Since President Obama took office, the United States has faced a number of security threats and subsequent decisions about the most optimal ways to address them. Some of the threats are new, as is the case with the rise of ISIS, while others mark the return of Cold War tensions, as in the form of a resurgent Russia.
Although the landscape of threats has changed in recent years, U.S. strategies bear striking resemblance to the ways policymakers dealt with crises in the past. Whether it involves diplomatic overtures, sanctions, bombing campaigns, or the use of special ops and covert operations, the range of responses suffers from innovation deficit. Even the use of drones, while a new tool of warfare, is still part of the limited categories of responses that focus mainly on whether or not to kill, cooperate, or do nothing. To meet the evolving nature of threats posed by nonstate actors such as ISIS, the United States needs a strategy makeover — a creative lift, so to speak.
Sanctions, diplomacy, bombing campaigns, special ops, covert operations — the range of our foreign policy responses suffers from an innovation deficit.
Enter the business world. Today’s top companies face an increasingly competitive marketplace where innovative approaches to product and service development are a necessity. Just as the market has changed for companies since the forces of globalization and the digital economy took over, so has the security landscape evolved for the world’s leading hegemon. Yet the responses of top businesses to these changes stand in stark contrast to the United States’ stagnant approaches to current national security threats. Many of today’s thriving businesses have embraced design thinking (DT), an innovative process that identifies consumer needs through immersive ethnographic experiences that are melded with creative brainstorming and quick prototyping.
What would happen if U.S. policymakers took cues from the business world and applied DT in policy development? Could the United States prevent the threats from metastasizing with more proactive rather than reactive strategies — by discovering, for example, how ideas from biology, engineering, and other fields could help analysts inject fresh perspective into tired solutions? Put simply, if U.S. policymakers want to succeed in managing future threats, then they need to start thinking more like business innovators who integrate human needs with technology and economic feasibility.
In his 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon made the first connection between design and a way of thinking. But it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that Stanford scientists began to see the benefits of design practices used by industrial designers as a method for creative thinking. At the core of DT is the idea that solving a challenge requires a deeper understanding of the problem’s true nature and the processes and people involved. This approach contrasts greatly with more standard innovation styles, where a policy solution is developed and then resources are used to fit the solution to the problem. DT reverses the order.
DT encourages divergent thinking, the process of generating many ideas before converging to select the most feasible ones, including making connections between different-yet-related worlds. Finally, the top ideas are quickly prototyped and tested so that early solutions can be modified without investing many resources and risking the biggest obstacle to real innovation: the impulse to try fitting an idea, product, policy to the people, rather of the other way around.
Today, DT is embraced by many major companies and venture capital firms. IBM, for example, is set to hire 1,000 designers and implement DT as part of its management training. In 2003, LEGO, the iconic toy company, nearly treaded the path toward bankruptcy, only to become a world-leading toy manufacturer in 2014. Its resurrection was possible in part thanks to the establishment of the Future Lab, a group of designers, ethnographers, and builders who rely on DT to innovate the future of LEGO. The Future Lab’s army of ethnographers went back to the basics — in LEGO’s case, by learning as much as possible about how children play — before attempting any product design.
The success of design thinking in the private sector has led to its increasing popularity in the nonprofit and civic-minded world. Consider the case of Team Rubicon, an organization that relies on military veterans to provide disaster response. Established with only six veterans in the United States in 2010, the organization now boasts more than 28,000 volunteers worldwide. As it aimed to expand globally, Team Rubicon worked with IDEO to study the challenge of scaling and prepare the organization to grow. Some of their ideas came from unlikely sources, studying the character of Chinese restaurants, for instance, or the strong brand identity of the notorious Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. By combining insights from related worlds with extensive ethnographic research involving interviews with disaster victims, nongovernmental organizations, charitable organizations, the armed forces, and first responders, Team Rubicon developed a vision for Team Rubicon Global that would connect and bring together country-level teams to form a global network of volunteers. Of particular inspiration was the shared sense of identity between the myriad local chapters of Hells Angels. To grow into a thriving organization, Team Rubicon Global would foster deeper connections between its various national-level teams through an emphasis on common culture, storytelling, and dissemination of best practices.
