Designing for the Future of Defense and Security (Interview Part 2)

Approximate Reading Time: 20 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of 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.

…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.

#2 Defense Design is Needed Because….

 John Sarubbi: Could you spend a little bit of time just talking about the evolution of design thinking and what the difference is from commercial design thinking and how it’s being applied by the military.

Ben Zweibelson: Great. And this is a really – this is a volatile question, I think, because when we have practitioners from different design fields kind of interacting, there’s almost this kind of skepticism of, well, “wait a minute, why do you even need that type of design?”

The single-method designer, whether they are from industrial design origins, or some variation of the human-centered design methodology, as well as now a rapidly expanding field of rival service military design methodologies will argue, “You should just use our design. Our design works, because I have done it and I know I do design, and therefore I can be valuable to your needs but you will do design as I have learned it, and I myself do not need to learn some other way of design because my design does it all.”

This situation is really well addressed by a French postmodernist, Ranciere, in his work called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” which I will just very briefly mention. The core question is, can a teacher help educate a student on a topic they know nothing about? The teacher knows nothing, in this question. Some will say, no- the teacher must be a master of that topic in order to educate the student. However, I think the cognitive design trap that people fall into here (and by no means is it limited to design), is that once we learn one design methodology, we start to expect it to work in every application we encounter. This way we can actually stop thinking, and start acting mindlessly.

This is not to be taken the wrong way; acting mindlessly is like when you are so used to driving your car to work, you accidentally start driving to work on a day you have off, and you catch yourself doing it! Or, when we start thinking about other things and realize we have not been paying attention to the driving and 20 minutes have gone by…because your brain can go into autopilot when we have really stable conditions and our motor skills and cognitive rules are well established…but those are limited to simple and somewhat complicated systems only.

Life is complex. It really is complex, and that word is so under-appreciated and overused that we throw “complex” around without giving it due diligence. “Complex” means that no single design methodology will ever be sufficient in time or space…and all of the popular methodologies of today will also die out with some giving birth to their replacements; but ideally various design methods will breed and create unusual, unexpected offspring that will in a future context likely be very much unlike what we see today. Thus, you need to have a certain level of agnosticism with design and not hold yourself slavishly to one method or practice, or you risk being the one hammering away looking for all design problems to be nails when that is really what designers are supposed to be the advocates against!

So, designers need to maintain a learning mindset and be willing to be perpetual ignorant schoolmasters, guiding and shaping design experiences while also moving into the student position when the context changes and they are needing to learn while the former students are actually in the lead innovating in ways never-before-seen. If design is the main discipline seated upon the topic of innovation, change and transformation, we cannot ever get comfortable with certainty of our methods. We must remain perpetually comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that is why I advocate a multidisciplinary design mindset.

Now, since we are talking with IBM here as well as a large North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) audience, the elephants in the room are going to be human-centered design methodology as well as military or defense associated design thinking, and of course some lesser aspects of software design thinking, industrial design, efficiency design practices, and so on. But the reason that human-centered design became significant historically as well as commercially is because the original industrial age, if you will, industrial design, was itself insufficient for the increasingly complex civilian or commercial demand that we had to include urban planning, housing, products, user experiences and so forth.

If industrial design developed within the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it arguably reached the high-water mark as the dominant design methodology for commercial and industrial (as well as military) applications in the mid-20th Century. This was after the success of World War II, and in the immediate post-war decades a massive explosion in design applications occurred in previously nonexistent fields or disciplines where design thinking was not normally found or utilized.

City planning, urban development, sociology, management, and so on. Management theory previously was extremely objective, in the Taylorism school where the worker was really a measurable, controllable cog in the machine…this would be a closed system mindset for management and dominated from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, where “open systems” and human irrationality, subjectivity, and the social construction of reality became important constructs for how to manage an organization. Design is a critical part of all of that, particularly with the need for a human-centered design movement that broke from the previously industrial, mechanistic, and rather objective mindset of prior constructs.

And as we have now, within the commercial design, multiple design fields. Some are more cyber-oriented, while others are more social network based. Some are more geared towards advertising, narratives, and abstract concepts.

The way we even view “Cyberspace” as a domain within a military mindset is quite telling here. Cyber is the domain that has no actual space, even though we call it ‘cyberspace’- the space manifestation only occurs as it interacts with physical domains such as land, sea, air or space. The entire contents of Cyber are time and information; and time without space makes for some fascinating design discussions. These are the sorts of deep topics that defense design wrestles with for military considerations, and why a single-design methodology usually is insufficient in security contexts.

