 Miscelaneous Workers

Needed things on the ship

166 housing units
+34 crew units
Food Storage
Material Storage
3D Scanner
3D printer

Ship Space

Liesure area = ?
Housing area = 1500m × 1500m
food storage = 49m × 49m
material storage = 49m × 49m
reactor = 5m × 5m × 17m


The different doctors are overlapping because it is assumed they can work in general fields, but it is best to have specialties for all the things.

Children are there because you want to start with people that are known to be fertile and in a relationship.

Teachers and professors you need to teach people

Administrators... you need people to govern the society and that be their job. You want to have this established before getting to the colony so there is no problems.

Farmers, Workers, contruction workers, hunters, guards can be used interchangeably, but each are needed for their specific knowledge in their fields and you want to have lots of back ups and people that know what they're doing here or have muscle to fill the role.

And all these are needed no matter how automated the system is because you'll be encountering new things or needing new things developed or having to building thing with materials or in ways you're not accustomed to.

Since this was not built to be a 1 and done thing, just possible to be, but even then you could still theoretically get trade. This would be the minimum I'd think you'd send for that. If you're going to send a colony to make sure it succeeds and self-sustains you're going to want 2 to 5 times more redundancy, just to make sure, but supposing this could land you can easily create viable colony. You could in fact create 2 to 3 tribes/villages at hunter-gathers and perhaps an agrarian level society with this, but i assume you don't want to live like that, but rather in a society you're more used to. I'd say this is likely the minimum for that.


Edit: I just want to be clear with a few things...

Firstly, I came up with this when designing the program for a world I am/was working on so there are a few things that are different or might to be reconsidered.

The ship compartment numbers assume 3 to 4 occupants. 1 adult male, 1 adult female and 1 to 2 children.

The "Reactor" is based on a type of warp drive for the world, with a very loose understanding of nuclear reactor dimensions. That should be looked at when coming up with specs for that.

Food Storage is based on the Titanic's food storage + Fungal growth cultivation foods or whatever they're called + a journey of about a year if I remember right that had to be provided for.

Material storage, technically all you would need is plastic and various types of metal and you should be good with that. Everything else can be forgotten more or less. You'd also probably have a seed bank for corn here if you want to try to farm bio-plastics when you get to the colony

The ship was designed to drop the housing units, storage, and workshops in a circle with cabling and such spooling out so that the housing units are on the outside of the circle and the storage and workshop on the inside. This would make the colony be perfectly set up upon being dropped off. IF you can land the ship, all the more easier.

Though it's not stated here we're also assuming that everyone is carrying at least 1 tablet style PC and there are at least 2 server PC they can interact with. Further each of these tablets have the maximum processing power physically possible as that will likely be achieved by 2050 and each of them are carrying pretty much all books written up to that point as well as whatever else they brought along on their personal devices. And the server PCs each have a Crystal Hologram of the internet as it was before they left, each with at least 1 back up copy in case something happens to it (Basically they downloaded the internet and etched it into a crystal. This is real technology and it is perfect for storage where you only want to read, but not hard drives where you need to read and write) Upon landing it would be planned that at least 2 physical versions of the most essential of texts, enough to rebuild a civilization were printed and stored in separate/safe places.

Before being sent landing spots were surveyed so the colonists would be by water and places where metal is likely easy to get. The goal after this point would be to start building a farm and find metal deposits as soon as possible and start mining.

Another thing to consider with this is that because this was supposed to be an either or thing there is a lot of stuff that isn't going to be needed more of if you scale up. Farming experts and astronomers for example aren't really needed more than a few of and so those slots get taken by general laborers or police. Doctors are 1 for every 22 patients scaling if i remember right and while it's nice have specialties, more general practitioners are more important with with larger groups so you can cut out specialists in favor of other specialists or general practitioners where it is more reasonable, such as scaled to 10k, 10 dentists seems a bit too much for me because assuming you treat people every day of a year each dentist will only have 2 patients a day. That seems low to me. So you can reduce this number a little. Likewise 10 cardiologist per 10,000 people isn't needed. So a lot of these groups when scaled can be changed to a less specialized group.

