Innovating successfully in defence and security

By Chris Jones

Everyone talks about innovating, but each of us means something different. For some people, innovation is having novel ideas. For others it’s about new technologies, changing systems and processes, or the end-to-end process of ideation, design and bringing products to market.

Whatever you’re talking about, the key is in successfully applying ideas. In our experience, innovation is about exploiting ingenious ideas for positive results in the real world. And that’s where the challenge lies in defence and security organisations – implementing innovation, at pace.

The trouble is, innovating takes time – especially in areas with a low Technology Readiness Level. It might take decades to mature and commercialise a technology to a point where military and security services can procure and implement it as the sector has a justifiably low risk appetite – lives can be at stake if something goes wrong.

Government defence and security teams are making progress on innovation

Since 2015, the UK Government has put a lot of effort into creating innovation teams and organisations, engaging with industry and trying to be more open and collaborative. This has laid the foundation for finding and exploring innovative ideas, bringing people together to collaborate and maturing ideas to prove technical feasibility and customer need.

As a result, we’ve seen some notable examples of innovations reaching end-users, or entering procurement, at pace. The Defence and Security Accelerator’s (DASA) Improving Crowd Resilience competition, which launched rapidly after the 2017 terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, resulted in Krowdthink developing Krowd, an app that lets security teams and the public communicate instantly. It’s been a commercial success, and the app is now in use at the Broadgate Quarter in London. And in 2019 Easibridge, which makes lightweight bridges, received their first order from the AERIAL team in the British Army through DASA’s Open Call for Innovation.

These examples succeeded because they’re easy to communicate, meet a clear customer need, use simple, proven technology (writing an app in one case; adapting aluminium ladders in the other), are relatively cheap to procure and need very little integration with existing systems, training or risk assessment. All of which lowers the risk of trialling such innovations.

But success stories are rare and have taken significant effort to get to market, often through the personal leadership of a few dedicated individuals. Defence and security needs to be able to go beyond such small scale innovation, cracking the challenges of integration, complexity and risk-taking to embed innovation culturally. Without having a complete system that facilitates innovation from idea through to implementation, with clear aims and measured results, it won’t be possible to demonstrate value for money, stop work early enough to avoid wasting effort and engage industry sustainably. So far, it’s too ‘hit and miss’.

How can defence and security take innovation further, faster?

Innovation needs a diverse team of experts working together, including the innovator, the end user, commercial experts, technical experts, funding experts and decision-makers. Exactly how this should work will vary from project to project – depending on the type of innovation – but our innovation operating model provides a good basis. And our new Playbook for Innovation Leaders shows how an agile approach can build a testable model in as little as five days.

With an effective innovation operating model in place, there are three areas of innovation for defence and security organisations to focus on: involving customers and users early, removing procurement barriers and working better with start-ups and small companies.

1. Involve customers and users early

A crucial stage in any innovation process is testing and trialling to gather information that informs further iterations. A good example is when British troops tested more than 70 technologies for autonomous last-mile resupply as part of the Autonomous Warrior exercise. They tested the technology with end users, gathering valuable feedback that drove rapid progress in the right direction.

Yet defence and security often lacks the resources it needs for this crucial stage. Customer and users – such as the Front-line Commands, police, airlines and those in charge of ‘crowded places’ – need to help shape ideas at the earliest stages of innovation so products meet real-world needs. Our experience of bringing ideas through to buyers shows how brokering relationships between suppliers and end users can provide results more quickly.

Creating closer partnerships between Government, industry and academia is vital. Bringing teams together to co-produce innovation end-to-end will ensure good practice permeates the sector. And turning proofs-of-concepts into available products takes considerable investment that wider industry or private equity investors could share.

2. Consider the procurement hurdles from the start

Government procurement processes rightly focus on ensuring fair competition to deliver on requirements at the best price. In the Ministry of Defence, acquisition programmes are often large scale, complex and decades-long: opportunities to change direction, or inject innovation, are limited. In security, there is no single procurement organisation to drive and co-ordinate innovation, and it’s harder to find money to invest in innovation.

The commercial side of procurement is a major challenge for defence and security. Often the through-life costs of maintenance, replacement and disposal aren’t thought about when investing in early stage innovations. It might be too early to answer these questions but as the innovation progresses, it’s essential to have a clear plan for ongoing costs.

The Defence Equipment & Support’s (DE&S) innovation strategy recognises that delivering innovation needs traditional organisational stovepipes to work together, both within DE&S and across the defence ecosystem. They’ve put considerable effort into transforming commercial processes, including embedding commercial officers into innovation teams, developing short-form contracts and setting up a cross-defence team.

Now defence and security need to create rapid procurement processes that can fast-track innovation into the hands of end users. Piloting new commercial approaches, such as Innovation Partnerships used in the NHS, is one way forward.

3. Think differently to work with start-ups and smaller companies

Defence and security teams in UK Government recognise the need to work much more with small- and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and to reach out beyond traditional suppliers as this will bring in new ideas and promote UK prosperity. DASA has done a lot to reach out across the UK, build networks and provide routes for SMEs and start-ups to work on defence and security challenges.

We know that in any sector, having the right approach to intellectual property is key to working with smaller companies. Yet defence’s commercial approach to risk and liability can be a major barrier for a small company. And start-ups need to move quickly – they don’t have the resources to cope with long delays for decisions.

End users need to pick up the pace, too, and set goals for when they will buy and use the innovation.

UK Government Defence and Security can do more to innovate at pace

Teams working in UK Government Defence and Security have managed to implement some innovations, but there is more to do. Our experience shows how it’s possible to work with industry partners to develop technology at pace and find routes to market. For example, to develop quantum technology, we worked with a consortium representing the complete supply chain to shorten the development cycle from 30 to 15 months. This shows how it’s possible to implement innovation at pace, but only through involving customers and users early, removing procurement barriers and including start-ups and small companies.

About the authors

Chris Jones PA defence and security expert Chris is an engineer and change specialist translating technology opportunities into large scale business concepts.

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