Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Nexus of Security and Economics"

I found this in the dusty folders of my Dropbox account.  It's the opening speech I gave at our first Disruptive Thinkers (then called the Strategy and Innovation Forum...a blog was still months away) meeting back in Sept of 2011 -- where all five of us met in my living room.  I thought it was interesting -- and sometimes its good to see inception points. 


In the 1970’s, a group of officers and DoD officials formed a loose organization that eventually become known as “The Fighter Mafia.”  John Boyd (he of OODA loop fame) was the ringleader, and attracted the likes of Pierre Sprey, Tom Christie and test pilot Col Everest Riccioni.  Their goal was simple -- to shake up an entrenched bureaucracy with facts and radical notions.

For those aviators in the room, the fruits of their labors are evident in what we currently fly: the F/A-18 and F-16 were direct descendants of their fight.  The main tenant of basic fighter maneuvers and aircraft design was created by Boyd in a fit of engineering inspiration, and finally adopted after every trick in the book was used to try and discredit it.  The E-M diagram, now a closely studied chart showing strengths and weakness of fighter aircraft when compared to others, was almost killed by a bureaucracy wedded to the status quo.

We will get to the Fighter Mafia in more depth later as this syllabus progresses, as well as the theories of Boyd himself, but their legacy sets the groundwork for what we in the Strategy and Innovation Forum seek to reform.

Nearly every military officer in this room, regardless of rank, service or community, could rattle off a list of things that frustrate us to no end about the system we exist within.  But all too often, we fail to take action on those criticisms.  Change, however, comes from within – and as the Fighter Mafia proved, it can be done by dedicated, well informed actors.

What inspired this group?  When I was a college senior, we got a new Commanding Officer in our NRTOC unit.  One of his jobs was to teach a class called Leadership and Ethics – but instead of utilizing the normal course materials, he supplemented the material with texts he discovered from VADM Stockdale’s naval war college class.  Enthralled by this unorthodox approach, I began an independent study with a buddy of mine where we looked much deeper than the standard military texts to undercurrents underreported in mainstream strategic thought.  Maneuver warfare, Mattis, Boyd, philosophy, insurgencies, anything that was successful against entrenched bureaucracies.  I was hooked.

This venture is an offshoot from that – but it goes further.

What do we hope to accomplish?  By getting innovative thinkers from both within and without the structure together, we want to ensure our military is up for the challenges of the 21st Century.  The world at large is rapidly moving away from an Industrial Age model to an Information Age reality.  Large, centralized institutions are fighting against this migration, and the more entrenched, the more kicking and screaming they exhibit.  We are those leaders, thinkers and doers who want and can start influencing change.

Will we all agree on everything?  Absolutely not – but that’s fine.  I’m reminded of a quote by Christopher Hitchens (someone who many of you would agree is about as different from me as possible)…In an argument among two well informed people, it is very unlikely that either on will come away with a changed position. However, it is equally unlikely that they will leave unchanged.  Opposition and intellectual sparring only sharpens the mind. 

We’re not here to spout idealogy:  “you can always find someone who made a well sounding statement that confirms your point of view -- and, on every topic, it is possible to find a dead thinker who said the exact opposite.”  The goal is to approach things with an open mind, challenge our assumptions, and think like innovators – those people who imagine the impossible, then make it reality.

When you come up with a theory, don’t start looking for evidence to prove yourself right.  Look for the observation that will prove you wrong.  Your ideas will be much more robust. 

How are we set up?  There are two elements to this endeavor.  The first is academic. A graduate level study of philosophy, strategy, leadership and history.  By combining literature, articles and online, open source lectures, we will explore books that aren’t traditionally thought of within the military cannon to get our minds thinking outside the traditional structures.  Each monthly meeting will have a theme associated with it:  This month’s is “The nexus of economics and military strategy.”  The works selected reflect that theme.  But it’s in the integration of those works that new ideas will spring.

