Designing for the Future of Defense and Security (Interview Part 1)

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is a 4-part series interview between IBM and the Joint Special Operations University’s (JSOU) SOF Design and Innovation Program Director, Ben Zweibelson (Contractor, METIS). Ben spoke with IBM event coordinators for the upcoming SPADE conference to be held in May 2019 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. SPADE is IBM’s invite-only, signature event for defense and intelligence. This year’s theme is “Designing for the Future of Defense and Security” and will address defense design, innovation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the defense incorporation of radical technology within dynamic, complex conflict considerations. Ben Zweibelson, a prolific writer and speaker on Military Defense Design, was invited as a speaker, design group facilitator, and panel moderator. Leading up to his presentation at IBM SPADE, this four-part interview is available, explaining many of the complex challenges in design theory, practice, and education across the international defense community.

John Sarubbi: Okay. Hi. This is John Sarubbi. I’m here with Ben (Zweibelson). Ben and I are going to talk about design thinking for the military.

And we’ll start the interview now, Ben, and let’s talk a little bit about, first, if you can give a little background on yourself and then we’ll go right into the questions, particularly that first question about how design thinking has progressed over this last year.

Ben Zweibelson: Sure. My name is Ben (Zweibelson). I’m the program director for design and innovation here at the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) which is the premier education arm, if you will, for the United States Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM.

Additionally, I am a military contractor working for the company, (Metis), providing that resource to the government. And this interview is by permission and direction of the United States Government representatives here at the Joint Special Operations University for me conduct this.

However, anything I say is of my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the United States (US) Government. As a contractor, I provide a specific service for USSOCOM at JSOU, but additionally I am a doctoral student at the University of Lancaster, in the United Kingdom where I am completing a Ph.D. in Philosophy. There, my research is focused on this military design movement as well as how security organizations across the Anglosphere are transforming due to technology, complexity, and innovation within security contexts. So, the topic today is not just exciting for me as a contractor working at the premier university for Special Operations Forces (SOF) peculiar education at SOCOM, but also as an academic enthusiast of sorts.

#1 Formal Military Design Education Growth

John Sarubbi: How has design thinking in defense advanced in the past 12 months?

Ben Zweibelson: So, the military design movement has grown quite a bit in that short time, but we really should quickly summarize the origins.  Informally, there were numerous islands of disruptive innovation occurring throughout military organizations at different periods, particularly the work of John Boyd in the 1970s-1980s, as well as more eccentric movements such as the ‘First Earth Battalion’ construct established in the US Army in 1979, and of course the establishment of the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies in 1985. Yet all of these precursors are informal applications of military design, in that they did not do what Shimon Naveh accomplished with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the 1990s.

Formally, the ‘defense design movement’ started in the mid-1990s, first with the Israelis where Naveh constructed a completely independent and different way to think and act strategically as well as operationally and arguably even tactically in war. Naveh called his concept “Systemic Operational Design” or SOD, and it was not an enhancement or “bolt-on turbo-charger” for revving up existing strategy and planning methods; it completely broke with them and provided an unrelated alternative. This is what I mean by “formal”, with some of Boyd’s work such as his OODA Loop being bolted onto Joint Operational Planning despite Boyd really being one of the first military postmodern thinkers.

So, Naveh’s formal establishment of military design occurred in the 1990s, and then after 9-11 and after a lot of our Western military started going through significant organizational and mission challenges, particularly the complex strategic challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, design then spread to the Australian and American militaries and then across the industrialized West.

However, that rate of experimentation, theory development, and actual practice by militaries of doing a type of design, was a very small mostly grassroots thing. A lot of design practitioners were, and some still are, considered heretics in their various fields or organizations. Small pockets of design practitioners pop up in various services or organizations, largely because they have grown frustrated with existing methods, language, doctrine, organizational forms, and functions. Yet the traditional feedback loop of “just do the established method better, again, and pay more attention to doing it right” just no longer helps, and in fact it probably drives many away seeking alternatives.

And only over the past several years has there has been a ground swelling where this movement has really taken off widespread, particularly in Europe in the last two to three years. So, that brings us to the last 12 months. I’m sorry, go ahead.

John Sarubbi: No, that’s great. Keep going.

