Opinion Leader: A Canadian DARPA will need an enabling ecosystem to succeed

Guest Contributor
October 12, 2021

While Canada and other countries such as the U.K. look to DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S.) as a panacea model to drive innovation, it is vital to recognize the ecosystem in which DARPA operates and the cultural conditions which underpin its success.

If DARPA can teach us anything, it is that it takes an ecosystem to raise an idea. The success of DARPA goes well beyond intent, business models and attractive resources. DARPA succeeds because of the ecosystem in which it lives.

How successful would an attempt at replicating, or at best imitating, the DARPA model be in Canada without an end-to-end examination of Canada’s innovation ecosystem to ensure those tangible and intangible enablers and symbiotic relationships are in place? Is it the programs that are underperforming or is the ecosystem itself collapsing?

Beyond the ongoing poor performance of Canada in the global innovation system, several authors have identified various and systemic challenges in the innovation ecosystem. In their A New North Star and New North Star II reports, Robert Asselin, Sean Speer and Royce Mendes have argued for a full spectrum of initiatives to create an “enabling environment” to support innovation.

Their proposed review and changes to Canada’s innovation ecosystem are extensive. These include examination of “old classics” such as tax reform, regulatory regimes and public infrastructure spending, but extend much further to recognize a rapidly evolving international innovation landscape where the “new intangibles” of intellectual property, data governance, better use of public procurement and reforms to the Investment Canada Act must be addressed as well.

In New North Star II, there is recognition that challenge-driven programs addressing significant public interests such as climate change, public health and aging demographics, and smart cities and communities can help advance Canadian economic interest and competitiveness.

Further, S&T innovation is now even more integral to both national security and prosperity as outlined in a recently released U.K. defence and security integrated review. The first of the U.K.’s overarching priorities links S&T leadership with security:

“Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology: we will incorporate S&T as an integral element of our national security and international policy, fortifying the position of the U.K. as a global S&T and responsible cyber power. This will be essential in gaining economic, political and security advantages in the coming decade and in shaping international norms in collaboration with allies and partners. It will also drive prosperity at home and progress towards the three objectives that follow.”

Further to emphasize the importance of a coordinated and integrated approach to innovation, the U.K. has also recently released its UK Research and Development Roadmap.

Canadian defence procurement remains a challenge

Using the power of public spending, not just at the project level but more fully at the acquisition stages, is a core element of DARPA’s success However, Canadian defence procurement remains amongst the most perennial of program challenges, with procurement reform a constant subject of discussion in various research papers and reports.

Most recently, the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) released its report Procurement at Cyber Speed. The report is noteworthy because cyberthreats and cybersecurity have emerged among the most significant national security challenges, yet Canada’s ability to counter these threats at the pace required will not be possible because the existing ecosystem does not have the agility or even the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate.

As Dr. Simon Mehdian-Staffell, PhD, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and UK Government Affairs Manager at Microsoft, points out in a recent RUSI commentary:

“Much is said about the success of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the intelligence community’s In-Q-Tel. However, their successes are not only in the technologies they create, but the model for how these can be transitioned into mainstream use. To achieve this, ministers, officials, and senior military personnel will need to undertake a revolution in organisation, culture, rules and governance around the development and acquisition of defence and national security technologies.”

End-to-end review of innovation system required

This does not mean that a DARPA-like program cannot be developed or implemented, but it does require a more fulsome consideration of the ecosystem, and it requires an enabling culture as well.

Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel, a former director and a deputy director, respectively, of DARPA, point out in their article, ‘Special Forces’ Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems,” that “in recent decades there have been many attempts to apply the DARPA model in other organizations in the private and public sectors.” To their knowledge, “all those efforts . . . have had mixed results or failed.”

They also believe that “the past efforts failed because the critical and mutually reinforcing elements of the DARPA model were not understood, and as a result, only some of them were adopted.”

Dugan and Gabriel outline ambitious goals, temporary project teams and independence as three key elements of the DARPA model. Central to the model is a “special breed project leader” who orchestrates the entire effort, determines what work is needed, conducts competitions and contracts organizations to do the work.

If any statement embodies the polarization between what characterizes the current ecosystem culture and drivers of success for the DARPA model, it is the following: “Decisions should not be made by committee. Breakthroughs do not lend themselves to consensus.”

If Canada is going to take the innovation challenge seriously, and play in the big leagues of innovation, it will require an end-to-end review of its innovation ecosystem. Government for its part will need to examine how it curates the whole of the innovation continuum, from discovery through applied research, innovation, commercialization and deployment.

The challenges are not limited to governments; the knowledge generators and innovators (across the academic and industrial spectrum) will also need to adjust and adapt to the parameters that make a DARPA model succeed.

Dr. Camille Boulet, PhD, is a Senior Partner at Global Advantage Consulting Group, a data analytics and strategy firm based in Ottawa. He is a former Chief of Staff for Defence Research and Development Canada and has a 30-year record developing national and international innovation programs.


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