The abstract domains and socially constructed, subjective qualities of reality are not the sorts of things that can be mapped out precisely, labeled with pins like a butterfly collection and framed for mounting on the wall in the office. “Okay everyone, we finally locked down that deeply complex challenge our organization was facing this year…if you want to check out the new strategic vision it is hanging in the hall outside of the boss’s office.”

Whereas, other design challenges are much more tangible and physical. There are some design topics that you can eventually label, pin and display for everyone to see and enjoy. These are the ones far easier to talk about, and unfortunately, they tend to take up all of the bandwidth on whether design is useful or not…and the whole debate on design versus strategy, or design and planning, and so on.

The funny thing about good design innovation is that when they are just emerging, you cannot tell the visionaries from the crackpots, or the game-changers from the complete disasters…and there is a certain level of system healthiness there. If we could see at the start it would not be complex, and every innovator would have a line of people trying to fund them from the start. Reality doesn’t work that way, and most of these physically tangible design artifacts and outputs that are successful are only viewable retrospectively, where there is an illusion of causality misapplied to them and some people may even try to reverse engineer to gain some predictive order as well.

Of course the first smart phone was developed this way, or the rise of Uber, or the missed opportunity of Blockbuster to purchase a fledgling Netflix in 2005, or in defense contexts the development of the aircraft carrier, airborne paratroop operations, reactive armor on a tank, V-shaped hulls on armored vehicles to mitigate mine and IED attacks, the inclusion of female engagement teams in culturally-sensitive and gender role security contexts, and a Special Operations command independent and joint across the services, and so on.  And then you have the development of technology which has a profound impact upon how users and products and user experiences are manifested. Technology is changing so many things that maybe, we as a society are struggling with how to appreciate change itself, as it moves faster and in different forms through our construction of what we say (or insist) reality is supposed to be.

You now have military organizations that are also competing in these spaces but also are competing in unique security context and that is really where you have this driving need for a type of design that previously might not have been recognized or appreciated or warranted. And so, the defense design movement is the most recent, if you will, of these phenomena.

And I think, in part, it’s driven by that, in the 20th century where warfare was seen in more traditional accepted and linear structures, the established design-making and knowledge production methodologies were grounded upon utility and physics, mathematics, and analytic optimization.

Militaries, as well as industry have relied upon the objective orientation of Taylorism in terms of a management style for centralized military hierarchies for quite some time now. Industry and the military have each exchanged and participated in a cross-pollination here for many decades, with World War II being a massive contributing factor. Industry helped build up the unprecedented military enterprise of that total-war period, and from the completion of that war, the officers and soldiers that learned valuable experiences in management and organizational form departed those services and reapplied those concepts into the booming post-war work force.

Industry and military shared from the same well, seeking a Taylorism style of highly objective and mechanical ways to make decisions, direct action, control order, marginalize risk, gain in uniformity, reliability, improved quality, and increased speed across many diverse areas and theaters, whether economic, political, security, or informational. And this decision-making process was very deliberate. Risk reduction and conversion create very uniform repeatable, reliable processes and are great in high intensity conflicts as well as in the high-stakes boardrooms where massive business deals transform local as well as national economies in complex, nonlinear ways.

However, as warfare has continued to develop; enemies, participant stakeholders, and people are no longer willing to fight in the way that provides Western militaries profound advantage. Not many are willing to waste power or resources by playing fair…this applies in business as well as war.

This now demands a different way of making decisions and knowledge management of which design appears to be much more suitable. However, a strictly commercial design thinking methodology is not going to translate perfectly into a military or a security context. At least, it will not for defense topics that are not aligned with the optimization of user experiences or new products that stretch those concepts beyond their economic and industrial core intents.

What militaries are struggling with in these contexts could be addressed in a couple ways. One would be “the monopoly of violence” – and when I say monopoly of violence, that’s violence applied legitimately for the government or for the security force – as well as other stakeholders who are attempting to use a monopoly of violence for their own purposes. Now, this does not mean exclusively the act of violence; the monopoly of violence can be extremely subtle. When you see a police car parked on the side of the highway and you tap your brakes a bit, you are doing that because of the monopoly of violence. The police officer is not going to beat you up or shoot you, but getting a speeding ticket is a non-lethal extension that ultimately is enforced by the local law enforcement’s ability to maintain the monopoly of violence.