Ben Zweibelson: All right, so in the last 12 months, you’ve had a significant number of military professional education institutions – these are ‘PME’, is what their acronym is, but for military that’s how they teach their officers, their enlisted.

These are the different schools that they have at various levels in your career path. From lieutenants all the way up to general officers at war colleges will receive a wide, military-focused curriculum on various topics. PME is vast, expansive, and quite integrated with civilian academia, industry, and the military establishment.

Only in the past few years has military design or ‘defense design’ become one of those topics. And that continues to spread. So, now you have design education occurring at multiple United States military war colleges and intermediate education. The US Air War College, National Defense University, the Naval Postgraduate School, and advanced planner schools such as the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and so on.

You also have it internationally at, for example, the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, as well as the Royal Military Academies in Montreal and Kingston. You have it at – the French are looking at this at their (Saint Cyr) Academy for their cadets. And it’s also now being implemented at NATO Schools in Oberammergau, Germany for this summer using the JSOU methodology for design education. The Royal Danish War College has been looking at it and hosting lectures in design, as well as other militaries such as Sweden, Norway, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Colombia, the UK and so forth.

And so what you’re seeing in the past 12 months is a deliberate growth, if you will, of formal military design education, particularly at the field grade or intermediate officer level, all the way up to even potential general officers or war college students.

Perhaps one common theme across the basic or introductory design modules might be, well, what is military design? And more importantly, why do we need it? How does it work, and does it relate to existing methods and organizational forms, or does it act as some sort of disrupting agent? Is this ‘destructive innovation’ sort of thing how defense industries are shaking things up and getting the organization to let go of outdated or counterproductive concepts, terminology, activities, and behaviors?

Most of these PMEs are struggling with some core educational questions (pedagogic, andragogic, what have you), namely: How are we going to do this design in defense and security contexts? How do we teach it effectively? How does innovation relate or work in tension with efficiency and production? Risk reduction and risk enhancement are two different things, but you cannot do one and not the other if you are trying to be both innovative and more efficient.

Design is primarily about change, as well as reflectively practicing in action so that as “change changes the change”, the military organization is reflecting upon this as they are acting in a dense, complex, and confusing context. Doing strategy and planning without design is akin to being a non-reflective practitioner, or as complexity theorist Russell Ackoff used to say, “doing the wrong thing right just makes you more wronger.” Design gets us away from that and into “doing the right things wrong”…which is that part of a high risk tolerance with innovation, so that you can eventually move into “doing the right things right” which is impossible to get to from “doing the wrong things right.” Those do not meet, ever.

Design breaks us of those sorts of dysfunctional behaviors, but it usually has to do it in a destructively innovative manner, breaking down institutionalisms and codified behaviors and outdated practices that have somehow become ritualized and “unquestionable” truths. So design takes a different mindset, and you start off small with a core group of creative, curious, and dedicated professionals.  And then how do we rapidly scale it across our military institutions or even beyond that into other government agencies and then also drawing upon industry and academia and think tanks and all these other things?

Because all of the challenges that these organizations are facing in the security context today are quite complex, quite dynamic and extremely demanding, and no one including designers ever have all the right answers, or even some of them. Or any of them, for that matter. I am a huge skeptic of anyone trying to convince me that they have any of the right answers in complex or chaotic situations.

What I do think design brings to the table is a learning mindset and ability to establish reflective practitioners that are mindful as they proceed, mindful of the consequences of their efforts, but also creative and patient in knowing that emergence is never linear or causal. Doing X does not lead to Y, where you can then solve for X every time. In innovation, doing X and seeing it lead to what appears to be a failure is usually the end of the road for very linear, mechanically thinking military professionals…they see it as proof of validating the legacy system of set methods in a quantifiable way.

Thus, innovation is usually stifled because the only innovation accepted or even tolerated are those one-step-removed from initial strategic experimentation. They do experiment X, which leads to Y…and if Y happens to be that one-step-removed act of innovation they are looking for, the design is accepted and they move into strategy-making or detailed planning. If it fails, they usually restart and commence with another one-step tolerance mindset. These are profoundly challenging circumstances for PMEs to wrestle with, because defense design is really intent on destructive innovation which can seem completely heretical at first glance.