Hope this long explanation of the miscelaneous tangetial stuff helps explain why it is there and why it is the way it is on there, and helps you come up with whatever you need for your own thing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you give a total number? $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 24 '16 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't want to count, but it should around 500. 150 to 300 is the size of many pre-agrarian groups so that should be a sustainable size, but I personally would aim for 10,000. I think, if I remember right I've read there was/is a civ that began with only around 100 and have been isolated, but are extremely susceptible to a few illnesses. Not sure if I'm remembering right on that though. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Jul 24 '16 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ That sounds accurate-ish to me. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 24 '16 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder what the ratio is in real life of oncologists to reasonably specialist lab technicians able to run tests, nurses able to administer care, and drug manufacturers. I say this because I'm not sure there's much point in a small community in having an oncology specialist: you get cancer your options are to leave it alone or cut it out, so you want a GP and a general surgeon. Or if you want to use the full range of modern medicine you need a lot more than a few specialist doctors and some "miscellaneous workers". $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 25 '16 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ I don't speculate on specific medicine, but there is a strong chance that that wouldn't even be an issue due to advances in genetics. This year wear going to be testing a retroviral cancer cure that should work theoretically. By the time a colony like this exists we'll probably be able to bio-print the medication and it won't be an issue... ignoring that, you could probably figure it out by looking at hospital staff, but that's more research than I'm willing to do. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Jul 25 '16 at 10:29
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Indefinitely? In the hundreds of thousands at least, maybe millions.

If you want a colony to be self-sufficient for any longer than a few decades while maintaining modern or near-future tech, you will need the ability to produce everything, including integrated circuits. They just cannot be repaired. And producing them requires a huge industry, an industry which requires the economics of scale to be feasible, and a huge supply chain of many different raw materials and machines, each of them having its own huge supply chain. And you have to not just maintain, but produce every tool and every machine in that supply chain. In case of integrated circuits, a handful of producers today supply the whole planet's needs, and you cannot scale them down to workshop-size to just supply a few dozen or a few hundred people.

Assuming no molecular-level replicators, you need the economics of scale to produce any modern technology.

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    $\begingroup$ And each of those raw materials will be distributed quite far from the others - if the planet is anything like Earth, there are many minerals that are pretty much guaranteed to be far apart. Even if you end up with a city of 10k people, you'll probably need thousands of miles of railroads to supply the city with the required materials. You can make integrated circuits at home - not quite at the scale of modern GPUs by far, but quite enough for small integrated systems and simple computers (~Z80 level hardware). But you can't conjure germanium out of thin air. Or tin. Or copper. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 25 '16 at 13:32
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I am strongly guided by Bellerephon's well-conceived answer even though I disagree with it.

An online source says Minimum Viable Population should be 4169. The Occupational Outlook Handbook indirectly states there are roughly 5803 "different occupations".

So I recommend and nice, round number of 4200 to 6000 colonists.

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    $\begingroup$ Not all of those occupations would be required, though. Production of creative material, such as books and movies, would be unnecessary in this group of people because they still have communication with the rest of humanity, so books, movies, TV shows, etc. could still be transferred to the colony. This would get rid of the need for actors, directors, authors, etc. Also, they wouldn't need telemarketers when there is only one person for each job (no one to try to compete against). $\endgroup$ – Jarred Allen Jul 24 '16 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Jarred Allen Yes. Yours are all great points. So, you might have a bottom limit of 4169, but 6000 would provide a nice luxury of worry-free mate choosing. My gut tells me to go higher than 4169 if possible. $\endgroup$ – Inquisitive Jul 24 '16 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ I assume where we differ is you are looking at viable population were one person is free to chose anyone else as a partner. I am looking at it from a point of view where the partners are assigned. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 24 '16 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ If you delete the redirects (“see:”) from the OOH index, only 329 entries remain. $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Jul 25 '16 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ This does assume that you only have one person for each occupation? I.e. ONE (or N(farmertypes)) farmer to provide food for everyone else? One person to build all houses? While the number of distinct occupations gives a rough estimate, their prevalence will differ greatly. Hundreds of single-points-of-failure will about in any case. $\endgroup$ – Chieron Jul 25 '16 at 9:22
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I believe that with modern technology and presuming that the people who travel are educated I would suggest around 50. This is my choice mainly because 50 is the minimum number needed to maintain a healthy gene pool (according to biology.se). 50 also gives a wide range so assuming I am allowed to pick who comes to this new society 50 people is enough for a range of jobs to be brought. Since this colony has modern technology you don't need many people to sustain it so I would suggest your limiting factor is gene pool.

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    $\begingroup$ According to the link, 50 people is only sustainable if you can force specific breeding pairs. Being able to choose one's partner is a luxury of modern life that I want these people to be able to have. $\endgroup$ – Jarred Allen Jul 24 '16 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JarredAllen Limiting the colony size will limit choice in partners but I would suggest 100 should be enough to have choice while still having a healthy gene pool as long as laws such as no relationships with first cousins are allowed. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 24 '16 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JarredAllen If you want to allow full choice then Inquisitive's answer is probably better than mine. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jul 24 '16 at 19:45
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If smallest is an important criteria and

Technology is sufficiently advanced and available to further that goal then the answer is 1.

