How do you start innovating? Where do you get the ideas or needs or problems or technologies that get you going on a startup, a new internal project, etc? Part of the Center for the Study of Intelligence pulls the curtain back on how they help.
Our criteria for topic selection are pretty straightforward: the topic must be “emerging” and it must be a “trend.” That is, it must have some degree of newness (we aren’t the History part of CSI) (although a historical perspective is crucial for the “trend” part) and there must be a pattern of movement around it. We also have a third criterion: it must somehow relate to the profession of intelligence.
There are a few ways to measure the “newness” of a topic. I suspect each ET author has his or her own preference, but I like to write about Horizon 3 stuff. “Horizon 3” is from the three horizons of growth, a business tool developed in 1999 and popularized by McKinsey.
A way to determine the Horizon of a technology, especially for technologies that are things (smartphones, glasses, shoes, blockchain code, social media), is market maturity. I have a set of questions that gives me a rough gauge:
How mature is it?
- You can buy it now and here’s the link
- It should be available on the market this year
- The tech is proven and people are using it but it’s hard to get for reasons
- Looks promising
- It’s conceptually feasible but still in laboratory testing
This is analogous to the Technology Readiness Level used by NASA and adopted by many other development shops to determine how close something is to deployment.
For obvious reasons, the trend of emergence gets stronger the closer the technology or process or concept gets to market maturity and to Horizon 1 business investment.
However, ET’s role is to look for trends on the edges – what are the early adopters doing? We go look for the folks futurist Amy Webb calls the “the unusual suspects.” On the 6-question gauge below, it needs to score at least 4 out of 6.
It’s probably worth talking a bit about what a trend is and how it’s not “trendy.” A trend is a new manifestation of sustained change within an industry, the public sector, or society, or in the way we behave toward one another.
A trend is the starting point that helps us to simultaneously meet the demands of the present while planning for the future. And that is why the agencies of the IC need ET and innovators.
How much of a trend is it?
- Does it intersect with other aspects of daily life?
- Is it driven by a basic human need, one that is catalyzed by new technology?
- Is it timely yet persistent?
- Does it evolve as it emerges?
- Is it materializing as a series of unconnected dots that began out of the fringe?
- Is it moving to the mainstream?
This one is trickier than you’d think, because there are a lot of tradecrafts under this umbrella, as well as workplace and workforce issues. Some ET authors, like myself, would prefer to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and just tell you about the emerging trend, letting you figure out how to apply it to your mission. After all, you are the expert on that, I’m not. That said, it’s often useful for us to share why we selected this trend of everything going on and said “Holy cow, the IC needs to know about this!”
On the other hand, relevance is easy in some ways, because most emerging technology is a double-edged sword. For every offensive mission use we can think of, there’s a use we will need to defend against. Here’s my five-stage checklist for relevance. For ET it must be #1 or #2; maybe #3 depending.
How easy is it to think of applications/uses?
- I thought of at least 10 while reading about it
- It’s already being used for some stuff, and I can think of other uses
- You’d have to hack it a bit but then there are options
- If the stars aligned properly and all conditions were met, there might be a couple uses
- I honestly have no idea what anyone would do with this
Knowledge is power, but it’s not success
It’s all well and good to know about this stuff, but if the IC doesn’t do anything with that knowledge, who cares?
The Intelligence Community attrits capability every single day, just by executing perfectly on our existing mission and tasks. This is The Red Queen Hypothesis.
If we don’t innovate constantly, we fall behind.
I know you are sick of hearing the word “innovate.” We all are. So let’s break it down and give it meaning: An innovation is a new connection that adds value and gets used. That connection happens between need and technology, and it’s what we try to highlight for the IC.
Keeping us ahead of our competition and our adversaries is everyone’s job, and it’s a team sport. There’s no single person, in fact there’s no job title, for the whole process. It takes a lot of different people with different skill sets to recognize the need, identify a technology or process that might solve it, test to see if it does, and get it into production. Identifying emerging trends is the start of that process, but our deepest desire is to see the stuff we write about actually implemented to help national security.