A new look at fostering cutting-edge thinking in Army science and technology
By Lt. Col. Joel Dillon, Dr. Jason Augustyn, Ms. Julia Kim and Mr. Dominic Ju
Science and technology (S&T) innovation is an uncertain road, with “failure” often a step on the path to a breakthrough. However, in a resource-constrained environment, planners must make the smartest possible investments of taxpayer money in S&T programs, balancing risk with the potential for transformational new capabilities. A good place to start striking this balance is at the “fuzzy front end” of innovation, the initial period of exploration preceding the development of new materiel solutions.
For many years, the acquisition community viewed the front end of innovation as a swirl of activity that occurs before Milestone A—a time of “eureka” moments and multiple return trips to the drawing board. But over the past 10 to 15 years, a growing body of research and practice in industry, government and academia has shown that managing front-end innovation is not only possible but also hugely valuable in terms of encouraging potentially revolutionary ideas and focusing limited research and development dollars.
Three basic questions lie at the heart of managing the front end of innovation:
1. How can an organization inspire and cultivate great ideas?
2. How can it then identify the best ideas and mature them into concepts through appropriate analysis?
3. How can the organization align stakeholders and investments around the most promising concepts?
The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology (ODASA(R&T)), in collaboration with the Army S&T enterprise and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), is piloting a way to address these key questions through a holistic campaign of exploration called Army Science and Technology Reconnaissance 2030 (SciTech Recon 2030). The purpose of SciTech Recon 2030 is to explore S&T trends that could shape future operations and provide the Army with overmatch in the 2030-40 time frame. SciTech Recon 2030 seeks to leverage and scale best practices developed at the grass roots by the Army S&T community, other services and industry. At a high level, the process has these key components:
- Engaging a broad community of innovative thinkers.
- Generating a wide range of ideas for potentially game-changing technologies.
- Analyzing promising ideas to identify insights into future operations and technology concepts.
- Fostering dialogue on the nexus between future operations and potential breakthrough technologies, and how to align S&T investments to develop those technologies for the future force.
ENGAGING INNOVATIVE THINKERS
Research and practice in corporate innovation show the importance of including a diverse pool of people who can explore a problem creatively. This includes both in-house experts and outside perspectives. The ODASA(R&T) is using various collaborative approaches to engage a broad network of government scientists and engineers, experts in military operations, and creative thinkers from academia, industry, federally funded research and development centers, and other hubs of innovation.
This network is encouraging fresh and potentially provocative perspectives. For example, the SciTech Recon 2030 team recently ran a Web-based brainstorming game that included members of the SIGMA Forum, a think tank of science fiction authors, who challenged many of the assumptions of players from academic and government laboratories.
To foster common ground within this diverse community, the ODASA(R&T) has produced a report titled “Science and Technology Trends 2013-2043: A Review of Leading Forecasts,” available online at http://futures.armyscitech.com under “Resources.” The report consolidates several major forecasts that private- and public-sector agencies have published over the past five years, including the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” report (http://www.dni.gov/index.php/about/organization/national-intelligence-council-global-trends) and the McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”
The ODASA(R&T) report identified 16 common trends across a range of S&T topics, including robotics and autonomous systems, 3-D printing of human organs, the “Internet of Things” and synthetic biology. This report provides a common reference point for the S&T community on trends that are likely to affect the development of future military capabilities.
To further immerse the community in operational and security trends, the ODASA(R&T) is also leveraging work led by ARCIC in support of the Army’s annual war game, Unified Quest (UQ), a yearlong series of analytic activities that examines the Army’s future across the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF) spectrum. The current iteration of UQ is examining operations in the 2025-35 time frame in and around “megacities,” defined as urban centers with more than 10 million inhabitants.
Demographers project that by 2050, more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, with up to 2.4 billion living in vast slums in and around megacities such as Lagos, Nigeria.
Extremely high rates of poverty and substandard living conditions could make megacities fertile ground for terrorists and criminal organizations. Many megacities are located on coastlines and are also vulnerable to catastrophic humanitarian crises caused by typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The megacity environment will present enormous challenges for the Army across every warfighting function. It is critical that the Army S&T community work hand in hand with TRADOC to examine these challenges and envision new technologies that will allow our Soldiers to maintain overmatch.