Why? For one thing genetic diversity can be put in a mini fridge.

For another you've put no limit on how much investment will be put into this colony.

There is one huge exception. Goods. Luxury of not. Even with an unlimited budget once exchange of goods stops everything starts getting old. The colony can't have anything new unless it makes it itself.

The current population of planet earth is around 7.4 billion. And we make new things every day that you've never seen before. Even if you can communicate with us you're going to miss out. From the latest sneakers to the drawing your daughter made in class today.

You can automate an industrial complex that consumes native resources without much labor but even if that is managed remotely for that to come close to what we do today you need a jump in technology. Star Trek replicators could come close to this but today's 3d printers certainly don't.

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    $\begingroup$ woow, you stole my answer)) ho or better words from my mouth, letters from my keyboard... $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 25 '16 at 0:15
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At the outset I'm more with CandiedOrange on this, but will try to boil it down to bare necessities.

If you consider the large diversity of goods (from raw materials and foodstuffs all the way to the huge diversity of manufactured goods, e. g. electronics and their components), and that no single country on this planet is currently able to produce all of them, one might at first think that at least a billion people would be necessary.

For historical and geographical reasons (availability of raw materials, low wage labor force, ease/difficulty of transportation, political guidelines like self-sufficiency etc.), countries have specialized in certain industries, it's currently not economically feasible to produce certain goods in some of them or the geographical necessities are simply not met (you can't reasonably expect coffee or mangos to grow in Norway).

Judging from the diversity of some of the industries and services in certain highly developed but small countries I would guess that with adequate adaptation (specialization and education of workforce) you could produce basically any good in a country like Switzerland, Taiwan or Canada. So with "only" several million people.

Another large factor would be automation. Certain industries or a large portion of their jobs can be automated even with current technology, or services outsourced to your "homeworld". Considering that highly developed countries have about 80% of their workforce in "services" (which, at best, is moving goods around, or getting your hair cut ;-), and that even a large part of jobs in the secondary sector are of a clerical nature, you could probably quite easily eliminate another 90% of the jobs even with today's technology. There will be a huge economical incentive to automate because people will be by far the scarcest resource.

All in all I think it can be done with a few hundred thousand people.

All that presuming that your "minimal" colony will come with a huge shipload of infrastructure bootstrapping all the manufacturing capabilities.

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  • $\begingroup$ I tend to agree with this view. I think of everyone on the planet as being part of the economy. They may be several degree's removed from you but even losing 1 means it's not the same. The interesting tipping point comes when a colony is so advanced that a shipment of goods that took say 30 years to get there from Earth is looked on as mostly worthless old garbage. $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Jul 31 '16 at 16:45
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Genetics: One female, a sperm bank and ideally some way to ensure the Y chromosome is recessive, at least until there's enough genetically diverse females that males aren't being born into a population comprised of their sisters, cousins and half cousins.

Industry: Assuming this is on Mars remote operated robots could do most of the manual labour and having colonists on hand to deal with unexpected problems (like a robot's wheel getting jammed between two rocks) would be really helpful. The real problem would be getting enough equipment to Mars to be able to kick start industry, finding ore, mining it, processing it, using the resources to manufacture things, unlike colonising a new land on Earth a colony on Mars would need quite advanced industry right from the start.

Psychology: All hail the Omnissiah, all hail Mars!

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    $\begingroup$ "One female, a sperm bank" And then something goes wrong during the first childbirth, and your colony is dead. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 25 '16 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling but that is always a concern, even with 10.000 People - one unexpected pathogene, or life-sustain system malfunction, or giant explosion and everyone is dead. You can only have a certain percentage of expected safety and then add redundancy until you are somewhat satisfied. $\endgroup$ – Falco Jul 25 '16 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ A sperm bank, an egg bank and several artificial wombs? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Walton Jul 25 '16 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Falco That's why the Titanic had watertight doors between different sections, to contain a hull breach and keep it from being catastrophic. It's also why modern large ships are required to have a double hull. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 25 '16 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ Worked just peachy for the Titanic, didn't it? There will always be a risk for catastrophic failure. If you have more people you add redundancy, but also introduce new risk factor like animosity between different groups $\endgroup$ – Falco Jul 26 '16 at 6:50

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