No More Solitude: How To Make DoD the Next Google


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Nothing will change the fact that I cannot produce the least thing without absolute solitude.” He could have easily been describing the current culture of innovation within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Despite repeated attempts at driving collaboration inside the Pentagon, across government, and with our allies, DoD remains resistant to fostering the collaborative environment needed to access innovation trends shaping the technology landscape. It is within this context that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering has released new guidance aimed at driving DoD technology collaboration with allied partners, entitled International S&T Engagement Strategy.

The new strategy aims to “ensure a coordinated and strategic approach to international science and technology cooperation…achieving this will deliver improved capability through our own research, development and acquisition programs, and help to build capacity and capability with our international partners.” Motivated by sequestration-era spending cuts and an increasingly competitive global R&D landscape that threatens to undermine the Pentagon’s historical technological edge, the Science & Technology strategy reflects the growing recognition among Pentagon leadership that retaining the U.S. military’s technological edge requires new approaches to collaborative capability development. Not unlike the recent Performance of the Defense Acquisition System study effort, this new Strategy proposes to leverage “Big Data” to identify opportunities to improve how DoD sources new capabilities. It will achieve this objective by analyzing data collected in order to synchronize U.S. defense R&D objectives with those of allied nations. But the Strategy is short on particulars as to how the desired outcomes will be accomplished, leaving details about implementation to the discretion of the services, combatant commands, and DoD agencies. The Strategy also comes up short in failing to address how to actually create the collaborative environment that DoD desires.

Along these lines, the Brookings Institution recently published a study by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner entitled “Rise of the Innovation Districts,” which broadly describes the spatial and social geography underwriting the regional innovation successes of places like Silicon Valley. The study seeks to identify the factors that enable innovation at scale, with an eye towards promulgating these factors to new localities. Katz and Wagner dispel the notion that innovation is something that just happens. Instead, they make a compelling case that a sustainable innovation “ecosystem” is a function of the interaction of economic, physical and networking assets, underwritten by a supportive, risk-taking culture.

Ultimately, the outcomes envisioned in the Strategy will only be realized if the Pentagon creates the conditions for self-motivated government “intrapreneurs” to identify and capitalize on international S&T collaboration opportunities in a more organic and “unplanned” manner. Given that the economics of collaborative innovation are being perfected in the commercial high tech marketplace, it stands to reason that DoD should internalize some of the conclusions documented in “The Rise of Innovation Districts” for a more productive dialogue with allied nations. Some of the more relevant of these conclusions include:

Proximity. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The brightest stars in the high-tech universe are characterized by collaborative, proximate clusters of complementary innovators, academics and industries. Successful innovation ecosystems capitalize on local interactions as a basis for building “strong” links between stakeholders enabling the transfer of ideas and resources as well as the discovery of unexpected opportunities. Improving capability and offsetting development costs through enhanced S&T engagement means setting the conditions for more regular, sustained and fulsome access to international partners. Such an approach does not simply imply more personnel exchange opportunities. It means investing in communities where international stakeholders representing the S&T, operational and acquisition communities can leverage shared infrastructure and work side-by-side to develop technology concepts that inform DoD (and allied) acquisition programs. Nascent efforts like NATO’s mission-focused Centers of Excellence (COEs) and the Allied Command Transformation’s Innovation Hub in Norfolk, Virginia could provide the basis for a network of international “Battle Labs.” These labs would function as focal points for international, defense-focused innovation.

Openness. Successful innovation districts balance the imperatives of openness with competitive pressures and intellectual property concerns. High-tech heavyweights like General Electric are aggressively pursuing “open innovation” models, where leadership emphasizes collaboration with outside partners like Quirky and Local Motors to mine the global technology commons for disruptive new ideas. Such models foretell a future in which the most competitive technology organizations are the ones that position themselves as focal points of innovation flow. Like competitive industry, DoD must strike the appropriate balance between sharing and security. However, in a world where technologies are quickly rendered obsolete, protecting technology secrets is less important than ever before with competitive advantage favoring the players able to rapidly capitalize on transient technology opportunities derived from a wide range of sources. Increasingly, such opportunities accrue to the organizations that promote external engagement as a core competence. To this end, the DoD Information Analysis Centers Technology Domain Awareness (TDA) initiative is one effort that underwrites improved information sharing between defense stakeholders and commercial industry.

Incentives. Collaborative innovation is based on a foundation of incentives that align the interests of different stakeholders in an explicit and mutually reinforcing manner. From an industry perspective, financial reward is an important incentive, but not the only one. Patriotism, the challenge of solving hard problems, advancing the state of the art, recognition, and competition, to name a few, are all important levers that can be used to promote the emergence of an innovation ecosystem that transcends the traditional defense industrial base. The identification and development of mechanisms addressing a full range of incentives requires DoD to embrace new modes of interaction with the S&T community that go beyond the transactional, arms-length relationships dictated by the Federal Acquisition Regulations. One DoD effort that is currently capitalizing on alternate incentives is the U.S. Army’s Open Campus initiative, which provides opportunities for university-based researchers to work alongside their Army counterparts and leverage the Army Research Laboratory’s technical facilities in the co-development of innovations relevant to Army needs. Such efforts, if embraced throughout the DoD enterprise, promise to greatly expand opportunities for DoD to “federate” the non-defense S&T community as part of an extended Defense Innovation Base.

Maintaining the U.S. military’s technological edge requires an approach to innovation that internalizes the lessons of the most successful segments of the global high tech economy, where the sustained, open interactions of diverse and properly incentivized stakeholders drive breakthrough products. The good news is that efforts contributing to this goal are already underway inside DoD; however, to achieve the necessary enterprise-wide outcomes, such efforts must be reinforced, and expanded by a similarly aligned S&T strategy – one establishing a coherent, detailed framework within which collaborative innovation that reaches beyond traditional defense stakeholders can emerge as a core DoD competence.


Adam Jay Harrison is the Director for the Center for Smart Defense. He was formerly a uniformed and civilian employee of the Department of Defense and the founder of Mav6 LLC, a defense technology company.

Stephen Rodriguez is Managing Partner at Coldon Strategic Advisors and has thirteen years of operational experience ranging from Afghanistan to Colombia in strategic planning, corporate strategy, and business development. He is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York Fellow at the National Review Institute, Chairman of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Leadership Council, and a member of the Leadership Council at IAVA.


Photo credit: U.S. Army RDECOM