The Space Race to the Data Race: How Innovation is Helping Drive American Competitiveness

DavidDigitalNationSummitBest practices and insights on government innovation in this digital age were shared in a recent closing keynote given by David Logsdon, senior director, public advocacy, new and emerging technologies at the Digital Nation Summit in Washington, D.C.

Logsdon made the analogy comparing the 1960 space race to today’s global data race and the impact these races are having on American competitiveness on the global stage. He stated that we’re behind in the global data race but made recommendations focused on people, processes, and things that will provide America the opportunity to be a global data leader.

Around innovation, Logsdon began by discussing the Space Race and leading figures that helped capture American technological superiority including John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and “The Computer” Katherine Johnson. “They helped drive innovation and convinced many thousands of our nation’s youth to take up the innovation mantle and pursue careers in science, technology, and mathematics.  The Space Race spurred a Congressional mandate funded improving math and science curriculums in schools.”

The Space Race also helped spur an avalanche of technology transfer, with over 2,000 NASA developed technologies transferred into the private sector.  It also helped kick start new industries and was a great accelerator for our nation’s workforce. It also allowed the U.S. to gain technological world superiority.  “A lot of that had to do with our investment in R&D.  We are living in an era where innovation, agility and imagination are all essential to keep pace with exponential technological transformation taking place in our society.”

Logsdon said there are an amazing array of technology innovations that have stemmed from R&D investment. “Where would we be without the Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide our way? Without the $4.5 million in National Science Foundation grants, two Stanford University graduate students would have never stumbled upon a new algorithm that later turned into the Google search engine.”

However, the federal share of R&D funding continues to slip.  The federal share of R&D is now at its lowest level since 1953.  In fact, federal funding for R&D has declined for four years in a row, reaching its lowest level since 2007 in 2015.

The Global Data Race
The 21st century has also brought us a new global race: the Data Race. Gartner forecasts that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 per cent from 2016. However, he stressed that the U.S. faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data. “We are at a cross roads. The U.S. is lagging behind but we collectively have the opportunity to make up ground.”

Many players are now in the Global Data Race including India, Japan, China and many European countries. These countries are making data driven decision-making part of their core approach to doing business. Logsdon said, the country with the ability to harness data and take that data from knowledge to action will be head and shoulders above the rest.

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  “A well trained, well educated workforce is essential.  Over the last few decades, there have been several reports that have outlined the ‘aging workforce’ problem that our nation faces. Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living,” Logsdon said.

Within the federal government, about 45% of the federal workforce was more than 50 years old in 2013, and by September 2016, nearly a quarter of all federal employees will be eligible to retire, according to the Office of Personnel Management.  An annual survey of undergraduates by employer-branding consultancy Universum indicates that student interest in working for the federal government has declined over the last four years. So where are the graduates seeking work?

Logsdon said Silicon Valley and other regional innovation pockets (like Austin, Pittsburgh, NC Triangle) have attracted large numbers of millennials with tech backgrounds with the promise of high paying jobs.  While the average time that the millennial stays with a company is short (on average 18 months), the nature of the innovation pockets allows the millennial to move from job to job.

“If salary is not going to help drive candidates to take federal STEM jobs, what will?” Logsdon asked the audience.

There are eleven federal R&D agencies, four main independent R&D agencies.  Amongst the fifteen, only two have advanced research project agencies within them DARPA and e-ARPA).  Logsdon suggested, “To help attract new talent to the federal government, the other thirteen agencies need their own ARPAs.  For budget reasons, these can start small (limited budget with only a few projects in the portfolio) but have the ability to be scaled up over time.”

He also said that since we are in the midst of a Global Data Race, each federal agency should be required to have a Chief Data Officer.  “If there is any question if this is the right move, look no further than major league baseball.  Several teams now have VP level positions filled by data analytic experts.”

Processes (and Governance)
Logsdon stressed that it’s important to have the ability to have agile procurement approaches to onboard/scale technology products and solutions.

He discussed the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Smart City Challenge launched in 2015 asking mid-sized cities across America to develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.

“I think that everybody at DOT would agree that the smart transportation challenge greatly exceeded expectations and galvanized close to a hundred American communities. This federal government challenge was very successful.  Should there be a similar challenge offered to smaller communities? We need to have an entire set of federal government challenges,” Logsdon said.

He also discussed the importance of having the Congressional Office of Technological Assessment (OTA) which was abolished in 1995.  Logsdon proposed that the new, scaled down version of the OTA would focus on emerging technologies and cybersecurity.  “The OTA would have an expanded governing board; legislative technology assessment specifically legislative impact on innovation, developing new technologies, bringing technologies to market and international competition; and congressional fellowship that bring one to two-year experts in science and technology from public and private sector to assist the Office with its work.”

A 21st century infrastructure ecosystem includes transportation (roads, bridges, and airports), water (public utilities) and energy (electric grid) that is layered by cross-cutting secure smart technology, enabled by ubiquitous broadband connectivity and sensors, covering urban, suburban, and rural populations. All of which makes a smart city or a smart county a system of systems where water, power, transportation, emergency response, built environment, etc. each affect all the others.

Logsdon discussed smart cities and communities in Columbus, Austin, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Denver.  What is needed to help move cities forward?  Logsdon said 1) the need technology capabilities and workforce assessment 2) sustainable funding streams 3) strategic smart city architecture that incorporates people/processes/things concurrently as well as cybersecurity; and 4) a clear ROI defined on the current pilot programs

“The good news is that today we have the ability to merge multiple data streams and mine them for amazing insights. The secret sauce in all of this is interconnection. It enables information sharing in real time beyond department walls, beyond jurisdictional boundaries.”

He also discussed how the rapidly changing cyber threat ecosystem and that the growing requirements for situational awareness, protection, prevention, and recovery from cyber incidents is daunting. “There are no quick fixes, but cybersecurity automation technologies should be viewed as a tool and enabler for mitigating cyberthreats.”

The automation tool chest can now utilize horizon scanning technologies, analytics, audits, incident alert tools, diagnostics, and even self-repairing software. Automation is also valuable in enhancing existing cybersecurity architecture.

But perhaps even more promising will be the benefits derived from artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies can provide for more efficient decision making by prioritizing and acting on data, especially across larger networks with many users and variables. “We are at the doorstep of a new era of smart technology and cybersecurity is already a testing ground,” Logsdon said.

The digital disruption taking place on the Potomac can be scalable, replicable, and sustainable. Logsdon said, “The key will be the sharing of best practices and lessons learned. The private sector can be a model for adaptation as the government fundamentally changes its means and methods on how to best serve citizen shareholders. Each one of you can help our country win the Data Race. The digital disruption wave is just the beginning.” Click here for David’s slides.

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