In areas where this is contested, such as perhaps in areas where non-police organizations are able to violate laws or create their own alternative structures that the population adheres to, such as when organized crime can successfully do a “protection racket” or shake down businesses for money, under threat of harm…or when they can run illegal gambling and brothels without being detected, this is because the local society around them are responding to their ability to monopolize violence beyond that of the established city law enforcement. The monopoly of violence as a concept is socially constructed, it is conceptual but shared and experienced by all of us in sophisticated and social ways.

The monopoly of violence within a security context creates a slightly different context of which user, product, and user experience don’t necessarily translate well. Now, the mafia wise guy may take a pack of gum as he is committing extortion from a local business owner, and that same pack of gum has an entire design process that remains valid, but the security context here is dissimilar. When the monopoly of violence becomes the main topic of systemic tension, we shift away from some of the larger economic drivers that help make HCD and various commercial design enterprises as entirely valid methodological applications, and into contexts where they are more supporting methods rather.

Beyond the gum, there is more of an abstract or tacit quality versus some of the tangible quality of products, if you will, that you would have in a commercial application. This is not meant to marginalize gum, of course. Gum is still there in the picture, but when the system shifts from the transaction of gum as the primary mode for design expressing human creativity and entrepreneurship to being a supporting actor within a larger security context where gum is one of many artifacts within a monopoly of violence tension, the economic qualities of selling or consuming gum become ancillary for certain periods until the monopoly of violence transforms so that whatever the emergent security context becomes, gum is sold again.

There are several other distinctions, as well, that I would offer. Militaries are monopolies which are different from a commercial perspective where monopolies actually are forbidden and they are actively prevented when they do manifest. Companies that gain monopolies in the industrialized West are dismantled, with economic laws established to prevent them. We do not need to go off onto a tangent on other societies where states can and do operate monopolies, although in every case that they do this, they use their monopoly on violence to enforce it.

So, military organizations absolutely operate, function, and behave; they express themselves, through what you could call ‘monopolistic processes.’ And when I say militaries, by a larger extension we are saying defense organizations that deal with security matters. At a local level, this indeed can be law enforcement, or local security services, or a local warlord, depending on the context. Since we are focusing on the SPADE conference audience, it only makes sense to talk about NATO level strategic and operational defense matters, as well as multi-national partnerships combining government, defense, industry, and academia.

And so that is something that is really important to think about in how militaries are organized, how they make decisions, how they share information and how they strategize, so that any design approach has to address that, which is unique.

Militaries also speak and express themselves using doctrine and very strict language, terminology, structures, and processes. For example, many militaries across the industrialized West and particularly NATO follow a set decision-making and information cultivating methodology complete with concepts such as ‘centers of gravity (COG)’, ‘lines of effort’, and ‘decision points’ that are mapped out in a linear, phased manner relating to an overarching logic of ends-ways-means.

If we go into the ‘COG’ construct for just a moment, there are extensive methods and processes that the NATO force uses to apply a COG to a strategic or operational perspective on a security matter. Further, the very notion of a COG has deep symbolic meaning within a military organization, going into their dominant philosophy on the nature of warfare, the relationship between politics, security forces, and populations. COGs relate to how a military seeks to focus resources in time and space as well as commit action within a calculated risk management construct. So, in commercial applications, you may find some COG-like manifestations, but usually those are the sort of thing pulled out of the military mindset on organizational management and the flow of forces and reapplied by someone that moved out of the military and into a commercial application, but in mainstream industrial enterprise you really will not find COGs. The concept is entirely embraced by defense organizations, in very particular and even peculiar ways.

Now, if an organization speaks and makes sense of reality in one very particular fashion, it becomes quite dangerous to discount that and insert an entirely dissimilar way of making sense without realizing the terrain you are treading upon. If a design team enters into a complex challenge with a military organization, neither side should discount the other’s way of addressing reality, but simultaneously in order to facilitate change and reflective practice, there must also be some genuine curiosity on what makes the organization tick, and why that is.

We cannot have one approach to complexity trample over others, particular those manifesting in largely dissimilar disciplines without becoming guilty of the very thing that designers are supposed to be masters of- embracing change. Thus, any nexus of security forces and commercial design approaches must blend the two, in a heedful and insightful way…which also will be “inciteful” as well- that it should provoke, disrupt, and destroy in order to create. Innovation is not a one-sided tool that a design team unleashes upon a particular organization… there is skin in the game on all sides, by all stakeholders. We all are going to get disrupted, and the more the better if the demands are high enough and the need to transform steep enough.