And this leads directly to the second element:  Shaping Policy.  The monthly meetings are more than just a Socratic forum to pontificate and listen. It’s also a chance to network across professional specialties.  You may meet someone who intrigues you, and you elect to pursue a collaborative venture.  Brian and I are passionate about education and the lack of options available to us – we may write a paper on opening up ventures (i.e. Harvard MBA/Naval War College joint Degree program.)  Ben W may find he and Cowbell want to explore open source green options for sustainable, affordable defense.  The ideas are limitless.  You can certainly just follow along with the readings and take in the discussions, but we want to be action oriented.  Gather evidence, fight for, and fix what you see is wrong.

Finally, we want this to start adaptable cells. We will compile our syllabus and promulgate it to other like minded military and national security strategists throughout the country.  They can start their own cells, tailoring the curriculum to their own local requirements.   We crowd source this to some extent and though incremental change, attempt to shape the future of one of the biggest Leviathans the world knows; the DoD.

And if our grand vision fails, well, at least weve read and listened to some intriguing theories that will shape our thinking.

So, keep an open mind, share what’s on your mind (the wackier, the better), make some friends and get ready for a fight.  Never forget we're the insurgents – and insurgents always have to work harder and more diligently than the institutional adversary.  But as Gladwell shows, if they don’t fight fair, they usually win.

So, the topic of the night:  The Nexus of Security and Economics.

The military has lived in a bubble the last decade.  We’ve gotten pretty much everything we’ve asked for: weapons, funding, respect, influence.  We’ve also gotten lazy.  It was somewhat humorous, but more disconcerting, to recently see a panel of flag officers dissemble in utter confusion when asked about impending budget cuts – as if such a thing were inconceivable, but nonetheless inevitable.
We haven’t had to ask hard questions about force structure and the evolution of warfare because with $650 billion in base budgets, plus tens of billions more for war costs, it’s unpatriotic to question the protectors.  Yet, strategic and budget realities will force a reckoning.

We cannot continue to do business the way we have been over the past ten years.  There is a strong undercurrent among junior officers and those not associated with the military-industrial complex that there is increasing bloat and inefficiency at the top.  Contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and decades in the making stand no chance of reform even with a new strategic landscape.

We cling to career models and a hierarchial system that were useful during the beginning of the Cold War.  But solutions of the past only work in the past; new realities require new thinking.

I was talking with Chase on Tuesday night, and he mentioned something very interesting that I hadn’t considered – Whereas once military technology was a leading indicator for where civilian innovation would come, the tables are now reversed.  Our systems are increasingly antiquated, and even when we install new software, it can hardly keep up with the pace of progress.  Off the shelf technology is more useful than that supplied by the military and its slow, antiquated acquisition system.  How many of you turn to Google Earth to map targets rather than JMPS [military procured mapping software]? 

This rot in acquisition and culture is even recognized by those at the top.  Then Secretary Robert Gates asked:
Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand the United States' ISR capability? In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?
There are entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo; change means losing the golden goose.  “That awareness of a problem does not mean much – particularly when you have special interests and self-serving institutions in play.

It also mean a more lethal and adaptable force.

In the TED lecture on Institutions vs Collaboration, the presenter mentions that the first goal of an institution is self-preservation once told they are an obstacle.  It’s not mission accomplishment, cost-savings or becoming more effective.  It is maintaining the status quo.  Microsoft never believed open architecture could be a means to run databases or large electronic systems, yet because they were wedded to a 1990s model in the internet 2.0 phase they have been relegated to the status of once-great companies like GE and GM.  Lots of market share with somewhat useful products, but unable to innovate or grow beyond their current level of influence. 

The internet age has changed everything, but even more so, the social age has opened up the ability to collaborate and innovate like never before.  And money is no longer the primary motivating factor.  It still plays a role, but crowd sourced entities like Wikipedia are far more useful than market driven troves of information like Encarta or Brittanica.  Google has won the search wars, at least up to this point, because they have allowed users (through linking to what they perceive to be “important” websites) as opposed to a pay-to-play system like Overture (do you guys in this room even know what overture is???  Its because it lost…).

