We Need Defense Innovators More Than They Need Us

If knowledge is power, we should all be feeling more powerful.

The defining trend of our time is the ever-increasing connectedness made possible by technologies such as the Internet, satellite communication, and cell phones. With this connectedness comes instant access to a large portion of the world’s knowledge. Want to know how to build a nuclear reactor, make a carrot cake, or train for a marathon? Type it into your search engine, and it’s there. Remember when we used to do research in a library by looking up books in a card catalog? I don’t think my kids have ever done that, but they have access to more knowledge through their phones than I could have dreamed of when I was their age.

Getting Connected

A major consequence of connectedness is that individuals and small teams enjoy a level of access to knowledge that only large, well-resourced institutions had in the past. These knowledge-empowered individuals and teams can use this access to challenge large institutions directly, and sometimes they win. Such was the case with Facebook, the company who harnessed the power of the internet to connect people. As of this writing, Facebook’s market capitalization (i.e. the company’s total value on the stock market) was over $75B greater than Cisco Systems Inc. This demonstrates the irony of the Information Age, as Cisco was once responsible for much of the physical infrastructure—the actual routers, switches, and connections—of the internet. Facebook’s creators rode this infrastructure to create value, not in buildings, factories, or land, but in how they gathered information and used it to connect people in the virtual world. As a result, they built one of the most valuable companies in the world.

The playing field between David and Goliath has never been so level, and this is especially evident on the forefront of innovation. Once Facebook was the upstart. Now Facebook is the established institution, and it has to deal with the Davids of today’s world—like SnapChat and Instagram—who are trying to do things better, faster, and cheaper. And who is to say that they won’t find a way to win by expanding boundaries and boldly going forward?

A major consequence of connectedness is that individuals and small teams enjoy a level of access to knowledge that only large, well-resourced institutions had in the past. The playing field between David and Goliath has never been so level, and this is especially evident on the forefront of innovation.

With apologies to my fellow old-school Trekkies, space is not the final frontier. A new frontier has been opened in the Information Age. This is the frontier where information is gathered, analyzed, and transformed into knowledge and understanding. The individuals and teams that operate on this frontier create value for humanity by expanding knowledge, not in the laboratory or the classroom, but in the way they use technology to generate a stream of 1s and 0s and imbue it with meaning. On the information-to-knowledge frontier, individuals and small teams are changing the way we understand our world and interact with it.

For example, I’m not sure I could live in New York without HopStop. This app takes all the bus, subway, and train schedules combined with walking times throughout the city. To most of us, that would just be a lot of useless information, but HopStop uses this information to generate directions and time estimates from anywhere to anywhere in the city. That is knowledge I need when I have to make it across town to Columbia University to participate in a seminar. According to Inc. Magazine, HopStop had only 15 employees in 2011, when it was becoming a invaluable resource for the pedestrian New Yorker. When you consider the value created per team member, it’s off the charts.

The stories of teams that develop apps like HopStop aren’t just interesting. Activity on the information-to-knowledge frontier has tremendous implications for just about every area of human interaction—including national security. Unfortunately, the environment is poor for those of us who would like to see cooperation for the common defense.

Red Tape Kills Innovation

In my conversations with venture capitalists and corporate analysts, I’ve been struck at how doing business with the government is considered a negative indicator for a company’s outlook. There are many reasons for this. First, the arduous regulations and accounting requirements for government contracts act as a substantial barrier to entry for most companies, especially smaller ones. Additionally, the process for generating requirements and getting a project established as a program of record is lengthy, usually much longer than the desired timeline for investors in today’s capital markets. Furthermore, many of these companies desire to create markets and serve customers outside the United States. They need to establish trust with their customers as they gather considerable information about them, and in the post-Snowden era, many people harbor a deep mistrust of companies that work with the U.S. government. For these reasons, the current environment is not conducive to cooperation between many information-to-knowledge companies and the Department of Defense.

This, however, cannot continue without consequences. We need the best ideas and innovation to stay ahead of our competitors. If we cannot improve the environment that prevents cooperation, others will find a way to take advantage, and the result may be the true disruption of our military capability. On this frontier, super-empowered individuals, teams, and companies don’t need us, but we desperately need them. It’s time to start acting like it.

Acquistion that Moves with Technology

So what do we do? It’s easy to argue that we need to change the acquisition rules and regulations, but many people have tried, and it’s proven to be a very difficult challenge. There are some promising reforms in the works today, and the hope is that small successes create momentum for further reforms in the future. While we continue to build this momentum, however, perhaps there are other things we can do to alleviate some of the obstacles to cooperation. One path may be to create pilot programs that help facilitate relationships between government and outside firms as they work on shared problems. There are numerous authorities in current law that can help promote this cooperation, including Partnership Intermediary Agreements (PIAs), Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) and Other Transactions Authorities (OTAs). Each of these provides some useful paths to partnership that can be very flexible in helping the Defense Department establish working relationships, expand cutting-edge research, and develop useful prototypes.

Helpful as they may be, it’s doubtful that these initiatives will be enough to change the environment between the U.S. government and those at the information-to-knowledge frontier. For that, we’re going to need to make broad changes in the way we approach cooperation. The first thing we can do is to genuinely ask people to help us solve our problems. The people who live at the information-to-knowledge frontier are naturally drawn to solving big problems for a higher cause, and in the Defense Department, we have some big problems! Even individuals who would not naturally want to work with the U.S. government may be willing to join forces to figure out how to use big data to weaken ISIS, limit nuclear proliferation, find hostages, or anticipate where the next hybrid attack will occur. We should ask smart people to help us with these problems, and we should encourage their participation by setting up neutral meeting places—both physical and virtual—and finding ways to connect interested people together and foster deeper collaboration among them…all for a higher purpose.

There are other possibilities for harnessing innovation, and I will write about these in further articles. For now, a good starting point is to understand the world for what it is. Innovation is coming at us from unexpected sources in unexpected ways, and it’s incumbent upon us to create the conditions for cooperation. That starts with the realization that we need the innovators much more than they need us.

[Attendees explore Indigo Pine, the sustainable home designed by a team of Clemson University architecture students for the U.S. Department of Defense Solar Decathlon 2015. Photo by Ken Scar]


1 comment

  1. OtherSideOfTheCoin 13 March, 2015 at 12:42 Reply

    We also have to have an American public that is interested in their government taking risks. One of the reasons that we have the insane bureaucracy that we do in acquisitions is because our people are so ready to accuse the government and its acquisition people of being unfair, or to crucify someone for taking a risk and failing. Just look at the JSF program and how there is a noisy group of people who genuinely think it is a waste of money. Or the plan to eliminate the A-10 for that matter.

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