And so there has to be that kind of empathy, if you will, into bridging between, say, a novel idea, something that’s a radical new concept, and getting that expressed within an organization that’s generally looking towards convergence, conformity, uniformity, reliability and repetition, analytic optimization, if you will. Empathy works well if you are working within a similar culture or societal frame where the designers and the key stakeholders can agree and converge on shared values. However, many defense organizations confront very complex security contexts where there are multiple frames, different cultural norms, and a great deal of tension across many diverse stakeholders.

And then one additional thing to think about is – and I talked with (Phil Gilbert) about this and, you know, I think he appreciates this and sees the potential here for cross-industry collaboration and multi-disciplinary partners in design enterprise.

When you have commercial design done in an environment where there is a monopoly on violence, where the local police, for example, in Tampa, Florida, are able to provide the monopoly of violence so that civilization here in Tampa exists and operates and functions with a culturally acceptable level of crime, you ideally have a general condition that many designers take as granted before they begin a design effort.

And so, businesses here, say IBM, can do what they want in Tampa and they are relatively at a low cost in terms of security. For some situations, you likely need a security team managing the building or controlling access to some areas, but beyond that, the local law enforcement should suffice. However, if IBM wanted to do business in Syria or in Bagdad or in Southern Kandahar or in the Horn of Panjwai, these would become increasingly more expensive and cost prohibitive because of the lack of monopoly of violence that the allies or the organization trying to provide the freedom for the business to operate.

Conversely, military organizations in secure areas such as Tampa are extraordinarily restricted on what we can and cannot do. When a military organization or a defense entity is doing, say, peacekeeping activities, which we would say on a spectrum of warfare, is the lowest level of conflict, those organizations are extraordinarily restricted on what they can and cannot do for a lot of good reasons.

For peacekeeping efforts in a low-intensity location in Africa, or the Caribbean, or the South Pacific, that military force has significant oversight and a laundry list of things they need to get permission to do before they do most anything. There are very strict, regulated and restricted activities. For example, when I was stationed in Italy in the early 2000s and the United States commenced the invasion of Iraq with my unit participating by invading from the north and using Northern Italy as our point of origin, the Italian government and the Italian people were outraged; there were riots and over a period of several years the Italian government eventually pulled out support of Iraq, although the initial invasion has hardly the main culprit here.

The expectation is that those organizations can’t really do a lot because they’re so restricted in low-threat environments precisely because the monopoly of violence in these locations affords all stakeholders the ability to focus on matters that are outside the focus of defense organizations where the violence is managed by local law enforcement…that it is manageable not by military forces but by a state or local entity.

However, as conflict increases, as we move towards the high intensity conflict side of things such as in World War II, the Soviets versus the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad where, at certain points, it was absolute chaos, in those situations militaries have almost full freedom of action to do cognitively as well as physically, whatever they want in order to achieve strategic goals. A military that is fighting for the very survival of a nation or a culture or a group will be able to do more and more, expand their frame to almost limitless conditions if only to survive and eventually gain more of the monopoly of violence to gain some advantage against adversaries.

And so, as violence increases, or as the military contact increases, it becomes increasingly prohibitive for a business to do commercial design within purely economic contexts. There are always qualities of both within each extreme. A military will always be using commercially produced goods as well as user experiences that feed back into the commercial application of design where that user is a military client.

All commercial design endeavors, even the majority that are not for defense clients or used in anything like a security context must still be created, expressed, and realized within a secured environment where economic endeavors can be done. The local police cruiser at the side of the highway is there for not just keeping you from speeding, but for maintaining law and order so that commerce can freely express throughout the local areas across multiple partnered, collaborative and competitive nations.

So, design thinking is needed in defense organizations because they engage in dynamic and often chaotic security contexts involving multiple stakeholders, cultures, and within systems that include asymmetric relationships of political, economic, information, and social enterprises…where frequently established practices become irrelevant in ways that are hard to realize until you have been doing the favored actions well past the point of self-harm. I think that the massive interest in defense design education, theory and practice now reflects institutional awareness of these challenges, and this also presents fantastic design opportunities across a multidisciplinary context for nearly all design applications to fuse, hybridize, and morph into novel defense forms.

Editor’s note: This concludes Part 2 of this Four-Part interview. For more on the defense design movement and Ben Zweibelson’s perspective, please check out Part 3 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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