Design done in that manner will probably upset the faculty, the committees in charge of validating curriculum, and likely a good chunk of students will also reject it. This already has happened in the Canadian Forces College that Dr. Paul Mitchell wrote about, as well as situations similar to that with Naveh in Australia, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and even in SOCOM. Elsewhere, NDU has had similar situations where design was or is rejected by enough faculty or students so that it causes frustration. Dr. Chris Paparone lectured on this when he was at JSOU recently and that lecture is now available on YouTube under the ‘JSOU User’ channel, in fact.

Yet, everyone at the PME level really wants innovation and organizational change, but they fear when a course is too disruptive, or if it does not look like all the other existing courses and has the same metrics, the same course critiques, and the same effects…which is a total paradox when you think about it. The course you want is about disrupting the establishment in order to bring about real innovation and creative change, but you also want that course to act and look like the very things you are trying to disrupt.

Now, there are many different styles as well as techniques and methods for teaching design, and not all are as well received as others. There is an art to it, of course, and there are personalities, and there are also lots of hacks out there now trying to gain attention or make a dollar jumping onto the bandwagon. Naveh once called these people “parrots” which is a good metaphor. They can utter the terms but when you press them, they cannot explain them, or really teach them. Most telling, the parrots never really can explain the reason for how they even do their form of design, nor can they express other ways of design, and why there are advantages and vulnerabilities across all ways of doing design due to the complexity of humans interacting within an even more complex reality.

Now, parrots are unavoidable and they do serve useful purpose in design for establishing benchmarks and quality as well as highlighting the distinctions between mainstream and emergent or controversial ways of designing. In architectural design we need exceptional office buildings and public spaces, but we also need rather generic gas stations and utility closets or public toilets. Across all of the various design actors in the defense industry today, there is probably one thing almost all design stakeholders can at least agree upon. The design movement in defense is growing, maturing, questioning itself, and expressing innovation and organizational change in increasingly diverse and fruitful ways. As more security organizations experiment with design concepts and learn various design methodologies, their cultural qualities, belief systems, and preferred organizational behaviors will continue to be expressed through their own way of design. Thus, the suggestion of “the way” of any sort of design becomes paradoxical and collapses under its own hubris. There may be a Swedish security way of design, and it differs from a Hungarian form, that also differs from a Japanese Defense Force model, or a Colombian Army approach to complexity in security contexts.

This leads to what may be a “Golden Age” of military design education as more and more PMEs begin to feel a strong need for formal design education, practice, theory, experimentation, and perhaps even doctrine in some limited cases. Right now, Israeli SOD, or their first version that most westerners are familiar with, has a cult following of sorts. The US Army followed with their simplified and planner-friendly version of Army Design Methodology that perhaps due to doctrinal influence and the massive size of the US Army has created a sizable footprint for use and education. Commercial design methods such as human-centered design, architectural design, industrial design, and many niche versions therein have influenced many militaries and have even been taught in some formal military schoolhouses. On the fringe of both of these multidisciplinary communities of practice are the innovators, visionaries, and of course the crackpots.

The emerging educational demands will likely grow, as will the demand for some sort of unifying doctrine or dominant design form, particularly within institutions that strive for single-system constructs, clarified language, and universal principles for unity of action across a partnership or coalition…which can be daunting and in design may be a counterproductive effort. Convergent actions within military design education may help or hurt design development. Personally, I stick to the strength of being a mixed-martial artist in design, know and appreciate different ways of design in the expectation that someday soon, you may get locked in a steel cage with the last opponent you are prepared to battle with. The challenge for the international defense community is how we might successfully educate our professional military personnel to do this in both a reliable as well as a diverse and creative way.

Editor’s note: This concludes Part 1 of this Four-Part interview. For more on the defense design movement and Ben Zweibelson’s perspective, please check out Part 2 available tomorrow on OTH.

Ben Zweibelson is a retired US Army Infantry officer. He is currently a doctoral student at Lancaster University and Program Director of the Joint Special Operations University, under the United States Special Operations Command.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government. IBM is working with JSOU in an informal association focused on educational development, collaborative research, and possible joint efforts for specific SOCOM educational requirements. Ben Zweibelson is a Metis LLC. contractor for JSOU.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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