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The Navy says it has no shortage of innovators within its global workforce. The challenge is connecting those people — and their ideas — with decisionmakers in its sprawling acquisition bureaucracy.
To help solve the problem, officials are setting up what they call “tech bridges” in five locations around the country, with a goal of making those pockets of innovation more scalable. The project falls under the heading of a broader initiative called NavalX, the Navy Department’s new effort to inject more agility into its acquisition processes.
And while there has been a proliferation of new innovation-focused organizations stood up across the Defense Department over the past decade, this one is different, said James Guerts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. The idea, he said, is to connect local Navy and Marine Corps organizations who are already in the innovation business with the larger Navy so their ideas can be put to use more quickly.
“I think we’re most successful when we let these ecosystems operate somewhat organically, as opposed to trying to repatriate them into a new thing,” he told reporters. “Each has got their own unique culture or their own circumstances, their own mission area, and so the difference here from what I’ve seen previously is that we’re not trying to chase a new, shiny, bright object. We’re telling them, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, but here’s a way to connect into the network. We’re going to empower you with some other tools and resources and best practices so you can accelerate your own activities.’”
Sites have track record of partnerships
This week, Guerts’ office announced the first five tech bridges: San Diego, Newport, Rhode Island; Keyport, Washington; Orlando and Crane, Indiana. But he said he wants them to operate on a “franchise model” that will eventually expand to include a “great number” of other sites across the country.
The initial sites weren’t selected just for their technological prowess, but also because they’ve already shown they know how to partner with other innovators in the communities where they work, from small businesses to state and local agencies and academic institutions.
“I think a successful ecosystem is where they have married together a mission focus — it could be undersea, it could be simulation — with an ability to understand what’s happening at the state and local level,” Guerts said. “How are you integrated with STEM programs? How are you integrated with academic research? How do you treat interns? How do you leverage that all together show it is much greater than the sum of its individual parts? And success for us is when [the Office of Naval Research] leverage that platform to get access to new ideas and technologies and companies they may not have seen before. When small business folks can meet new companies, and when young talent can come to a place and learn about what the Navy and Marine Corps needs and how we operate … and when sailors and Marines have a place they can walk into to either find the answer or find somebody who can get them the answer, or have an idea and then get that idea to somebody who can act on it.”
The Navy will assign a handful of NavalX personnel to each of the bridges, but their particular areas of expertise will be based on what the local sites say they need help with the most. They’ll be complemented by another small staff of NavalX personnel based in Alexandria, Virginia, whose job will be to make sure innovations that bubble up from the tech bridges can make their way into actual, funded Navy programs.
“I want to make sure we’re driven by the fleet, whether it’s sailors or Marines,” Guerts said. “If we create too large a separate footprint, it becomes about the footprint and not about that enabling the end user. So I’m more interested in what we’re deploying than what we discovered. Because you can be really good at the discovery phase, but if you don’t have a pipeline all the way through rapid acquisition to rapid experimentation to fielding, you really haven’t made that much of a difference.”
And Guerts said NavalX will also play something of a coordinating and deconflicting role across the Navy Department’s existing warfare centers and other innovation sites. Via the tech bridges, the hope is that the Navy will get a better view into what each of its research components are up to, and minimize the number of instances in which they’re duplicating one another’s efforts.
“This is a unique challenge for the Navy, right? We’re everywhere from seabed to space, and in the past, each of these ecosystems just kind of had their own unique focus, whether it’s undersea or aviation,” he said. “But nowadays everything is starting to blend together. If you’re an aviation asset, you may be worried about how to get [communications] to an undersea thing, or if you’re an undersea thing, you may want launch capabilities. So if we’re not careful, each ecosystem will try and grow all of the capabilities they need organically, which is both time consuming [and] also creates this resource contention. So we have to connect. Otherwise, we’re not going to get the speed we need, because everybody will try and invent everything at their local level. And that’s just not possible.”