Designing for the Future of Defense and Security (Interview Part 3)

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

 Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 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.

 …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.

#3: Different Ways of Doing Design for Defense

John Sarubbi: What other examples can you provide? And I also know there’s also some work being done with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Can you describe the problem situation there and provide some thoughts on how that’s going to be addressed?

Ben Zweibelson: Sure. Let me give you a couple of examples. These will all be a bit hypothetical so that I’m not tying these to any current organization and I am not of course disclosing anything outside of any classification settings, but they act as just general examples to help with that distinction. We certainly can discuss some unclassified design examples that some military researchers and practitioners have written on extensively, and there are now quite a few available that lend to this discussion. And I don’t see it as an “either or” because that is really important here. Design is design is design.

And anyone who’s doing design, just very broadly speaking, they’re taking behaviors and ideas and tools, tangible things, and the present state, what we term the legacy system, where we are right now. We like using a scene from the Mel Brooke’s movie, Spaceballs, where we say “this is the now-now, this is now” to emphasize this point. Whenever people talk about the future, they are talking in fiction, or perhaps science fiction for many. No one speaks in fact when they talk about the future, although some like to push the illusion of that to their advantage. The library does not have a nonfiction section labeled “future studies” despite some of it being written as if it were destined for the nonfiction sections.

Designers are always looking to the future because design is, as Horst Rittel once emphasized, about instrumental knowledge, that we are thinking about the current state of a complex system, and how it relates to what ought to be in the future”…and how our design actions can meet those goals. Designers are attempting to manipulate and utilize novel concepts as well as break established structures in ways that provide them advantage for the future. I mean, that’s what all design is.

Design goes well past the factual knowledge that science is concerned with. Design accepts that factual knowledge as contextual and even temporary, because the future renders facts from today into the fiction of tomorrow, and designers must be able to travel between those points to help generate meaningful discussions, debates, and create new spaces for innovation and disruptive thought. However, each of us use different tools. We have different language. We have different organizations.

I mentioned Russell Ackoff earlier. He has some fantastic design quotes. He also said on future modeling, “I have no interest in forecasting the future, only in creating it by acting appropriately for the present.” Ackoff called himself a founding member of the ‘Presentology Society.’ That is the distinction between designers and analytic planners or traditional strategists in my opinion. One tries to force a reverse-engineered single-track goal and trudge forward towards it, while the other considers complexity in terms of emergence and non-linearity…that initial goals are probably just terrible and temporary, if even necessary beyond cultural or institutional needs to commit to action. Letting go of them later becomes increasingly harder, depending on the organization and their own cultural, organizational and socially constructed baggage.

So, how IBM approaches design is different than Apple or Google, and that has a lot to do with culture. But it also has to do with what is it that the enterprise exists for? How do they identify as a design enterprise? What services do they provide? Which future are they moving towards? Which future are they looking for because of how they prefer to make sense of reality, and is that in tension with how reality is really unfolding…and can they realize this before they end up getting a nasty surprise that may cost them their future existence because they fought against the future in a way that destroyed them?

You can hold onto your imagined vision of the past so tightly that your grip will kill your future, and sometimes only then will an organization finally gain reflective practice, in death…when their imagined past prevents them from realizing the actual future because they were so obsessed with how they fancied the future was supposed to go in order to render their grip of the past as a proper and valid one.

And so while design is design is design, when you have a defense client, a defense organization, so let’s say the Germans today and the German Army, and they have a need for a new web site that allows their professionals to access information and do it in a secure way and also have it over cyber and make it so that they can use it using secure communications but it still encrypted. This is a rather technological example but also an important need for military trying to conduct operations. So that something where enterprise design thinking, as well as its related agile design methodology or human centered design, as well as industrial design can all be used to build a cyber platform or perhaps an entirely new public-facing domain web portal for the entire German Army, for instance.

All those are going to work there at different layers, whether you’re building the hardware, the software, the Web design, the user interface, the user experience, the feedback. All those things are going to require slightly different ways of doing design and they all work rather well.

Military design comes in, I think, and has its strong suit in the spaces where those types of commercial design are insufficient alone. And so, it’s not an either/or. It’s more of, okay, what type of context are we facing here?

