Designing Through Complexity and Human Conflict

Rather than focus on specific or contextual concerns within a single conflict or foreign policy approach, we ought to consider more broadly and abstractly the institutional and international profession challenges in this new millennium.

Approximate reading time: 3 minutes

Design thinking is a movement happening all around us both in the civilian sector and in some military circles. This week IBM hosted its annual SPADE Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. SPADE is IBM’s invite-only, signature event for defense and intelligence. This year’s theme was Re-Thinking Defense and Security in the Digital Age. Ben Zweibelson, a prolific writer and speaker on Military Design, was invited as a keynote speaker. Leading up to his presentation at SPADE, Over the Horizon published a three-part interview with Ben about his upcoming speaking engagement.

Ben’s lecture at SPADE was supplemented with a white paper, entitled Designing through Complexity and Human Conflict: Acknowledging the 21st Century Military Design Movement. In this paper Ben argues that the most significant challenge for 21st century military organizations is a calcification in thought about how the organization operates. He proposes that militaries need disruptive thinking through design to become more adaptive and survive in the Digital Age. He explains how different design movements overlap and draws parallels between military requirements and the Industrial and Civilian Design movements. He then explores the limited Military Design movement and concludes that military design enables innovation and reflective practice which are critical for success against an adaptive enemy. Below is an excerpt from Ben’s paper, the full white paper is available for download here.

What are the most significant challenges for 21st century military organizations currently? Some might think of Iran, Russia, or other rival nation states, while others might consider trans-regional criminal networks, decentralized terror cells, or cybercriminals as the most significant crisis at hand. Rather than focus on specific or contextual concerns within a single conflict or foreign policy approach, we ought to consider more broadly and abstractly the institutional and international profession challenges in this new millennium. If there may be one common ground against all of those aforementioned threats, it might be that a military organization unable or unwilling to change will potentially end up failing against all of them, or perhaps fixating on one without acknowledging others. Militaries, in general, face significant organizational and transformative issues in which the legacy system or ‘modern military form’ is increasingly insufficient in the emergent 21st century ‘post-Industrial’ world’- where a ‘postmodern military form’ may well be disrupting the latter.

The military design movement is confronting the biggest institutional and contextual challenges of the 21st century as human civilization enters this post-Industrial World of increased complexity and sophistication. Previous linear and rather mechanical decision-making methodologies have run their course yet linger within military doctrine as well as culturally and through ritualization within all modern militaries. Militaries are frequently unable to drop favored tools both cognitively and literally, and more significantly militaries lack the reflective practice necessary to appreciate when these mental models are distorting the very understanding of reality as it emerges.

Ben Zweibelson is a retired US Army Infantry officer. He is currently a doctoral student at the Australian National University, and Program Director of Joint Special Operations University, under the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations University, the United States Government or the Australian National University.

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