“Your efforts have made this conference work and brought this ecosystem to life.” At the end of the Future Force Conference, Chief of Defence General Tom Middendorp was enthusiastic about the results that had been achieved so far. “I’ve heard exciting new ideas and philosophies that have an impact in every domain of business. ‘Work more like platform companies’, for example. ‘Like android’.”
On Day 2 of the conference, participants were once again presented with new perspectives from independent, creative thinkers. For instance, William Roper, Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office (Department of Defense, USA), called upon friendly armed forces to follow the example of sports teams. “Sports teams don’t throw out the whole playbook, but simply change it so that the new playbook has all the advantages of the old one but with restored surprise.” Use existing means in new, creative ways. “Take for example the use of inexpensive, traditional projectiles for ballistic missile defence by combining them with our electromagnetic railway program. This instead of million dollar interceptors. Do not let people sell you high-tech technology as the solution until they explain why they can’t solve your problem creatively with the systems you have.”
Learning machines will change the game
Professor Jonathan Holslag then asked Roper to focus on a number of interesting issues. Such as the question of what technology will reshape the battlefield. Roper: “The biggest game-changer is going to be learning machines. All systems should learn. The ultimate goal for companies like Google is basically to suck in the Internet of things. The power of that: the more data that comes in, the smarter artificial intelligence gets. The advice: we’ve got to go all-in. If we don’t, we will look like a museum military. But we need very good guidelines. We’re not willing to give legal or strategic decisions to machines.”
Viewpoint from space
A different viewpoint, literally, was presented by astronaut Andre Kuipers. He showed how beautiful Earth is from space. But what he also showed disturbingly clearly was the huge impact of humans on planet Earth. Deforestation, pollution, depletion of natural resources and global warming. “When I saw the earth from above I got a bit claustrophobic. It looks so fragile and tiny. It’s the only one we have.” He affirmed that only ecosystems can be strong enough to take a stand, to take on the challenges we face. “I was in the International Space Station, also a beautiful example of partnership. Countries that were fighting each other not so long ago, now working together to achieve great things. A good candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Over the course of the conference Middendorp saw an increasing eagerness to set things in motion. “The first steps are being taken. Thanks to this conference, the World Resources Institute and The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies are now going to combine their databases on resources, and on social and political instability. This will make it possible to predict how the onset of instability could aggravate the effects of scarcity of raw materials, and water. It will enable my defence organisation, for instance, to become more proactive, and help to prevent conflicts from occurring.
Should we compromise our values?
William Roper’s words made quite an impression on the CHOD. “He predicts that artificial intelligence and learning machines are going to fundamentally transform every aspect of warfare. But it is not just about technological change. Our opponents are employing new technologies and social media in ways that contradict the values of our western democracies. We value truth. We value transparency. Tolerance. In the face of all of these threats, should we compromise these values?”
He reminded the audience of Ana from Colombia. Born into a seemingly hopeless situation but now making a change. “Ana’s ideals, her willpower, strengthen my belief that we can influence our tomorrows.”
Takeaways general Middendorp
The CHOD made good on his promise to mention 3 of his own takeaways:
- Further develop defence as a platform for practical innovation.
- Make the defence force more approachable for other actors in the ecosystem by creating points of contact.
- Organise a pilot on comprehensive planning.
“Let me give you some specific examples of my first take-away, regarding defence as a platform for innovation. In the build-up to this conference, I met the Israeli architect Malkit Shoshan, and the Dutch architect and urban planner Jan Willem Petersen. Both of them inspired me when they showed me ways to leave a sustainable legacy when it comes to military missions. I wanted to explore this, so I asked a reserve officer - who is actually a schoolteacher - to do some research in Mali. In order to find practical examples of what is being done in Mali, or what could be done, to improve the legacy of our mission.”
Follow up in practical ways
The ecosystem philosophy that was the central theme at the Future Force Conference will be followed up in a number of practical ways. During the evaluation, the Defence organisation and the breakout owners will discuss the best way to approach this. Middendorp: “I will also put forward a proposal for a pilot on a comprehensive planning conference. This will focus on a specific theme or perhaps environment. For example: to mutually assess a crisis area in order to improve our understanding of the local dynamics and the root causes. And to explore - without obligation - possibilities for cooperation. Perhaps this pilot could then serve as a starting point from which to begin a comprehensive follow-up, with many more experts, universities, companies and organisations.”
The force for good
If this proves to be an effective way of assessing security challenges, Defence will use this as a best practice for the future. Middendorp: “That is what working in ecosystems could look like. And should look like. Working in ecosystems means interacting with our partners in an ever-closer way. I would call on every single individual in this room to think about their position in this broader ecosystem. Individually, we will never accomplish these ambitious goals. Only if we find the right approach to ecosystems will we be all the more powerful. Together, we are the force for good.”