Planning has been replaced by decentralized coordination.  People can spend as little or as much time on a project as they want – and do so because they are passionate about it.  We are bringing the problem to the individuals, instead of bringing the individuals to the problem as with traditional institutions. 

Along with this is the fact that the Information Age revels in the land of Extremistan while our structures are made to survive in the predictable Mediocristan.  Averages mean nothing when 80 percent (or 99 percent!) of a system is influenced by 20 percent (or less!) of the actors.  Taleb notes that our absence of forecasting errors is what should cause us the most concern, specifically when it comes to wars – they are fundamentally unpredictable.

Who in the past 50 years have we actually gone to war with that our strategists and acquisition specialists predicted we would?  The only conventional place we’ve fought within over the past 20 years has been Iraq in 1991!  Everywhere else has been somewhere unpredicted, and singularly unsuited for the weapons systems and structures we have in place.  Sure, you can do CAS with an F/A-18, but wouldn’t an AT-6 perhaps be better?  Isnt the most requested platform, the A-10, the one that was almost scrapped twenty years ago by an air force obsessed with air superiority?  And although we see China as the next threat, given past history, isn’t it more likely we will be engaged in a war far different than the one we see a mirage of on the horizon?

The Information age has also revealed that gem of Adam Smith – specialization.  People need to do less and less to take action on everything, and instead can focus on one area to become extremely talented and useful.  And they can use their expertise in ways they never could have imagined – why anyone would spend hours putting together a Wikipedia article on the intricacies of the clan system in World of Warcraft is beyond me, but it’s there – and I can access it.

The military on the other hand, insists on making everything the same, or at least consolidating as much as possible.  The JSF is a case in point.  It theoretically does everything – but less well than individualized airframes specifically tailored would.  It allows only limited flexibility, and at extreme cost.  This is unsustainable.

So here we have the crux of our discussion for the evening.  In a world that is increasingly focused on individual contributions, where extreme, unexpected events disproportionately shape reality and social knowledge informs the evolution of technology and information, how do we adapt a bureaucracy that insists on sticking to the status quo?

Why not build weapons based on collaborative need rather than centralized planning? MRAPs were created this way – why has aviation fallen by the wayside?  How does a bureaucracy take advantage of a single contribution by a single actor that can revolutionize an institution?  Are steeply vertical structures still relevant when the best way to quell a village riot is by relying upon a junior officer or non-commissioned officer?

How do we take advantage of crowd sourcing, the idea of cellular innovation, and harnessing creative ideas while maintaining the ability to respond to massive, unforeseen events? 

Those are the thoughts I’ll leave you with as we open up the floor for discussion. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Alternative Version of the Twenty First Century Sailor

About six weeks ago, I got an email from the Navy announcing their newest website, featuring the Twenty First Century sailor initiative.  Normally, I instantly delete the mass emailed spam that contains indecipherable Navy Message Traffic ALL CAPS format, but for some reason this email caught my eye. 

My optimistically na├»ve excitement that this would be an innovation portal for junior leaders to exchange ideas was almost instantaneously quashed upon clicking the link.  Instead of featuring the things the innovation generation finds energizing, nearly the entire site was devoted to politically correct platitudes and vague aspirations -- particularly the News and Media portion.  These are elements that make it difficult to create a unified, cohesive warfighting service.   

According to the Secretary of the Navy, the twenty first century sailor needs to be ready, safe, physically fit, inclusive and afforded the best transition services possible.  Much like Air-Sea Battle, where we plan to bring lots of firepower to places where threats exist using things we buy and put to sea, this vision lacks a transformational, inspiring philosophy.  

The misapplication of what the 21st century actually requires is unfortunately indicative of a broader institutional misunderstanding of how to motivate the current generation.  This is especially apparent when very few seem to actually know about the initiative – and if they have found it, have no way to interact with or comment on the material, aside from outside linked blogs.  

