AUSTIN, Texas – Army Futures Command’s Army Applications Laboratory (AAL) recently launched a Soldier Innovation Network to increase internal awareness of how the Army is employing innovation across the force to solve complex problems.
The network connects leaders, innovators and subject matter experts from multiple Army units and other Department of Defense entities to enable the identification of common innovation challenges, along with collaborative means of addressing them.
The inaugural working group meeting of the Soldier Innovation Network took place at Austin’s Capital Factory from April 26 to 28, and included guest speakers from SpaceX and the Autonomy Institute.
The event was deliberately designed to serve as a “casual conversation with directed intent,” said Lt. Col. Donald Spence, Operations Officer at AAL.
Having a “bringing-together-the-family conversation about innovation” allowed important space for broad information-sharing as well as the organic development of desired network parameters, Spence explained.
Representatives from more than 20 Army and Air Force units, located in nine different states, attended the event. Attendees included innovation-minded Soldiers and Army Civilians from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), Army National Guard, Army Reserve and multiple infantry divisions, including the 1st Special Forces Division, 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division. Air Force representatives, including from AFWERX, were also in attendance.
Participants discussed their respective command priorities, projects and resources within the innovation context, delving into aspects such as activity maturity levels and areas for further capacity development. The conversation increased participant knowledge of programs, partnerships and funding available for innovation and covered topics such as evolving acquisition pathways and strategic communication strategies.
In addition to providing participants with improved awareness of innovation efforts at the unit level, the event offered an opportunity to consider “what we can do as a group and bring together with common threads,” Spence said.
Many two- and three-star Army commands have their own innovation cells, and better comprehending and coordinating the distinct work of these cells – as well as overarching Army priorities – can amplify efforts while minimizing redundancies.
“We laid that heat map out,” said AAL Director Col. Jay Wisham of AAL-led efforts to identify who is doing what within the realm of Army innovation.
Understanding the landscape and various players involved “helps aim the Army at common problems,” Wisham said. These problems can vary from how to create cost-effective electromagnetic devices to how to develop anti-flammable batteries, but all require new ways of thinking and/or the skillful application of cutting-edge technologies. Leveraging innovation to overcome such challenges can save time, increase efficiency and make it easier and safer for Soldiers to do their jobs.
With AAL serving as “quarterback,” the network plans to explore creative approaches to innovation that productively challenge Army norms – an objective participants were eager to tackle.
“I would like to see how the Army moves to more inclusion of the Soldiers at the tactical level in the innovation process,” said network member David Rolen, Future Tech Scout for the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne).
Rolen described the work of AAL as “a great step in the right direction, to start bringing that command influence and constant exposure” to mutual topics of interest and concern. He sees the Soldier Innovation Network is “one small part of the big fix” required to unite innovation and acquisition frameworks in a way that ensures outstanding ideas and novel tools don’t languish. Rolen appreciated the ability to workshop solutions to innovation challenges with other stakeholders, noting “we certainly couldn’t do it without the Army Applications Lab and everything they do for us.”
This dynamic opportunity for teamwork was one of AAL’s primary goals for the nascent network, which will continue to meet at steady intervals – both virtually and in-person – over the coming months.
“We are a connector of a unique fashion in the U.S. Army right now,” said Wisham, adding that cultural change in the Army – specifically a shift toward innovation as integral – depends on the ongoing participation and endorsement of numerous players.
The Army Applications Laboratory discovers current and emergent technology, applies innovation best practices to warfighter needs and establishes a deep network with cutting-edge industry partners to accelerate technology into the hands of warfighters.
Learn more about the work of the Army Applications Laboratory at https://aal.army/.