Turning to the model of Hells Angels might sound like an unusual approach to promoting disaster response, but it is precisely what made Team Rubicon’s growth possible. According to ?What If!, a firm that consults with businesses on their innovation needs, identifying situations and experiences from other contexts (the so-called related worlds analogy), and applying them in a creative manner to a given problem brings novelty into problem solving. A motorcycle club might deal with a different problem area than those who seek to improve disaster response, but the goal of expanding an organization is a common linking thread.
What would happen if U.S. policymakers took cues from the business world and applied DT in policy development?
If DT has reenergized the innovative process in the business and nonprofit sector, a systematic application of its methodology could just as well revitalize U.S. national security policies. Innovation in security and foreign policy is often framed around the idea of technological breakthroughs. Thanks to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Defense has been credited with such groundbreaking inventions as GPS, the Internet, and stealth fighters — all of which have created rich opportunities to explore new military strategies. Reflecting this infatuation with technology, but with a new edge, is Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s unveiling of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, an initiative to scout for new technologies, improve outreach to startups, and form deeper relationships between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley. The new DIUE effort signals what businesses have already noticed: the need to be more flexible in establishing linkages with people outside of the government in search for new ideas.
Yet because the primary objective of DIUE remains technological prowess, the effort alone is unlikely to drastically improve the management of national security. Technology is not a substitute for an innovative process. When new invention is prized as the sole focus of innovation, it can, paradoxically, paralyze innovation. Once an invention is adopted, it is all too tempting to mold subsequent policy development around emergent technology, even if other solutions could be more appropriate.
Technology is not a substitute for the process of innovation.
Take the case of the State Department. Under the leadership of Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2013, “digital diplomacy” became an important aspect of statecraft in the 21st century. Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms create opportunities for diplomats not only to post ideas and comments but also to learn about citizens’ attitudes around the world, said Ross in a 2013 Huffington Post interview. This undoubtedly improves policy planners’ understanding of pressing global challenges, yet it can also build a momentum for generating technology-focused solutions even in contexts when such solutions are ill-fitted. For instance, In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the State Department introduced a mobile payments technology to curb corruption in the cash-based systems in the military, but the solution failed because of local bureaucracy and corruption. Even Ross acknowledged that some solutions “require more than code.”
Meeting multifaceted national security challenges requires a novel strategy that can be developed by a diverse team of people well versed in design thinking methodology. Because DT deals with so-called “wicked problems” — challenges that are not well defined or understood, and for which finding solutions is not merely an exercise in acquiring more technical expertise — the process is particularly suited for managing security challenges in the increasingly complex world.
For all of these reasons, I propose the formation of a National Security Innovation Lab (NSIL), a forward-looking policymaking organization that operates along DT principles. The task of putting together this innovative team could start by approaching national security from a multidisciplinary perspective. After all, the origin of most security threats today is in some way connected to other policy areas, such as energy, trade, or human rights.
In the aftermath of initial failures in Iraq, the Pentagon and the State Department realized in 2005, albeit temporarily, the significance of interdepartmental cooperation when the military joined forces with diplomats to build better relations with local populations and strengthen Iraqi governance. After incidents involving private military contractors alienating locals through indiscriminate use of force, the Pentagon recognized that relying on brute force alone would not be enough to sustain military gains.
To solve this challenge, it embarked on what Nathan Hodge refers to as “armed humanitarianism,” an undertaking that would involve the military forging connections with diplomats and ethnographers to help them gain the trust of the locals as part of a new, revamped military strategy. In 2009, Heather Boesch, a creativity expert who contracted with the Iraqi Transportation Network, and a team of ethnographers spent time in Iraq getting to know tribal elders, an attempt to build empathy with the communities and find a way to reduce U.S. casualty rates from IEDs. Boesch and her team managed to convince tribal leaders to work with the U.S. military instead of against it by taking the time to uncover the communities’ needs and grievances. Realizing that the elders felt personally responsible for providing jobs to their tribes, the team helped them develop a sustainable transportation business staffed with men from local communities. In exchange, the elders would use their power to ensure safe transportation between the United States’ forward military bases. And so the Iraqi Transportation Network was born and with it a solution that not only eliminated human casualties from improvised explosive devices on those transportation routes but also created a secure economic environment.