Among the things notably absent are any mention of combat effectiveness, and the adaptive, innovative integration of new technologies and ideas by creative sailors.  The particular emphasis on sexual assault awareness was no doubt driven by concerned Members of Congress, and as we are at their beck and call, “what interests my boss fascinates me.”  But the additional elements missed a grand opportunity to set forth a compelling vision extolling and encouraging our best tactical sailors. 
Despite the fact that our senior leaders claim our current service members are the most capable and intelligent our nation has ever seen, it says a lot when the Navy’s primary personnel vision focuses on sex-crazed, out of shape, PTSD-laden, discriminatory service members.  It may surprise some to know this is not representative of the military population as a whole.  

This focus, combined with the curious mandate that all sailors be given breathalyzers upon coming aboard ship for duty, implicitly assumes commanding officers and junior leaders are unable to police their own charges.  These are both descriptions completely at odds with the volunteers I serve with on a daily basis.  This is also completely at odds with the more horizontal hierarchies that define successful information age organizations.

As I happen to believe that 95 percent of sailors aren’t worthy of instant suspicion (except in port...), and are instead ripe resources for great ideas and new ways of thinking, I offer up a different version of “The Twenty First Century Sailor,” followed by some back of the envelope musings about what the website would ideally contain.   

Innovative:  In rebuilding the wartorn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, our sailors have managed to do more with less, and adapt to cultural norms they never saw coming.  They have created counter-piracy strategies while aiding tens of thousands in disaster prone areas.  We killed bin Laden.  All this has been a result of rapidly adapting existing resources to local conditions with innovative and impressive talent.  We need leaders willing to leverage these skills and apply them to creating tactics to defeat future wily adversaries. 

Risk-tolerant:  Our sailors are adults.  They understand that winning wars means taking risks.  The characteristics required of combat leaders sometimes translate to adventurous off-duty interests.  They usually make informed choices, and while occasionally make mistakes, have bonds of friendship that keep them in line.  Whether it be in combat, or at home, when faced with a tough choice, they can figure a way through.  When they cannot, we provide resources to help them.  While mitigating unnecessary risks, they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country and their families when required.  They are, on the whole, trustworthy.  As junior leaders, we are capable of disciplining those that are not.  Our sailors must embrace "good" risk, and exploit success and an enemy's weakness when they can do so. 

Emotionally and Intellectually Fit:  More sailors than ever have college educations and beyond.  While physical fitness is important, our ability to solve complex problems in a rapidly changing environment is our greatest asset.  We have put up with consistent 8-10 month deployments.  Our families feel the strain, but are proud of what we’ve accomplished.  We will continue to educate ourselves, because in the information age, knowledge counts for more than industrial age strength.  A Sound Body certainly contributes to a Sound Mind, but brains, not brawn, will win the wars of the 21st Century.  We must encourage our future leaders to expand their minds by interacting with diverse civilian thought leaders, and make it easy to get the education they need. 

Meritocratic:  Our sailors have grown up in an age where nearly everybody has been given a fair shake.  They have served beside women in combat.  They’ve absorbed the lessons of diversity and have learned immensely from those different than themselves.  More than anything, our sailors want the best people to be promoted, and are tired of a system that continually tells us to be cognizant of the “other.”  We’re not racist or sexist – we’re all Americans and "meritist."  If you’re a good leader, we don’t care what you look like or sound like.  Stop insulting our intelligences, and let us get on with the business of fighting wars.  Our promotion systems are not perfect, but there is not systematic discrimination.  We must focus on combat metrics and 360 evaluations to truly find the leaders of tomorrow.  

A Boon to Society:  We’ve had experience in the most difficult of environments.  We’ve managed many millions of dollars in assets.  We’ve traveled the world, and interacted with cultures throughout.  We have a greater perspective and understanding of what America truly stands for.  Our skills are varied, but acute.  We’re problem solvers and bursting with good ideas.  Unleash us, let us meet our potential, and see what happens. Only by embracing the innovative impulses of the twenty first century will our Navy reach its full potential. 

