September 23, 2021

Applied Design for Innovation curriculum drives solutions for future operators, warfare

Desiree Dillehay

Editor’s Note: Some individuals within the article are cited anonymously due to the nature of their military positions.

In September of 2018, an experimental unit from within United States Special Operations Command identified a need for an academic pipeline that would prepare warfighters tasked with leading innovation initiatives across the military services. Thus began the development of the Applied Design for Innovation curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department.

It was clear that a specialized curriculum was needed to educate service members on how to effectively leverage design thinking, analytic social science and emerging technologies to drive innovative concepts and solutions for the future operating environment.

According to the NPS website, the AD4I curriculum “is designed to meet the changing needs of Naval Special Warfare in the context of rapidly changing technology and Great Power Competition.” Defense Analysis students use a “blend of design-thinking and analytic social science methods to engage in the problem-framing, ideation, creative collaboration, and stakeholder engagement necessary for successful innovation.”

The experiential learning model within the curriculum helps to “accelerate the DOD’s ability to adopt, implement and diffuse new concepts and technologies to enhance the warfighting capability and capacity of the military services,” said a Naval Special Operator, graduate and co-creator of the curriculum. “The AD4I curriculum also provides students a gateway to NPS’ renowned STEM campus, which is in turn a gateway to the West Coast technology, academic and DOD innovation ecosystems.”

He added that, “Greater collaboration between the public and private sector is absolutely essential for bolstering innovation education. NPS, and the U.S. Military at large, must leverage companies in technology hubs like Silicon Valley to educate and prepare our military leaders for how to successfully identify, adopt and integrate the emerging technologies and innovative practices being used in the private sector. Strengthening these partnerships with industry will help the DOD adapt its workforce and processes to address the array of national security challenges on the horizon.”

NPS is set in a prime Central California location to be able to tap into these critical innovation ecosystems. And as the Nation’s premier defense research institution, NPS brings other advantages such as cross-campus collaboration, tailorable academic content, and project-driven learning. These advantages enhance human and organizational implementation as well as strategic utilization of innovation.

“When we talk about design, and in my course on the Principles of Strategic Design, we always talk about the need to think in terms of the system. Yes, technology is there and at the heart is the catalyst for change, but unless it is properly used organizationally and doctrinally, it will never be optimized,” said Dr. John Arquilla, distinguished professor of Defense Analysis at NPS. “And so, a major strand in research, which connects them to our curriculum in information strategy, is this idea of the innovation process as one that speaks across the technology to organization to doctrine and to strategy overall.”

The impact of the Master of Science degree and the students’ educational experiences spans three distinct tiers.

“First, they deliver a solution to a real problem, which has tangible value of its own. Second, they lead an innovation ‘under instruction’ — similar to how we train supervisors of various tactical skills — and thus gain a skill set they can apply in subsequent roles in the future,” said a Naval Special Operator who is currently a DA Department staff member at NPS. “Third, and most importantly, they acquire a new lens to look at the world, which enables them to see ways that change is possible and thus alters their baseline assumptions about opportunity, which is in itself the seed of cultural change as it scales.”

“The AD4I curriculum enhances the agility of the Defense Analysis Department by providing a means to address the current warfighting challenges of its military sponsors, while simultaneously creating a culture of innovation,” said the NPS graduate. “AD4I was designed to create an environment where students are active participants in their education, creating a rewarding experience that generates short and long-term return on investment for both the students and their sponsoring communities.”

Read the thesis behind AD4I: Teaching Innovation: Designing A Curriculum To Change The Military

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