DARPA's Open Process Research Strategy

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Regina Dugan's Innovative Open Process Strategy For DARPA

"She is so focused on speeding up the time from blue-sky idea to delivery of product that she has embraced crowdsourcing for both idea creation and manufacturing. Turning to the masses may seem antithetical to military secrecy, but Dugan's unorthodox approach fits with another goal of hers: welcoming a wider array of smaller contractors to bid for DARPA projects (including AeroVironment, which fabricated the Nano Hummingbirds on the previous page).


From the interview conducted by Adam L. Penenberg:

"You've introduced a number of projects that seem to be designed to speed up and open up innovation at DARPA?

To increase the speed of innovation here, we want to increase the number of people who can contribute ideas to the creative process. We're trying to get that going with things like the Adaptive Vehicle Make program, the Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, and a whole host of space-program projects. Then there's also how we engage with the scientific and business communities. We structure programs so that we can have diversity of involvement from universities to small businesses to large businesses to garage inventors. You're looking for the maximum number of folks who can contribute ideas to the process. So we're trying to catalyze and grab the best ideas no matter where they come from, leveraging the most modern concepts of crowdsourcing and harnessing creative power. Look at the semiconductor industry. Those companies could only keep up with Moore's law by going from hundreds of chip designers focused on eking out every last electron, to hundreds of thousands of designers throughout the industry who could excel at various pieces of the design. When you open up the process like that, the number of people and the diversity of people who can participate goes way up.


DARPA is known for top, top secret technologies. Yet with some of these crowdsourcing experiments, you are transparently setting up websites where anyone can upload a video of their experiment. How do you reconcile these two opposing ideas?

We have to do both. I'm sure you're familiar with James Surowiecki's book [The Wisdom of Crowds]. He has this great story of Francis Galton's visit to a livestock show in 1906. Galton's motive was to show that the average person wasn't very smart. His basic theory was we should leave government to the smart few and not to the masses. So he came upon this contest to guess the weight of a butchered and dressed ox. And what he discovered, quite to his frustration, was that the crowd was, in fact, exceedingly smart. The mean, as predicted by the crowd, was 1,197 pounds, and the actual weight was 1,198 pounds. It was a profound outcome." (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/160/regina-dugan-darpa)


Three programs that are accelerating under Dugan's watch

  • Cyber Fast Track

The government has had trouble keeping up with threats to America's computer networks, which are constantly evolving. The solution: Deploy unorthodox strategies divined by a motley crew of unconventional players, including hackers, hobbyists, and independent researchers, while cutting bureaucratic red tape. Developers retain intellectual-property rights.

  • UAVForge

DARPA is crowdsourcing the design and construction of a portable, backpack-size unmanned aerial vehicle to fly into "critical environments" and conduct surveillance. Teams of inventors post their plans to a DARPA website where the crowd can weigh in with suggestions. Top teams are invited to demo their tech at a "fly-off" where the winning group will receive $100,000. A DARPA subcontractor will build prototypes that the inventors can demonstrate in a war-fighter exercise.

  • System F6

This crowdsourced approach to space-worthy hardware and software started three years ago with the goal of restructuring the way satellites, which run a minimum of $100 million to launch, are built. Instead of constructing a satellite as one big project, the idea is to break it into constituent pieces that can be built by different vendors of all sizes and specialties. Then each piece could be launched separately until all the parts join up in a virtual satellite formation in orbit, flying for the duration of the mission, and talking to each other wirelessly.