With these in mind, what does a true 21st Century Sailor portal look like?  It is freewheeling – twitter feeds, discussion forums, idea incubators.  A place where ideas can be fed into a database, torn apart, crowdsourced, and then debated by operators at the lowest level.  We don’t need more statements from senior officers, vetted over and over by endless staffs.  What we need are hard questions and vigorous debate from passionate junior leaders willing to experiment and make our service better at the grassroots level.  

The site should also feature true 21st Century Sailors in their own words.  An innovator of the week or month highlighting a junior enlisted person or junior officer who has created a new procedure or discovered an effective new technique.  A meetup-type calendar for in person, ad hoc informal discussions across service communities, where ideas can percolate and take shape. 

Ultimately, the 21st Century sailor is not a cookie cutter, problem-ridden individual.  They are innovative, adaptable, collaborative, creative and focused on the mission of winning our nation’s wars.  Until we recognize this, we risk squandering the true talents of 21st century personnel as they move onto other, non-military organizations looking to leverage their unique talents.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"What do the Taxpayers Have to do With This?"

Guest Blogger Ryan Bodenheimer is an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, recently returned from Afghanistan.  He is a founding member of Flying Scarfs, recently profiled at Disruptive Thinkers, and OnwardGeneration.


I’ve never questioned American greatness, but I can’t help but sometimes wonder why this is so.  This was especially evident as I prepped my combat survival vest for an upcoming flight into the Hindu Kush, a mountain range in North-Eastern Afghanistan. I asked myself what separates America from everyone else.  On that Winter morning in 2011, as now, I couldn’t help but be struck by a recent quote I had read. 

As Fareed Zakaria describes in his book “The Post American World," the reasons for American strength and power have changed. 
The Tallest building in the world is now in Dubai. The world’s richest man is Mexican, and its [the world’s] largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese. The world’s biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, its leading refinery is in India, and its largest factories are all in China. The world’s largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. Its number one casino is not in Las Vegas but Macao, which has also overtaken Vegas in annual gambling revenues.
This list does not gain virtue by comparing the sizes of Ferris wheels, but instead, by illuminating categories that, twenty years ago, were dominated by the United States.

Shortly after prepping my vest, and reviewing the imagery for a coalition commander’s plan to clear a village, my flight stepped to the weather desk to receive our last update before blasting off in our F-15E Strike Eagles.

We were told that current weather conditions made the mission unworkable, and ground forces had cancelled all requests for close air support. We had jets on alert, with a 15 minute response time in case anything happened, but for the time being there was no need for us to be airborne.  Yet, we planned to press with the mission anyway.

Perplexed, I suggested to the mission commander that we save taxpayers the roughly $125,000 in jet fuel it would cost for our two jets to fly, and cancel our mission.  Unfortunately, I was the junior man, and a higher-ranking officer spoke up saying, “What do the taxpayers have to do with this?”

I could feel my heart thump harder against my chest as I looked him in the eye and saw no regard for the people I had sworn to protect.  I once swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As I stood there I came to a new realization and understanding of our military: We must protect our citizens from unnecessary military spending.

During that flight we remained in the weather for the entire 5 hours, contributing nothing to America’s national security and her interests.

I understood that an enemy to the American people could also be bankrupting them with superfluous military expenses. It was clear to me that this spending, at the tip of the spear, sometimes has no real checks and balances.

Given this, I silently wondered what does, in fact, make America great.  Is it our military that makes us great? Undoubtedly, the military has some of the finest Americans within its ranks. Americans willing to sacrifice their lives and time both for people they love and for people they will never meet.

Yet, what must come first?  A great nation or a great military? If we didn’t have the resources and the resolve as a great nation to build airplanes and tanks for World War II, our military would have crumbled. Without the budget produced by taxpayers, along with innovative American companies, there would be no bank account for national defense. Without education, we would not be able to prepare military warriors for the intense curriculum demanded of the modern warfighter. To me it seems reasonable that the strength of the United States is deeply rooted in things outside the military. Education, infrastructure, hospitals, commerce, and innovation all allow for the United States to have a military rivaled by no one else in the world.

