NSmen gain if Mindef speeds up use of new tech

Growing up, I often heard the joke that the term military intelligence is an oxymoron. Innovation and the military are concepts that you would not typically associate with each other. However, the United States military has been making strides in this area and there are important and useful lessons in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship that Singapore can learn from.

High-profile disrupters such as Airbnb and Uber have turned entire industries on their heads. Incumbents and regulators alike are scrambling to deal with these disrupters. Even as they do so, yet more disrupters are threatening to appear in more industries.

Often bringing fresh ideas, some of these disrupters do not even originate from within the industry - NinjaVan, which offers delivery services on a technology platform, was founded by three Singaporeans not from the logistics or courier business.

While these innovative companies are sometimes frowned upon or even feared, big corporates have also come to realise that working with such innovative companies might have benefits in the long run. Therefore increasing numbers of corporates have begun embracing innovation - setting up innovation centres, establishing accelerator programmes and even acquiring start-ups. It has not been a bed of roses - stories abound of start-ups being swallowed whole and crushed in a big web of bureaucracy, with culture shock being suffered by both the acquirer and the acquired, but these bad experiences should not deter big organisations from seeking to embrace innovation.

Indeed, when the stars are aligned, the synergies can prove to be very beneficial. In 2012, Spotify took Coca-Cola on as part of an investment round. As part of this tie-up, Coca-Cola put the Spotify logo on a hundred million of its cans. That deal brought Spotify into close contact with its desired demographic while playing up Coca-Cola's long association with hip music. It must have been a success because Spotify, then a fledgling business with a US$3 billion (S$4.2 billion) valuation, has recently become a US$41 billion acquisition target of Google.

If private sector corporations are struggling to embrace innovation, one would expect that the military would have a much tougher time. A hulking beast of bureaucracy, with a command and control structure requiring high levels of compliance, obedience and group think, rigid timetables and regimentation, and operations that are often shrouded in secrecy.

The obvious aim of the Defence Innovation Unit is not just commercial but to help the US military acquire technology faster and in the process help these innovative companies accelerate the growth of their business. In return, the start-ups get access to military funding as well as vast opportunities, including the ability to access military facilities such as live battlefield situations to test their technology.

How can innovation survive or at least interface with such a creature?

That thinking has been challenged by the US Department of Defence. Last year, the US military set up a new unit called the Defence Innovation Unit (DIUx). The DIUx is an organisation formed under the US Department of Defence to focus on accelerating the use of commercial technologies in the US military. Staffed by a mix of civilians and military personnel, it is led by personnel formerly from the venture capital and technology industries, including Google.

The DIUx set out to reduce and simplify the process by which the US military acquires technology. In just over a year, the DIUx has worked on a number of licensing deals and has significantly brought down the contracting time for the US military to acquire technology. The DIUx is also positioned as a venture capitalist looking to take equity positions in companies through its offices in Silicon Valley and Boston.

The obvious aim of the DIUx is not just commercial but to help the US military acquire technology faster and in the process help these innovative companies accelerate the growth of their business. In return, the start-ups get access to military funding as well as vast opportunities, including the ability to access military facilities such as live battlefield situations to test their technology. When Uncle Sam says he wants you, he no longer wants just the brawn, he also wants the brains and the ideas.

The concept of the DIUx should be especially appealing to Singapore for a few reasons.

First, the Government has budgeted a vast amount for investment in various areas of technology in order to catalyse the growth of the tech industry. It would be even more beneficial if these investments were used to acquire technology that could help the Singapore military.

Second, Singapore is well known for sending its top military talent to the private sector. Given the increasing focus on innovation in the private sector, the military embracing innovation would prepare its talent should they make that move down the road.

Third, Singapore also has a citizen army; citizens form the main bulk of the defence force and civilians return to the military as part of their reservist obligation. Increasingly, there will be a focus on the military harnessing the civilian talents of its forces and building up the skill sets of its national servicemen so that those may also be applied in the civilian world. An example of this would be those serving the medical and cyber-security vocations.

This embracing of innovation would further allow individuals, such as venture capitalists, technology scientists and intellectual property experts, to contribute, as part of their reservist obligation, to the process by which the military acquires technology or seeks to accelerate the development of technology. Therefore, the time is right for innovation to be embraced in a new way, even in the Singapore military.

•The writer is a technology partner at law firm Pinsent Masons MPillay and also the president of the Internet Society, Singapore chapter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'NSmen gain if Mindef speeds up use of new tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe