This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. Last week in Boston, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced significant improvements and expansion of the Pentagon’s capability to work with agile innovators. These two events are related in very important ways.
The Apollo program’s moon landings remain among the most significant accomplishments of “big science,” the term used to describe a program of developing and achieving innovations using large centralized teams. Generally, big science addresses challenges that are believed to not be suitable for solution by small autonomous groups.
During World War II, big science became a tactic for creating advanced technologies, the most emblematic being the Manhattan Project — the research and development effort behind the first nuclear weapons. After the war, big science continued to be the primary model for discovering new innovations. A vast network of university and federal labs was created to continue to advance technology, and the model was adopted by private companies such as AT&T in its Bell Labs.
Much of the development and application of big science was promoted and funded by the Department of Defense. As Secretary Carter stated last week, the Defense Department had a long history of working to develop important new technologies such as the jet engine, satellite communications, Internet, and GPS. He noted that this “cooperation among industry, the academy and government helped make our military what it is today: the finest fighting force the world has ever known.”
Over the last 20 years, the big science model has been challenged by the emergence of innovation from small and agile teams. It has been facilitated by the commoditization of software — lowering the costs of creating software to effectively zero — as well as the emergence of alternative funding models such as crowd funding, Internet investing and the growth of venture capital. These changes are often described collectively as the “democratization of innovation.”
Innovation approaches that focus on the customer, such as design thinking, or rapid customer acquisition, such as lean start-up methodologies, are only possible because technology has become ever cheaper to develop and deploy.
This change has largely occurred outside of the DoD’s influence and engagement, creating an innovation blindspot. Now the Pentagon is trying to make up for lost time by embracing new methods to be able to work with these agile innovators. According to Secretary Carter, this will occur “by developing new partnerships with the private sector across America’s many great hubs of unrivaled innovation. Places like Austin, Seattle, Silicon Valley and, of course, right here in Boston.”
As someone who works with the national security establishment to help it identify and work with agile innovators, I can say from first-hand knowledge that the programmatic approaches adopted by Secretary Carter will be successful if executed properly. Many of us in the venture capital and business community agree with his analysis of the democratization of innovation.
Big science cannot address all commercial or societal challenges, nor is it suitable for many of our national security threats, because nimble changes in cyber threats are too fast to be solved with long-term projects. (After all, our adversaries who threaten us also take advantage of the democratization of innovation!)
The greater Washington region has benefited greatly from big science. It has more than 100 federal labs, prominent federally funded research labs and a large government contracting industry.
But the question now is whether our region is configured to participate and continue to partner with DoD as it modifies its approaches to innovation. It is significant that Secretary Carter neglected to mention the greater Washington region as an innovation hub in his speech last week.
For our nation, the DoD’s willingness to better engage with agile innovators is a giant leap forward. For the greater Washington region’s innovation community, the eclipse of big science may become its biggest challenge.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.