A DHS Skunkworks Project: Defining & Addressing Homeland Security Grand Challenges

– Executive Summary –

This thesis analyzes the current and future capacity of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) to define and address homeland security grand challenges. The method of analysis is a structured focused comparison of three case studies: XPRIZE, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and DHS S&T. Results of the research show that only through a thorough reconsideration of the S&T approach can DHS fulfill its mission of delivering innovative results that outpace the speed of evolving threats. Specifically, S&T needs to invest in long-term projects that will address potential legacy events twenty-five years in the future.

The thesis is divided into three major sections. The first two focus on the private sector’s XPRIZE and the public sector’s DARPA. These models are relevant for several reasons. First, both have a consistent record of innovation and disruption that have transformed contemporary life through, for example, the internet, space travel, cloud computing, GPS, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and satellite imagery. Second, both groups are viewed as the high-water mark for defining and solving grand challenges. The third section of this thesis identifies areas in which DHS S&T has experienced success and failure relative to its research and development (R&D) mission of delivering solutions to the homeland security enterprise. In terms of areas for improvement, DHS lacks a strategic department-wide policy for defining and reporting on R&D activities, and S&T in particular relies heavily on internal focus groups, dismisses ideas that do not align with its administration goals, and does not invest in true moonshot challenges.

This thesis offers recommendations to DHS S&T that could encourage innovative methods for solving grand challenges. First, it proposes a use-inspired basic research methodology that addresses the needs of today’s homeland security environment while also considering the long-term grand challenges that could be realized in twenty to thirty years. Doing so could reduce the nation’s risk profile and long-term vulnerabilities, better preparing the United States for previously unimagined threats. Second, this thesis advocates trust, autonomy, and independence as crucial elements to allow problem solvers to achieve visionary breakthroughs. These traits, as a collective, have proven to be the lifeblood of organizations that create investments in technology now for capabilities used tomorrow. Third, this thesis proposes harnessing the intellect of the crowd through a visioneering methodology. With so many new minds coming online and so many advances to communication platforms, DHS has a unique opportunity to reshape how it addresses moonshot problems. Additionally, these new minds can access a greater breadth of information, thereby enhancing their contribution to the problem solving process.

Finally, this thesis identifies further research opportunities related to the risk, time, and cost of changing DHS’ approach to solving grand challenges. Transitioning these endeavors from the laboratory into the market poses formidable challenges. Like the innovative technologies created by XPRIZE and DARPA, the solution to a given problem is not the end of a project, but just the beginning. For DHS to develop disruptive technologies and successfully bring them to market, its leaders must understand the potential risks, cost implications, and schedule restraints inherent to the projects they undertake. As Clayton Christensen writes, “disruptive technologies have fluid futures, as in, it is impossible to know what they will disrupt once matured.”[1] To solve the world’s most critical problems, we must be willing to take risks and let our inspiration drive transformative change.

[1] Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Watertown, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 1997).

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