When military officers like the one I flew with on that cloudy, winter day forget who they work for, the United States starts down a path of excessive spending misaligned with the principles of trust, innovation and integrity.  It is compounded when men like him are assigned to the fast track, as he was, attending prestigious leadership schools with a likelihood of being promoted to a position of eventual policy influence. 

Should the military be concerned with taxpayer dollars, or is that the job of our civilian leadership?  Constitutionally, Congress sets our budgets, but too often our civilian leaders defer to the military. This can be for a multitude of reasons, the first of which may be a misunderstanding of actual military need due to lack of military experience.

In my limited experience in the military thus far, I have met only one military leader who I truly believe would be fiscally faithful to civilian leadership. The problem is that most see the information advantage they have as a springboard for their own career. Conversely, I have met dozens of younger officers who see rampant waste and are willing to speak up about it. Unfortunately, perhaps by military design, these younger officers do not have the ear of our legislators.

Some may argue that it’s not the military’s job to think about the taxpayer. Maybe it wasn’t 10 years ago. But today, as we wade through the recession, witness the financial crisis in the euro-zone and fight new forms of terrorism, we must have honesty and transparency in our requests for funding. 

As President Eisenhower described,
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
Having a strong military contributes to a strong nation.  Yet, there is a difference between spending that creates a lean, efficient combat effective force, and one that is wasteful. Our needless $125,000 flight may not seem like much when stacked against a $650 billion defense budget, but these actions repeated over and over add up quickly. 

We must have people we can trust and who tell the truth, absent their own career goals or pride, in top military positions. It is a culture change that should be demanded at all levels of the military to create an atmosphere that remembers who it is we work for.  Not for ourselves, nor our careers, but for the American people and their interests.

Solutions apart from pouring more into the coffers of defense must be considered and encouraged. Innovation, creativity and technology have a real place in solving war, poverty and other world problems.

For instance, Flying scarfs aims to help end the insurgency in Afghanistan by empowering local artisans through economics and education -- all at no cost to the government.   Another organization, OnwardGeneration, was created to highlight the need for a broader worldview and to help create organizations in America and abroad that solve social problems with entrepreneurial pursuits. 

Ventures like these prove that America has the same formula for greatness as it did when the framers of the Declaration of Independence gathered to make their break with antiquated government systems.

Combining best practices of business, social and military entrepreneurs will facilitate lasting change in war-torn, terrorist-laden regions. Leveraging local, economically focused empowerment, in concert with military action, will bring lasting results and long-term stability to these unstable regions.  It will also be a more effective use of government funds. 

America will remain the centerpiece of this new and adapting world if we are not afraid to adapt our philosophy with it.  The interconnectedness of our world requires that we understand how our actions ripple through other nations, their governments and non-state sponsored groups.

In order to keep America great, new ideas must keep flowing. They are the lifeblood of all things American. From the decision to declare Independence in 1776 to 3M’s 15% rule, outside the box, disruptive thinkers have and will continue to keep America at the pinnacle of economic, political and military dominance.  It is readily evident that what truly makes America great are people who are not afraid to think.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

System Disruptions and Resilient Networks

Normally, the only thing that gets me worked up is sitting in traffic.  But sometimes it gets so bad, it becomes comical.

Last fall, a man threatening suicide closed off one of the more heavily traveled highways in San Diego.  As it was just as rush hour began, this caused cascading gridlock throughout the region.  Normally, my ten mile commute from work takes 20 minutes.  This time it took 90. 

There are four major highways that lead into downtown San Diego.  With one being closed, the other three were forced to handle the overload.  They couldn’t.  A five by five mile area of San Diego roads, including interstates, feeders and normal streets, were a virtual parking lot.

