Grassroots innovation movement grows inside the military

Our Defense Department can sometimes be tied up in old techniques, and generally risk averse, says Jim Perkins. In response, service members and veterans with n...

The Pentagon has spent three years trying out new ways to attract technology companies in places like Silicon Valley to start working on military projects. Now, grassroots efforts on bases are working to apply new ideas to modernize the military — all from within.

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) is a community of active duty service members and veterans meeting and volunteering their time to tackle some of the military’s toughest challenges. Jim Perkins, executive director of DEF, joined What’s Working in Washington to discuss how the organization has made a difference.

“Our method is very people-centric. We try to create an opportunity or an outlet for those creative, innovative, entrepreneurial people to come together with their ideas, to share them, even if they are contrarian,” said Perkins. “Right now, the federal bureaucracy doesn’t even allow that.”

Perkins sees the Defense Department as tied up in old techniques, and generally “risk averse.” In response, service members and veterans with new ideas started meeting and formed the DEF community, which has since grown to a global movement with meetings as far away as Australia.

“We just saw that in our day jobs, we just weren’t given that opportunity” to serve the country as effectively as possible, Perkins said. “Because of risk aversion, we were stifled in trying to do better, to try to do something in a way we hadn’t been doing before.”

DEF provides an alternative. “It lets you see that there are people who are senior leaders, and other junior members, who share that passion for improving [national security],” said Perkins.

Perkins said DEF has allowed many of his members to volunteer their time to tackle these challenges.

“If we can do the business of national security better, and cheaper, and faster, it doesn’t really matter to them if they get paid for doing it.”

Perkins cited the example of a coder who created modeling software to make Navy flight schedules more efficient.

At first, the coder faced resistance but was eventually supported by leadership when it was obvious how effective the software was. Perkins said new methods of solving problems could save the military money and accomplish missions more efficiently.

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