GENERATING INNOVATIVE IDEAS
Information on megacities and other trends shaping the future of S&T and military operations serves as input to a series of four Web-based brainstorming “games” designed to engage the community in a broad exploration of future operations and the technologies that could enable our forces. For example, the first game, which ran from Jan. 22 to 27, examined the megacity environment, exploring four main topics: what megacities could look like in 2030-40; how people might live and work in and around megacities; how they might use technology; and what capabilities U.S. forces will need to succeed during military operations in and around a megacity.
ODASA(R&T) recruited more than 60 players for the game from Army labs and research, development and engineering centers, ARCIC, universities, the United States Military Academy at West Point and other organizations. Players participated in a Web-based exchange in which they shared ideas about the game topics through short posts. The game interface enabled players to challenge other players’ ideas, build on interesting ideas and ask probing questions to explore new ground. Players earned points for every post, and the player who accumulated the most points “won.”
These simple game mechanics proved highly effective in creating a free-flowing debate and fresh thinking. For example, during the first game, a group of players explored the idea of using supply drones and holographic disguises to enable squads to use “flash mob” tactics—infiltrating an area by blending into the surroundings, quickly conducting a raid or other mission, and then blending back into the populace.
As with any brainstorming exercise, the specifics of any single idea were less important than the connections that people made among themselves and with the ideas. Holographic disguises, like those in the film “Total Recall,” might not pan out, but the basic idea drove interesting discussion about how we could better disguise troop movement in congested urban centers.
The second game, which ran from Feb. 24 to 28, explored how developments in materials science; energy; biology, medical and other life sciences; and robotics over the next 30 years will shape society and military capabilities. (See Figure 1.)
The third game, scheduled for late April, will build on ideas gathered in the first two games and dig more deeply into ideas for technologies that could provide overmatch capabilities across a range of potential Army operations in the megacities of 2030-40, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counterterrorism. The fourth and final game, scheduled for early May, will zero in on four specific topics that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (OASA(ALT)) and TRADOC have identified as important areas for innovation: mobile protected fires (robotics and unmanned fire support); identity control technologies (friend versus foe and deception technologies); enhancing human performance (cognitive and physical augmentation); and communications “beyond digital” (quantum communications and other technologies).
ANALYZING IDEAS, UNCOVERING INSIGHTS
Based on the number of ideas generated in the first two games, players could contribute close to 4,000 “raw” ideas during the four Web-based brainstorming games planned for SciTech Recon 2030. A team of analysts that the ODASA(R&T) recruited from government labs, academia and industry will mine these data for important insights and concepts that can inform strategic decision-making. The team will combine formal analysis techniques, such as technology sequence analysis, with expert interviews and archival research to identify insights about the nature of conflict in 2030-40, capabilities the Army might need in future operations, and technology concepts that could provide overmatch for the future force.
As an example, there was a rich discussion during the first exercise about trends in human augmentation, including technologies such as exoskeletons that can enhance physical performance and “nootropic” drugs that can boost mental performance. A number of players commented that in future megacities, these augmentations could be common in the civilian population. The wealthy might shop for night vision-enhanced contact lenses at trendy “augmentation boutiques,” while poor manual laborers might buy used exoskeletons from black market “chop shops.” Players discussed how the Army would handle crowd control, or partner with augmented civilians during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
The theme of augmentation continued during the second exercise, with players contributing Web links to the latest research on performance enhancements, such as U.S. Special Operations Command’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program, which aims to field a full-body exoskeleton to special operations units as early as 2018. Players debated the technical challenges of this system and other augmentation concepts. The dialogue quickly characterized the key S&T challenges related to human augmentation and provided references and pointers to the academic literature and industry developments. The third and fourth exercises will carry the theme of human augmentation forward to a more focused exploration of the underlying S&T and potential operational applications.