So, if that same German military not only have that cyber website challenge but they were dealing with Russian aggression in another part of the world that was strategically significant to Germany and NATO, and in that area, they’re trying to apply their general accepted traditional processes for decision-making and information collection. And what they were receiving was something they had never seen before. And the activities are not reflecting what should be happening, what should be working.

Potentially, some of the tools that they apply in this security context, these also work really well but they’re not working today or they’re producing wildly paradoxical actions that don’t make sense. So, the system is changed and the legacy system that the German Army is used to in the security context is not helping them now. The tools that they had are no longer sufficient alone. Here, defense design will help that military organization recognize what is their frame? How are they approaching this?

What are the tools that they are preferring and how might some of these tools be working against them and how might they be able to temporarily go over those tools to pick up new tools that might be unrecognizable, that might require them to develop new military language, new doctrine, new practices, new processes?

Some of this defense design will be disruptive. And so how will you integrate that into your German Army so that your soldiers on the ground in a conflict zone can apply these new concepts and these new tools without receiving further loss of life or further loss of resources beyond that which was acceptable or unavoidable?

Defense design will approach some of these particular contexts in a way that’s going to depart from the traditional design methodologies within the commercial sector but, at the same time, a commercial designer, whether they do enterprises; I’m thinking, the Stanford hexagonal model, Agile design, Red Teaming constructs, or any other variation therein.

They are still going to see a lot of similar language, similar processes, and similar contexts. So that is really what was useful in that, when you have designers from different fields talking and sharing and thinking, we kind of have to work across the aisles and say, “hey, what is your design context?” It is critical for designers from different disciplines to ask that question, and then have the patience to listen and consider alternative ways of expressing design.

What is your challenge? What cultural elements are here? And, you know, how are you approaching this using design and finding the hybrids, the overlap, the friction points, if you will? And some of those are going to be resolved and that’s okay. In some cases, one particular way for doing design may take priority for a range of reasons, but the only reason I will say is flat-out wrong is “the designers didn’t want to learn another way of doing design, and just believed that the way they came in with is just the right way to go about doing it.” That is being lazy, frankly. Israeli Design founder Shimon Naveh said something similar about military professionals that, often at the third decade of their careers, not being open to learning about entirely different ways of thinking and acting in complex war.

Shimon Naveh essentially said, “war is hard, and if you are unwilling to perpetually learn new things and self-improve, then you are being lazy.” While he was specifically addressing military seniors unwilling to entertain any design beyond the core strategic and operational planning methodologies they had long since mastered, I like to apply this to all of the demands for innovation and creativity in complexity. If any of us think we “know it all” or “know enough so that I no longer need to maintain an open mind,” we fall victim to the oversimplification trap that Snowden brilliantly articulates in his Cynefin framework, and we go off the deep end of the simplified domain cliff into chaos.

So, doing defense design cannot be accomplished with a single design mindset, or done by a group of design specialists that draw from a single methodology expecting one design discipline to neatly function within a dissimilar context and organization. Otherwise, architectural design methods would work perfectly in cyber contexts, and advertising design could neatly function for city planning design. Of course, these don’t translate, so design attempted in defense context involving the monopoly of violence, multiple cultures, likely several group paradigms as well, plus political, economic, informational, and social constructs in dynamic interaction must be addressed in a multidisciplinary approach.

We as designers must be heedful, and extremely self-reflective of why we design as we do, and what those limitations may be, and how the tensions between why and how we design might not be in alignment with what is needed to design in the defense context we are addressing, or the defense organization’s manner of making sense of reality. That becomes quite hard because militaries have a tendency to really entrench themselves organizationally on their belief systems using doctrine, set practices, as well as single philosophical positions on war, organizational form and even function in defense endeavors. We struggle to realize the very tools we grasp in our hands, and even if we do realize them, it becomes increasingly hard to drop them and pick up a new, untested, alien sort of tool that does not seem to have a purpose that complies with the tool we just dropped. Defense design must address this, and get military organizations comfortable with being uncomfortable…and being mindful of that essential thing.

Editor’s note: This concludes Part 3 of this Four-Part interview. For more on the defense design movement and Ben Zweibelson’s perspective, please check out Part 4 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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