Despite the success of initiatives such as Iraqi Transportation Network, the ethnographic approach has since lost its momentum as a sustainable strategy of national security. Many in the military became disillusioned with the challenge of syncing the softer tactic with military strategy. There was also no overarching system developed to encourage coordination between the departments of state and defense. Yet the effort’s ups and downs illustrate a somewhat uncomfortable truth: collaborating with other departments is no longer an option, it’s a necessity.
A future NSIL might consist of 36 individuals representing 12 departments. Out of 15 cabinet departments in the U.S. federal government, a case could be made that 12 of these departments focus on policy areas that have either direct or indirect connection to some aspect of national security. Today, we must think beyond Defense and State. Insights from educational policy, for example, could be useful in managing postconflict reconstruction in war-torn areas to prevent extremist clerics from setting up divisive educational approaches that promote the diffusion of jihadist propaganda.
When faced with a broad policy challenge — for example, how to reduce the influence of jihadist movements around the globe — teams would connect with ethnographers to first gain a better understanding of the issue and to specify the critical cause of the problem that demands the greatest attention. This means abandoning previously held assumptions about the rise of such movements, and embracing the type of ethnographic approach that is well suited to uncover the true nature of social phenomena. Most ethnographers have a deep understanding of specific populations, cultures and lifestyles that they observe and study directly. They notice the person’s gestures and facial expressions and tap into nonverbal communication; they uncover social connections in villages, towns, organizations, and the structures that lead to the marginalization of some actors but not others. Put simply, they bring both the complex and human aspect into policymaking — vital for understanding the “real” nature of the problem at the root of the broader challenges we face in a globalized world.
The process of uncovering the real problem is considered the most vital stage in DT because poor understanding of the issues within the broader policy challenge is bound to yield ineffective solutions. Despite the significance of this step, Boesch says it is often overlooked when “developing and implementing policies meant to promote long-term stability in contexts and cultures different from our own.”
Take the case of ISIS. Today, some have argued that airstrikes against ISIS have not diminished the group’s resolve because the nature of its motive and threat has been poorly understood. By adapting the ethnographic perspective embodied in the principles of DT, we will be less likely to pursue solutions that fail to tap into the real root of the problem.
Equipped with knowledge of creativity-building techniques, a NSIL team might ask, for example, where else an analogous problem has been faced or how ideas from different disciplines could be used to produce a novel solution. Some ethnographers, for instance, have linked the existence of strong social connections between ISIS fighters to the bonds developed among gang members. The NSIL might examine ways in which local law enforcement has curbed gang membership in some contexts and adapt some of those insights into our foreign policy. How about invoking the tenets of wildlife biology to solve challenges in similar ecosystems? Anthropologists from UCLA have already helped the police predict the location of gang warfare in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood using models of animal territoriality.
In 2014, Josh Kerbel, chief analytic methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency, argued that addressing today’s security challenges requires making precisely these sorts of unexpected connections. Yet the intelligence community is notoriously resistant to embracing the solution-focused approach espoused by architects and designers. Because NSIL is made up of diverse innovation teams,, it will organically embrace a more holistic approach to ideation, with greater flexibility and openness to synthesizing separate processes that trump singular visions. This creative endeavor is likely to result in a number of possible solutions, requiring evaluation of each. Here the focus will be on whether the idea can be implemented in ways that solve the challenge while minimizing material and human cost.
In the final stage of innovative process, the NSIL is ready to put selected ideas into use. A policy prototype in the context of national security, for example, might involve implementing the policy on a small scale for a designated population for a brief period of time to examine its effect and quickly learn what works and what needs to be adjusted.
My proposal for an NSIL is not without challenges. It would require a cultural shift in how the federal government’s various departments envision collaboration, the flow of ideas, and, most important, the meaning of innovation. The NSIL must operate in what Simon Bray, former director of capability and culture practice at ?What If! in New York City, refers to as “pocket universes”: that is, protective enclaves where the laws and politics that dictate business as usual do not apply — a zone where experimentation is encouraged and nurtured.
It is a drastic change, but one that is needed. Just as the status quo could no longer suffice for businesses that faced new and different competition from a globalized and interconnected world, turning to the same worn-out approaches to national security will be insufficient. Embracing design thinking might just herald a new future in U.S. policymaking.
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Elizabeth Radziszewski, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University.
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