The ODASA(R&T) team will use all of the resulting data to compile a detailed narrative on the potential impact of human augmentation for future operations in megacities and other environments. In addition to the ideas coming out of the Web-based games, the team will conduct focused interviews with experts on augmentation technologies to better understand the potential of this technology. The team is also partnering with the Library of Congress to identify investment in augmentation and other technologies by foreign governments, including potential adversaries. All of this information will be used to create a set of “concept cards”—narrative descriptions, with graphics and other media, portraying possible future augmentation technologies that could emerge over the next 20-30 years.
This process will also apply to other technology domains emerging from the SciTech Recon 2030 campaign, such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and atomtronics (atomic-scale circuitry). The result will be a thorough analysis of future trends in S&T that could have profound impacts on military capabilities. Reports and other information products will be available to the Army S&T community, TRADOC and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to help shape strategic dialogue about the future.
FOSTERING STRATEGIC DIALOGUE
In industry, front-end innovation processes generally drive toward go or no-go recommendations for new product development. That is not the objective of SciTech Recon 2030. Instead, the vision is to inform strategic conversations on technologies that could deliver leap-ahead capabilities for the future force, and how best to align resources and organizations to pursue those opportunities. The ODASA(R&T) views this initiative as part of a broader Army effort to break down communication barriers that have hindered innovation.
The ultimate goal is to build direct, collaborative bridges between the technical and tactical communities. The traditional model, in which TRADOC and ASA(ALT) toss guidance and information back and forth over bureaucratic walls, will not support the kind of fresh thinking the Army needs to maintain overmatch in future conflicts.
Rather, the ODASA(R&T) intends for the process outlined here to help lay the foundation for a unified innovation pipeline. This will support ARCIC with solid S&T inputs that will help the organization craft operational concepts and articulate technology needs that result in realistic, innovative solutions. Simultaneously, the S&T community benefits by gaining an operational perspective that helps ground technical innovation.
As Thomas Edison noted, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” While it is still early days, the SciTech Recon 2030 pilot initiative has already paid off in new collaborations between TRADOC and ASA(ALT). The Consolidated S&T Trends report is complete and is being disseminated to stakeholders throughout the Army. This report is on the reading list for the TRADOC-ARCIC Strategic Trends Seminar, a UQ activity that brings together experts from across the armed forces, academia and think tanks to consider the broad technology trends that will shape future operations. At press time, the first three idea-generation games will be complete, with emerging results provided to the S&T enterprise and ARCIC.
Early feedback on SciTech Recon 2030 from the S&T community and TRADOC has been positive. The ODASA(R&T) is incorporating recommendations from stakeholders and participants into plans for the next iteration, which will begin this summer. As the process moves ahead, the ODASA(R&T) welcomes wide participation from the AL&T community in fostering an unparalleled culture of innovation for Army S&T.
For more information, please contact Dr. Jason Augustyn at email@example.com.
LT. COL. JOEL DILLON is the director of technology war gaming and manufacturing for the ODASA(R&T) and the overall lead for SciTech Recon 2030. He holds an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA). He is Level III certified in program management and Level II certified in systems engineering, and is a member of the U.S. Army Acquisition Corps.
DR. JASON AUGUSTYN is a founding partner at FutureScout LLC, which helps organizations build resilience through foresight, strategy and culture. FutureScout led development of the Consolidated S&T Trends Report and the design of the SciTech Recon 2030 process. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.S. in psychology from The Pennsylvania State University, and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Rhode Island.
MS. JULIA KIM is a project director at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, which leads the design and execution of the Web-based brainstorming games. She holds an M.A. and B.A. in the history of science from Harvard University.
MR. DOMINIC JU is an applied research scientist and program manager for the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corp., which leads research and concept analysis for SciTech Recon 2030. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a B.A. in history and transatlantic security from Tufts. He also attended the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany and Paris-Sorbonne University in France.
Dr. Kevin Leonard, physicist, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate; Mr. Daniel Evans, senior researcher, USMA Network Science Center; and Dr. Nicholas Sambulak, defense S&T analyst, Future of Army Science & Technology Network, USMA.
This article was originally published in the April – June 2014 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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