What Africa (and other Regions) Can Learn About Science, Technology and Innovation Capacity Building from the US Department of Defense
As the African Development Bank prepares to convene the Second Ministerial Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa, I am prompted to ask an unexpected question: “What can Africa learn about STI capacity building from the US Department of Defense (DOD)?”
I think it is safe to say that most STI policy makers and delegates to the AfDB conference would not normally look to DOD for relevant examples of successful STI capacity building programs. After all, when most of us think of the US military, we think of missiles, fighter jets, and tanks. The concept of military R&D conjures up images of missile defense systems and star-wars lasers, neither of which would appear to be particularly relevant to Africa’s current social and economic development challenges.
However, over the past several years, I have discovered that the US DOD operates a number of programs that are directly relevant to Africa’s STI economic development challenges. None of these programs can be copied as is and transferred directly from DOD to Africa. But they can serve as useful models for programs that, with appropriate modifications, can strengthen Africa’s existing STI capacity building programs.
Over the past several years, to my surprise, I have also discovered that DOD has sponsored the development of numerous technologies that can make a substantial dent in many of Africa’s pressing development challenges. This is not entirely by design – in supporting the development of these technologies, DOD is thinking exclusively about its needs, not Africa’s -- but it is not entirely coincidental either. For example, despite their obvious differences, a US Navy ship at sea, a US Army Forward Operating Base in a remote area, and a rural village or peri-urban settlement in Africa have more in common than first meets the eye. Most notably, none are connected to a central power grid or water purification plant and, therefore, they all need to provide these essential services via off-grid, distributed mechanisms.
The US military has made a concerted effort to develop technologies that can meet its military objectives, but it has no objection if someone – an African entrepreneur, an NGO, etc. – uses these technologies to address civilian economic development and humanitarian objectives. Indeed, via the STAR-TIDES (Sharing To Accelerate Research - Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) program, DOD is actively encouraging the transfer of these technologies from military to civilian uses.
So what are some of the programs that DOD uses to develop these technologies and embed them into local businesses and how can they benefit Africa’s STI capacity building efforts? Three DOD programs or activities seem especially relevant for Africa (and other regions).
Technology Scanning. The US Office of Naval Research has a global division, ONR Global, whose objectives are “to search the globe for promising, emerging scientific research and advanced technologies to enable the Office of Naval Research to effectively address current needs… and to investigate and assess revolutionary, high-payoff technologies for future missions and capabilities.” (emphasis in original)
To achieve these objectives, ONR Global maintains five offices around the world whose objectives are to “discover the best science,” “maintain technological awareness” and promote “science and technology partnerships and collaborations.” In other words, ONR Global recognizes that many good ideas and useful innovations are being developed outside the US. ONR Global’s objective is to make sure that the US Navy in particular and US military in general are aware of these scientific and technological developments and prepared to utilize them to solve the military’s problems.
If the US military with its much larger R&D budget feels it has no choice but to scour the world for interesting ideas related to its “current needs” and “future missions and capabilities,” it seems only reasonable that Africa, with its much smaller R&D budgets and more limited STI capacity, should emulate ONR Global and start developing its capacity to harvest global research and technological results related to Africa’s current and future development needs.
Unfortunately, this technology scouting process doesn’t seem to figure prominently in Africa’s current STI capacity building agenda. However, the Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship Centers (ITECs) discussed in a previous blog could begin to address this issue. ITECs do not need to be free standing, new institutions. They could be housed in the Nelson Mandela Institutes and other local universities and research institutes. The key challenge, it seems to me, is to knit these institutions into a loose but coherent network or organizations and institutions that have the capacity to combine original research with global technology scouting in high priority sectors and maintain close links to local entrepreneurs as well as the African business, scientific and engineering diaspora.
Competitions to Promote Enterprise Innovation. All too often, innovation in Africa is something done by scientists in laboratories who then try, with mixed results, to transfer the results of their research to reluctant or disinterested entrepreneurs. It is rare to find private entrepreneurs who are directly involved in conducting research and developing innovative solutions to pressing problems. Research and innovation are done for entrepreneurs, not by entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly, STI policy makers frequently bemoan the fact that there is a yawning chasm between the R&D sector and the enterprise sector. At the same time, they declare that the solution to drinking water, energy access, health care, and food security problems lies in innovative public private partnerships that combine cutting edge technology with innovative private technology deployment and service delivery models.
One obvious way to close this gap is to give entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs who are recent graduates of African engineering, science and business programs, an incentive to devise innovative solutions to high priority challenges. Solve For X for example, challenges participants to define a problem (X) and then devise an audacious but practical solution. Winners are selected on the basis of the relevance of the problem as well as the quality of the proposed solution.
US DOD, on the other hand, employs a slightly different approach. Via the Broad Agency Announcements (BAA) program, DOD challenges participants to find solutions to problems that DOD has defined. An example of a recent BAA is the following:
Requirement Number: 56 HQ0034-14-BAA-RIF-0001 DoD FY2014 Rapid Innovation Fund DEFENSE-WIDE Annexes NAVFAC , Requirement #: FY14-DoN-RIF-NAVFAC-01, Requirement Title: NAVFAC: Improved Expeditionary Warfighter Self Sufficiency Military System or Acquisition Program Customer: NAVFAC
Description: Joint and coalition expeditionary forces are dependent on water and energy. There is a need for advanced technologies to allow individual, squad and platoon-sized units to efficiently scavenge water (fresh, brackish, salt) and energy from resources in the expeditionary environment. Topics of interest include disinfection, filtration, desalination, maintenance reduction, waste-to-energy conversion, and reduced weight and cube. (p. 56)
In other words, via BAAs, the military defines a problem and then crowd sources proposals for innovative solutions from entrepreneurs. Although only a relatively small number of entrepreneurs actually win an award, the competition process encourages a much larger number of entrepreneurs to participate in the competition and to begin thinking about devising innovative solutions.
Pursuant to the BAA program (detailed descriptions are available here and here), any individual or organization that has a potentially solution is eligible to respond to the call for proposals. However, special consideration is given to proposals from SMEs.
“All responsible sources capable of satisfying the Government's needs may submit a
White Paper under this BAA (small businesses, non-profits, institutions, etc). However, selection preference will be given to small business proposals addressing the evaluation criteria. Awards to other than small business Offerors are allowed but ONLY after the award selection approval authority determines the award is superior to proposals received from a small business….
In submitting a response or White Paper, the applicant must describe:
(1) How the technology meets and addresses one of the topics specified in this Annex of the BAA.
(2) How and to what degree the technical approach is relevant to an Army acquisition program including how the approach enhances the military capability; accelerates the development of military capability; reduces the development costs; and/or reduces the sustainment costs of fielding systems.
(3) The current Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of the technology and/or product and how will it transition to military systems or programs. “
Needless to say, DOD’s BAA program and evaluation criteria are tailored to the US military’s needs. But there is no reason why African policy makers cannot develop a similar program which combines the best features of Solve For X and the BAA program and is tailored to Africa’s pressing challenges. The program could be administered on either a country-by- country basis, a regional basis, or a pan-African basis. Combining a BAA program with start-up weekends, access to technology scouting expertise in ITECs, links to the diaspora and international experts might be an especially powerful tool for motivating African entrepreneurs to begin developing innovative solutions to Africa’s challenges.
Science Fairs and Technology Demonstration Expos.
Finally, DOD, along with a wide range of partners organizes and sponsors a variety of science fairs and business expos. These events give innovative businesses an opportunity to display their products alongside other innovative companies. The opportunities to see what others are doing, establish potential alliances, and network with potential customers and financiers are invaluable. For examples of one very recent and one forthcoming event see here and here.
In addition to these events, ONR is sponsoring the Chaing Mai World Green City which was featured at the April GSS. For details of this expo, see here and here.
If Africa wants to use science, technology and innovation to promote green growth, one small step in that direction might be the development of several science fairs and technology demonstration expo centers along the lines of the Chaing Mai World Green City where entrepreneurs can deploy their technology in real world, model green villages.
One final note: The strength of many of these DOD programs comes from the fact that DOD not only administers these programs but is a large-scale, well-paying customer for many of the technologies and solutions generated by the programs. This is not the case in Africa, where public procurement is not as well integrated with innovation and entrepreneurship programs as it may need to be. This issue will also have to be addressed if Africa hopes to develop a well function science, technology and innovation system.
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