Coincidentally, I had been reading a book by John Robb entitled “Brave New War.”  Its premise is that warfare is now in a new state of existence, called Open Source Warfare.  Instead of hitting an enemy’s armed center of gravity, terrorist networks focus on disrupting vital, centralized systems.  By focusing on specific nodes in power grids, energy transport and transportation, small attacks can wreak disproportionate havoc. 

For instance, the 9/11 attacks cost the attackers at most $500,000.  They caused over $80 billion in immediate economic damage.  This is a return on investment of nearly 160,000 to 1.  A $2,000 attack in Iraq in 2004 on oil infrastructure caused that country to lose $500 million in revenue – an ROI of 250,000. 

While I sat in traffic, I couldn’t help but contemplate this asymmetric disruptive power.  One man was able to bring a city of millions to a grinding halt, all because he had a political grievance over medical marijuana.  Indeed, as soon as I returned home and picked up the book again, Robb mentioned the specific instance of traffic disruptions.

Homer Simpson, Esq
We live in a society that is so highly efficient and centralized, even the smallest disruption can have wide reaching effects.  Much of Southern California experienced a massive system wide blackout in September 2011 because one transmission station in Arizona had a hiccup.  In 2003, the Northeast was plunged into darkness because of disruptions at a single Ohio power node. This may be good for getting neighbors to actually come out and talk to each other, but little else. 

The most effective first responders during the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina were non-government sponsored entities like Wal-Mart.  They were not shackled by bureaucracy, but instead had decentralized networks able to rapidly adapt to a fundamentally changed environment. 

Our national infrastructure is a large reason why the United States has been so successful over the last century.  But it is incredibly vulnerable to massive, easily executed disruption.  What we need is more resilience and local adaptation.

Sustainability is one of those buzz words that has been touted by the environmental movement for decades.  But it goes well beyond being eco-friendly.  Sustainability goes hand in hand with a robust, resilient infrastructure. 

Imagine if we had an open-source electrical network.  Instead of naturally occurring monopolists setting inefficient prices and being the sole source provider of energy, we create an open, plug and play electrical grid.  We encourage individual households to generate their own power through geothermal, solar or wind.  And while this would hardly suffice to take care of all our energy needs, the grid would be much less susceptible to large outages if a strategically significant location failed.

This would be analogous to the type of data storage system employed by firms like Google and Yahoo!  There are no vital, strategic nodes, but instead, cells of data are located throughout the world in a well-connected, horizontal way.  If one, or even several, fail, the system remains fully operable.

Our security apparatus is built, and reacts to disruptions, based on how it as a centralized system would seek to cause chaos.  This is a recipe for failure.

We heavily secure nuclear facilities and the big ticket infrastructure.  But the attacks of 9/11 were successful because the attackers completely bypassed the US military in attacking our country.  They rendered our multi-million dollar air defense fighters irrelevant. 

Spend a few thousand dollars to cut oil pipelines, destroy main power transmission centers or strategically cut off transportation networks, and you’ve done as much damage as a highly coordinated, high cost attack would.  And bureaucrats would still sit around wondering how their hundred billion dollar planning apparatus failed.

The solution to this is not a centralized, uncreative Department of Homeland Security, but rather a system that renders Open Source Warfare irrelevant.  It creates an open infrastructure of its own, able to absorb unforeseen events, of both the natural and man made kind. 

Most of all, this requires a radical new way of approaching our society.  It is becoming apparent that the centralized, nation state model of the past century is increasingly antiquated.  Much as Wikipedia has allowed knowledge to be more broadly accessible at very little cost, so too must our infrastructure development allow small, local innovations to take hold.  This will create a resilient network of citizenship in its own right, while also lessening the ability of wily adversaries to cheaply disrupt our society at low cost. John Robb has done extensive work on this with his Resilient Communities Project. 

