Incoming: How to Prime the Innovation Pump

August 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

When global positioning system (GPS) devices entered the consumer marketplace, they were big, clunky and not user friendly. To reach a location, users had to input waypoints and then be sure to stay on the line connecting each one. Despite their difficulties, early GPS receivers represented a typically incremental pathway for innovation: evolving from an early military application to becoming extremely useful on a commercial basis when connected to digital maps.

Now, GPS connectivity is standard in cars, smart phones and fitness devices, and the innovation continues with applications for autonomous farming equipment, online cargo tracking and smart munitions.

What has powered so much innovation in the United States is the access to raw materials, an educated and productive workforce and investments in scientific programs. This has allowed the nation to pursue policy objectives and maintain its superior position and influence for many decades.

But innovation is ravenous, and there is a risk of falling behind without continual focus on better systems, processes and the ability to execute policies within every organization. That risk is evident when you consider the volume of legacy organizational, business and military systems that are still in use today. Instead of meeting challenges posed by adversaries and the speed of change, these relics serve as today’s Maginot Line.

In the meantime, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, China is closing the innovation gap with the United States. According to a 2019 study, which measured 36 indicators such as investment in research and development, China has increased its proportion of the world’s supercomputers in the preceding decade. That nation also filed for more patents at a rate totaling 81 percent of U.S. patents, up from 10 percent.

What will it take to offset this trend and reinvigorate the U.S. stance toward innovation?

First, there’s a need to stay grounded in what defines innovation. Improvements to existing solutions such as GPS are vital, but in parallel, the country needs to make investments in research and development that have never been done before. The Manhattan Project, the Apollo program, the Human Genome project and mobile device development kicked off numerous downstream innovations.

Second, leaders must remain committed to a long-term period of research, development, testing and production. There is little instant gratification in the innovation journey, and the culture must encourage scientists and other participants to continue despite inevitable failures. Even when there is not a specific problem to solve, funding and policies need to facilitate creative environments in agencies and companies.

Third, rolling out an innovation requires a phased approach so that users become accustomed to it. Positioning innovation as a valuable asset, providing training for it and refining it must be included in a strategy that accommodates both early adopters and laggards. Each group has different slants on its value and distinct inclinations for using it.

Today’s COVID-19 pandemic highlights the risk of neglecting innovation. Just when growth in the number of positive cases accelerated, it became evident that primary manufacturing sources of personal protective equipment (PPE) were overseas. This means there is little control over the direction of research for the nation’s requirements for gloves, gowns and masks, and fewer industrial resources for production.

In effect, the decisions surrounding PPE production were built around minimum requirements and lower cost, not innovation. In the fragmented PPE industry, this can present challenges such as the quality of materials used, supply disruption due to global politics, not enough factories to repurpose assembly lines in a crisis and susceptibility to unknown vulnerabilities.

Fortunately, there has been a silver lining of innovation amid the pandemic. Forward-thinking automobile manufacturers have been able to retool their plants and produce necessary ventilators for hospital patients. Eager drug companies have sped up vaccine research with political support. And community-centric organizations and individuals have made face shields with 3D printers.

The seeds of innovation are present and growing. Strong incentives from the government will sustain that momentum, and part of that must include striking a balance between domestic and overseas manufacturing to avoid future shortages of critical solutions. There is just too much risk in maintaining the status quo.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta Inc.’s Defense Group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Defense Department Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM). 

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