Disrupting defence

The future of Australian defence is in safe hands, thanks to an innovative partnership between the Royal Australia Air Force and UTS design thinking experts.

Airplane flying above lifeboat

In a rapidly changing global environment, simply having the latest technology is not enough. The Australian Defence Force needs to be agile, integrated, and able to better exploit the capabilities of their technologies, systems and people – and UTS is perfectly placed to help make this a reality.

The Royal Australian Air Force has embarked on perhaps the most significant and wide-ranging transformation in its history. The program, dubbed Plan Jericho, aims to develop an adaptive future force that harnesses the potential of new technology and collaborations. It will transform almost every area of enterprise, from systems and operations to procurement, training and personnel management.

"Tax-payers and the government have invested a lot of money in the Air Force," explains Plan Jericho team member, wing commander Jerome Reid. "We need to be smarter and more innovative in how we exploit, evolve and ultimately use these incredible technologies we have been given to deliver on our strategic objectives."

The plan is ambitious and complex, and the problems ambiguous. Realising the need for an innovative approach, the Air Force turned to design thinking, and to the experts at UTS's Design Innovation Research Centre (DIRC).

"The Air Force undertook a competitive process and landed on DIRC, recognising our expertise in design and innovation," says project lead Matt O'Donnell, design innovation practitioner in DIRC. "We have been engaged to partner with the Air Force in undertaking 10 projects; this initial piece examines how the Air Force acquires and sustains capabilities."

The first project, the Air Force's prototype for design thinking, was around their need to acquire ADS-B, or automatic dependent surveillance broadcast – the system utilised by civilian aircraft to allow on-board electronic equipment to digitally broadcast an aircraft's precise location.

Ordinarily, defence industry representatives would respond to a competitive tender process, hoping to sell or modify an existing solution. But DIRC's methodology turned that process on its head; instead, the defence industry were invited to attend a four-day workshop and contribute their expertise to shaping the requirements of the project itself, prior to tender. It required traditional competitors to collaborate on uncertain ground.

"There were a lot of uncomfortable people in the room, especially on the first day," O'Donnell recalls. "We not only asked a group of competitors to collaborate, but also sought to alter the way defence traditionally creates requirements. Doing this in the setting of a complex problem created challenges for many of the attendees."

""We not only asked a group of competitors to collaborate, but also sought to alter the way defence traditionally creates requirements"

Over the four days, participants – Air Force personnel, defence industry representatives, and DIRC staff – were divided into mixed groups to collaborate through a series of design-led innovation (DLI) tools that encouraged them to explore new ground, looking at the problem from multiple stakeholder perspectives. At the end of the intensive process they had completely reconfigured the problem, and the industry players had a clear idea of what they could and couldn't do. Reid believes that the result will be a robust, affordable and timely outcome.

"If you just take that one example of ADS-B, and then open that up to all the acquisition we do in defence, I think there is colossal potential to innovate in how we do acquisition," he says.

Director of DIRC and UTS Director of Innovation and Engagement, Professor Sam Bucolo, is Australia's foremost design thinking expert. Over the last 15 years Bucolo has applied and refined his DLI methodology across multiple sectors, including agribusiness, automotive, manufacturing and renewable energy.

"The frustration that I kept seeing was that industry always wanted to be radical and disruptive, but realistically could only do incremental innovation," he explains. "Design thinking allows them a different way to see a future, and to respond to it."

Defence force personnel are trained problem solvers, but often an engineer's approach prevails: see the issue, identify a solution, and develop steps to get there. Reid says design thinking helped them reframe the problem, examining it more deeply and situating it in the user experience, rather than rush to solve the most visible or most loudly expressed problem.

"When you start to embrace complexity and move away from trying to solve the immediately visible problem, you start asking a different set of questions. Solving the right problem means that you can do it faster, cheaper, and with a broader benefit."

Never before have defence, industry and academia collaborated in this way. According to Bucolo, this collaboration is the first step in a larger, mutually beneficial research project.

"It's a win-win for both parties, which can only happen through investing the time to understand each other's problems"

"It's a win-win for both parties, which can only happen through investing the time to understand each other's problems," he says. "The Air Force is getting to experiment with new models of innovation, and we're also learning.

It's allowing us to refine and demonstrate a better model of engagement and build new opportunities for our academic staff."

For the Air Force, working with UTS rather than a commercial consultancy means the partnership is future-focused, and the approaches, tools and models used are state of the art and constantly evolving. Importantly, it also makes a real contribution to the collective body of research and the advancement of design-led innovation.

"We would like to make this a long-term collaboration, where UTS learn from us and we learn from UTS," says Reid. "That symbiotic collaboration and sharing of knowledge is important, and reflects the goals of the national innovation agenda."

Story by Jenifer Waters