I've been reading through my old copy of a book by the celebrated science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke. One his non-fiction books is titled 'Profiles of the Future'. First published in 1962, Clarke updated it for a second edition in 1972; my copy dates from 1976.
In this book Clarke takes the Mickey mercilessly from a bunch of eminent scientists who said some things were impossible. They were wrong, of course, but their reputations made it extremely difficult for pioneers and visionaries to convince their fellow men (and more importantly their governments) that something was possible, useful and even necessary. In a defence market dominated by a monopsony power, Clarke's history lesson has sobering implications.
See if you can match the quotations below with the list of eminent scientists at the end of this post.
1. "Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which men will never have to cope... Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant if not utterly impossible."
2. "The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steamships... It seems safe to say that such ideas must be wholly visionary"
3. "By the year 1980 the [passenger-carrying] aeroplane will have reached the limits of its development: a speed of 110-130 miles per hour; a range of about 600 miles; a payload of about 4 tons; and a total weight of about 20 tons." This prediction was made in 1929.
4. "There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible for many years... I don't think anyone in the world knows how to do such a thing and I feel confident that it will not be done for a very long period of time to come." This was written in December 1945, mark you!
It's probably worth recalling Clarke's first law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong." Clarke's third law is worth keeping in mind, too: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
So what does this mean for innovators? It can mean one of two things: firstly, that the Innovator really is a crackpot peddling an impossible idea (and that's quite possible); or secondly, that the innovator has a genuinely disruptive idea based on insights about need and demand (and feasibility) that have escaped, or simply not engaged, the interest of an entrenched gatekeeper or master of the conventional wisdom.
Looking at history, it's clear that many brilliant ideas and insights have languished, often for decades, because the conventional wisdom (or vested interests) wouldn't allow them to flourish and grow. Part of the Innovator's challenge, then, is to sell the very idea as well as the more practical implementation. Think about the 19th century London doctor, John Snow, who first identified the mechanism by which cholera was transmitted. Or Ignasz Semmelweis, whose pioneering observations and research in 19th century Vienna demonstrated that you could reduce the incidence of puerperal fever, or postpartum infection of mothers, by 90%. Both were ridiculed by the medical establishment of their time, but they were both spot-on and we today owe a massive amount to their persistence and courage.
So it seems that innovators need skills in communication and persuasion, and powerful friends and sponsors who can support them - which is entirely consistent with the literature on innovation, but that's another story.
Sources of the Quotations - did you get them right?
A. William H Pickering, US astronomer - early 20th century
B. Nevil Shute (NS Norway), aircraft designer and novelist
C. Prof. Simon Newcomb, US Navy Professor of Mathematics - late 1800s
D. Dr Vannevar Bush, Director Office of Scientific Research and Development
Monday, 11 November 2019
Simple question: if you could afford, say, an F-35 but your tactics, techniques and procedures were all still firmly rooted in the old Mirage III era, would you be significantly better off buying the new jet?
Let’s turn that around: if you’re operating a 4th generation fighter and need to bite chunks out of a thoroughly modern air force, but can’t afford to buy 5th generation aircraft, what do you do?
You might find that a well-flown 4th generation fighter will defeat a badly flown 5th generation fighter. And that may be because the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) and enabling technologies you adopt give you an operational advantage.
That tells us there’s no point in buying new kit unless you understand what you’re able to do with it, and change your TTPs accordingly. This is one of the challenges for innovators, and it’s not specifically a Defence problem – it’s general.
Expanding the topic slightly, the competitiveness of an organisation derives partly from its equipment (F-35s, M1A1 Abrams, etc) or products (price, quality, capability), and partly from its leadership and management.
The most obvious example is the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf109s, and the tactics of their pilots, were superior to those of the Hurricane squadrons they encountered in battle; the Spitfire was a match for the Bf109 but the Royal Air Force was short of these, so on paper the force imbalance was significantly in the Luftwaffe’s favour.
But the RAF leadership had invested pre-war in several game-changing innovations. As well as its aircraft, it enjoyed superior situational awareness, thanks to radar and a new command and control system that made best use of the knowledge and assets available to it. These, together, made possible a winning strategy.
It was the intangibles that proved decisive: strategy, situational awareness, command and control, and tactics. These were disruptive innovations that changed air fighting for generations. And they were enterprise-level innovations: the RAF changed itself to exploit them.
When assessing supposedly innovative products many commentators mistakenly ignore those intangibles and their contextual relevance and focus purely on the performance of the equipment in question.
Incremental innovation can give you an increase in performance, and so a combat edge in an existing environment, without your needing to change fundamentally what you do. Think Spitfire over Hurricane, or M1A1 Abrams over Leopard 1.
Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, enables (or forces) you to completely change how you do things. Think terrorist IEDs and the effect these had on Coalition tactics and equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Think F-22, F-35 and AEW&C and their game-changing effect on how air battles are fought. Think dismounted combat in Afghanistan and the emergence of Diggerworks.
Think Boeing’s Loyal Wingman – what do stealth, autonomous systems and AI, in partnership with a manned combat aircraft, allow you do that you couldn’t before? Imagine the fun smart kids from the RAAF, industry and the universities will have working out how you can use that killer combination of technologies to completely change the nature of air warfare. That’s disruptive, enterprise-level innovation.
One of America’s innovation gurus, Clayton Christensen, points out that disruptive innovations create new markets (The Innovator’s Dilemma; Google it). The new markets behave and reward players differently. Established players lack the agility, smarts and structures to be competitive in these new markets, even if they have access to the same technology.
The same goes for warfare and conflict, or competition between nations and blocs (look back at this year’s ASPI International Conference: War in 2025). New players are developing different threats and employing them in novel ways. While traditional state v state warfare still demands old-fashioned, industrial-era deterrent and defence capabilities, Political Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, ‘Grey Zone’ operations and brazen cyber assault demand a different set of TTPs – they force disruptive, enterprise-level innovation upon us.
This is the challenge facing defence sector innovators: improving significantly what you’ve got takes innovation and hard work, but may not change fundamentally what you do. Disruptive innovation is more fundamental than just new technology – it means imagining (or adapting to) a very different reality and some very different outcomes. It means creating the mental freedom for this to happen in the first place.
It means Defence, the universities and industry looking inside each other’s heads as well as inside their own, and ignoring conventional wisdom and vested interests.