Each year I get to travel to the UK and attend the Defence (with a “c”) Information conference, DI’18, organized jointly by the Cranfield University Defence Academy and TeamDefence. This conference brings together MoD (Ministry of Defence), Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine civil servants and uniformed IT (ICT in UK parlance) personnel and tech industry thought leaders. The mission of the conference is to look at MoD technology strategy and direction and to see where commercially available solutions can augment MoD efforts.
It is my favorite conference because when a speaker talks about a task being “mission critical” the stakes are clearly different and measured in lives and liberty rather than pounds and pence.
The conference is organized under the Chatham House Rules which enables participants to share what they learned and allows for free discussion of the ideas presented so long as the authors of those ideas are not revealed. This means speakers are free to speak their minds and be transparently clear on their challenges, objectives, and needs.
The MoD is “a much beloved but crusty old uncle.”
Each year I learn something new about the British approach to the “defence of the realm” and I am inspired by the clarity, pragmatism, and determination that gets things done. Like any branch of UK government, the MoD is a centuries-old bureaucracy that has to account for every pound of tax-payer revenue they spend.
As was widely reported in the British press, “last year the MoD spent more on computers than ammunition” and as one speaker noted, “It is clear where the next war is being fought.”
Excellence is collaboration, impact, innovation, potential, and implementation
This year I had the distinct honor to be asked to lead the judging panel for the DI Excellence awards. These awards recognize innovators in the MoD, the uniformed services and, commercial enterprises, who come together to address specific technology needs.
Often these innovations take existing MoD infrastructure and exploit it in new, and more accessible ways, frequently they adapt commercial technologies for the rigors of the battlespace, and always they present solutions that adapt to the complex landscape of MoD regulations and traditions.
This year there were 8 entries from a total of 48 collaborators. The organizations involved included the Royal Engineers, the Royal Navy, some of the largest aerospace contractors to a startup (named after a class of sailing boat because the founder likes to race small yachts).
One team developed an additive manufacturing, or 3D-printing system, to make replacement parts in places where spares cannot be easily delivered like aboard a naval vessel or in an active battlespace.
Another group looked at minimizing the damage caused by a cyber-theft attack by encrypting each data element in a data-store with a different key forcing the bad-guys to have to brute-force decrypt millions of times anything they stole.
Not all ideas took on the offensive and defensive needs of the military. One submission took the tens of binders, thousands of pages and millions of words that describe just one of the business processes used thousands of times a day by civilians and uniformed personnel, ashore and asea, and made it instantly accessible, searchable and useable thus saving endless hours and bringing much-needed standardization and conformity.
And in this complex world of alliances and treaties, controls and licenses, the import, export, and use of classified hardware must be tightly managed. Keeping track of who has what and how they may use it is a massive, and naturally secretive, process, largely done on paper or in spreadsheets. A mistake in this process may result in an inadvertent supply of sensitive technology to potentially hostile groups. Clearly a situation in need of technology to control.
A most interesting nomination found a way to bring brilliant new entrepreneurs and innovators together to tackle impenetrable and intractable MoD challenges. Not only that but incubate those new companies and help them navigate their way through the MoD procurement and investment processes.
Team Defence is really Family Defence
One thing I found to be common amongst all the excellent nominees was a sense of pride and purposefulness. Many of the commercial partners in these teams were former uniformed members of the UK military. Their paycheck now comes from a company but they are still working their original service mission with the resources and commitment to deliver upon it.
It is a credit to the MoD, the armed forces, Cranfield University, TeamDefence and the hundreds of participants in DI’18 that this open exchange of ideas and a free flow of information is possible. It enables extraordinary solutions to unimaginable problems that save lives, ensures liberty, projects influence, and defends the nation.
Thank you. See you next year.