It constantly amazes me how close our society sits on the precipice of disaster, yet very few recognize the possibility.  Sometimes it takes a traffic jam to show a clear road ahead.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Female Afghan Entrepreneurs and Their Fighter Pilot Angel Investors

By the time Wasil arrives at the Bagram Air Base bazaar, he has already had a taxing day. The commute to the outskirts of the American installation takes over an hour, and the security screening process another hour. He then opens his shop to sell his wares to curious servicemembers. In his off time from being an entrepreneur in a wartorn country, he studies economics at a local Kabul university.

Cross Cultural Solutions
It was in selling his goods that he happened across three young American Air Force officers. Capt Jonathan Hudgins and Capt Ryan Bodenheimer are F-15 Eagle drivers, and Capt Joshua Carroll the intelligence officer from their squadron. They arrived at Bagram in September of 2011 to complete a six month deployment with the 335th Fighter Squadron out of North Carolina.

In the course of conversation one day, the four hit it off. The language barrier was a challenge at first, with some phrases being lost in translation, but soon, they were talking of everything from politics to education. Eventually they started discussing the most pressing question on Wasil’s mind: The Future of Afghanistan.

After a few visits with Wasil, it became apparent to these three innovative officers that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for many that had come to depend upon foreign and American aid. They knew it was their obligation to find a creative solution to foster entrepreneurship outside of normal military or government channels.

Wasil’s mother runs a local non-profit organization devoted to employing widowed Afghan women who make handmade artisan scarves. Jon and Josh asked Wasil if his mother would want to partner with them to create an international cooperative so as to sell the scarves in the United States. The offer was enthusiastically accepted.

This model of supporting third-world entrepreneurs was most famously formulated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhamed Yunus using the Grameen Bank. Instead of microlending, however, Josh, Ryan and Jon wanted to create an international marketplace for the women’s goods.

After months of filling out IRS, import and customs paperwork, Flying Scarfs began to take shape. It is still in the nascent stages, but has already imported scores of scarves to the US.

More than just fostering entrepreneurship in a society very different than ours, Flying Scarves aims to support one of the most oppressed groups in Afghanistan: women. Even with the end of formal Taliban rule, women in Afghan society are subject to antiquated and unjust judicial proceedings. The worth of most women comes from the social standing of the husbands. Widowed women are thus even more socially outcast. Flying Scarves is an avenue for them to continue to contribute to their local societies.

The three social entrepreneurs have learned from firsthand experience that by specifically targeting female entrepreneurs, and putting money directly in their pockets, the money is most effectively spent. The money they earn goes primarily to their children in the form of education and community projects. It is a small, but necessary, step in helping to close the severe gap in gender equality.

By relying on the already established talents of local Afghans, Flying Scarfs has mitigated the need for costly and bureaucratic government-run training programs. This model empowers oppressed women to seek self-employment as a means of creating lasting economic opportunity.

Furthermore, local development is more efficient than siphoning funds through the US budget – very little, if any, of which actually goes directly to the wages of female Afghans. The average American making $40,000 pays $1694 a year in taxes for the military operations in Afghanistan. Jon and Josh, from their observations, see most of this money getting lost in the foreign aid shuffle, rather than into the hands of the Afghans who need it most. Flying Scarfs is intended to deliver those resources directly into their pockets.

Flying Scarfs currently employs over 300 local Afghan women. The $30 spent on a scarf, equivalent to a week’s worth of wages, is rewarding productive impulses and supporting the development of an above board economy. It directly infuses much needed capital to the Afghan people, especially when a corrupt government disruption system struggles to allocate funds to the right places.

Winning Hearts and Minds
Apart from Flying Scarfs, Josh and Ryan are working to create a more broad-based organization called “Onward Generation” devoted to finding entrepreneurial solutions within the military. With their first venture a success, it will be interesting to see what other ideas they develop.

Wasil still studies economics and sells daily at the Bagram bazaar while helping his mother export handmade scarves abroad. He summed up the strategy of Flying Scarfs best by saying “there is no reason to join the insurgency because I have a job.” These three officers, by thinking outside normal paradigms, are trying to ensure this becomes a reality for more Afghans one scarf at a time.

Please visit the Flying Scarfs website to learn more about their venture.