Incoming: Where Innovation Equals Revolution

July 1, 2018
By Terry Halvorsen

I wasn’t sure how to define this article. I tossed around some ideas, but none seemed quite right. Are we winning the technology race? Are we still the best and brightest? Is the United States losing ground because it is too late to adopt technology? Instead, I will answer questions I have been asked as I travel the globe. These frequently asked questions come from governments, allies, industry, academia and the media.

Where are America’s best and brightest technology innovators? Does this country still have the best and brightest innovators? Globally, is the nation losing both the information technology battle and the cyber battle? Is it failing to keep its competitive edge in adopting new technology? My answer is simple and to the point. The best and brightest are where they always have been: right here in America’s government, industry and academia.

These individuals are from all parts of the United States, from all parts of the world and from every race, gender, culture, sexual orientation and religion. They are old and young and span the economic ladder, and together this amalgamation of people represents the best the world has to offer. America has its social, economic and cultural integration problems, but as I travel around the globe, America still represents the place where people want to come and where the best opportunities for collaborative accomplishment exists. It is the place where big successes are still most likely to be shared with the world as a whole and where big failures have the best chance of being discussed, analyzed and celebrated in open forums.

Is America’s industry and partnership with government still the secret weapon that gives the nation a competitive edge? Is the government’s acquisition system too broken to accomplish the next technology moonshot? Can America win the race to the next information age?

These questions are harder to answer and require an understanding of the American culture and values built into the acquisition process. Like any big government system, federal acquisition has rules and laws designed to serve multiple purposes. Our acquisition system was devised to complete projects, buy things and ensure a high degree of fairness. We place a high value on performance outcomes. The system allows for the fact that sometimes what is being acquired is new—new in technology, new in application, new in every sense. The acquisition system makes room for incremental failures and allows the process to continue, even when outcomes aren’t certain or when the first solution potentially isn’t the endgame.

Overall, the system has accomplished what it was intended to do for most normal projects. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t stop questioning the process. The current round of discussions on reform should continue, and some of the recommendations should be immediately accepted. But maybe the system just doesn’t work for the big information technology projects—those extraordinary opportunities and challenges that drive revolutionary change.

To answer the question about moonshots, we need to look at history. It may be that to accomplish really big projects, such as building an atomic bomb or putting people on the moon, we need to go outside the normal process. The Manhattan Project and the space race programs were special projects done outside the normal process, as were many of the other major World War II acquisition efforts. The design and development of the Internet was another project that required a special relationship between the government, industry and academia. Each of these projects had a specific goal and was in response to a defined crisis situation. They were inspirational, had exceptional leadership and crossed political, regulatory and behavioral boundaries.

The current climate is right to establish a moonshot project, given the convergence of 5G, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. The world is on the cusp of another information revolution. We are entering a period where data, plus the application of timely intelligence, will become the world’s most valuable asset. The alliance of government, industry and academia that best harnesses this next information age will hold economic, military and political hegemony across the globe.

America remains the best-positioned country to lead this next revolution. Yes, America’s industry and government partnership is still the secret weapon providing the edge. And, no, the government acquisition process isn’t too broken to accomplish this next moonshot. America and her allies have a long tradition of starting a little slow but closing fast and finishing first. The next 18 months will determine if we keep that edge. Stay tuned.

As always, I welcome feedback and counterbattery at signalnews@afcea.org.

Terry Halvorsen, the chief information officer (CIO) and an executive vice president with Samsung Electronics, is the former U.S. Defense Department CIO. He also has served as the Department of the Navy CIO.

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