The Military as an Innovation Source: Combining Cutting-Edge Technology with Local Knowledge

Innovation involves utilizing existing or new technology in previously unknown ways.  Assuming this requires both physical technology and the local application of that technology, militaries can be major domestic sources of innovation by possessing local knowledge along with the funding and technology needed for massive R&D efforts; this can best be realized by partnering with large-scale organizations such as universities.

Militaries often possess a significant amount of cutting-edge technology in transportation, telecommunications, arms, and other infrastructure.  Soldiers are trained to use such technology and often have a high amount of human capital in many fields.  Militaries are also uniquely positioned for partnerships with other well-resourced organizations such as multinational organizations and major foreign militaries; this provides an avenue for direct technology transfer and associated high-tech training and support.  Further, soldiers operate in risky environments that force them to innovate by using all available means to accomplish their goal when surprises arise, as they often do during battles and training.  Thus, soldiers experience unique circumstances in new locations while using fairly advanced technology, which demands critical brainstorming to innovate on a regular basis.

Militaries often have large amounts of personnel.  If they were conducting socioeconomic development activities as outlined in my previous post, or if they had numerous bases around the nation, soldiers will probably be dispersed throughout the country.  They have the transportation/mobilization capabilities and the security training to operate virtually anywhere in the country.  Further, assuming they are somewhat representative, militaries contain citizens from throughout the countryside with experience from a variety of different local conditions.  Therefore, although militaries are a large-scale organization, they tend to possess a significant amount of local knowledge as well.

Large-scale organizations, as measured by money available and by ability to possess or work with cutting-edge technology, are a main source of building on existing technology, possessing the scale and the fixed capital necessary.  Such large-scale organizations include large firms, think tanks, and universities.  This blog will observe universities in particular, but similar ideas are applicable to other large-scale organizations.  Universities are some of the biggest sources of innovation due to a steady source of skilled, diverse, and often entrepreneurial manpower (students) to brainstorm and experiment on developing new technologies, knowledge of current cutting-edge technologies and how they work, and much funding available specifically meant for R&D.

Local knowledge applies cutting-edge technologies to make them locally useful.  Militaries do not have a comparative advantage in focusing many efforts towards R&D—they need to train for security first and foremost.  However, militaries can join universities in a mutually beneficial partnership to produce relevant cutting-edge technologies and spread them out to adapt them to specific environments.  Militaries can be a large source of R&D funding in universities; for example, the U.S. military is one of the biggest funders of R&D at MIT.  Also, although universities already have some level of local knowledge from their diverse student body, it may be beneficial for some soldiers to join in R&D efforts to offer their experiences throughout the country while using the technology in risky environments; this will add to local knowledge and provide ideas for innovation.  Further, although students may not able to implement this technology throughout the countryside, militaries often possess the manpower and capabilities to do so in unique ways.

To ensure this innovation is utilized in ways that maximize development, rather than keeping it solely for their own benefit, militaries should be encouraged to share this technology with civilians in the countryside and offer them training.  One way to achieve this is through a new socioeconomic mandate for the military.  Another indirect means of achieving this is by offering incentives for turnover of soldiers into civilians to maximize the amount of civilians with high-tech training.  This should be combined with efforts by universities to market and promote the new technology to the private sector.

Much of the R&D efforts will be tailored towards technology that may be only useful for the military; for example, it is not clear that innovations in arms, heavy machinery, and other battle-related technology directly contribute to development.  However, aspects of these products will likely advance technology in other areas that will only be recognized based on pre-existent local knowledge and a knowledge of current cutting-edge technology in other areas.  Certain radar systems in helicopters may be applicable to new innovations in telecommunications in certain locations, for example.  Further, if militaries had a socioeconomic mission complementary to their traditional security mission, they will be much more likely to fund R&D that also focuses on socioeconomic-related technology.


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