Art and Design in the Department of Defense (DoD)

It is rare to hear about the Department of Defense (DoD) and Art & Design in the same sentence. Most people may not have thought of such a collaboration and struggle to see the overlap. As a Brown and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Dual Degree student coming from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I struggled with it too, particularly when I saw the confusion or surprise on people’s faces after telling them about my studies/interests. Being used to a design focused environment, walking through a military environment felt alien to me; unfamiliar and strange because it was hard to see where I fit into the equation. It was not until I learned more about the Transformative Innovation for Emergency and Development Support (TIDES) project that my place within the Department of Defense (DoD)became clear.

           TIDES is a DoD research project based at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) at the National Defense University.   TIDES promotes low cost sustainable solutions for populations under stress in post conflict, post disaster, or impoverished conditions. I first learned about TIDES through an internship announcement posted at RISD.  The TIDES/RISD relationship developed in 2010 after a delegation from RISD and The National Endowment for the Arts visted the TIDES Technology Demonstration. The group included RISD President John Maeda, and Joan Shigekawa, NEA Senior Deputy Chairman. The group brainstormed ways in which TIDES could inject art and design principles into the TIDES Demo.

DRAFT Needing to be finished

I realized that this technology is one among 8 infrastructures (Power, Shelter, Water, Integrated Cooking, Heating/Cooling, Sanitation, Lighting, and Information Communication Technology) that TIDES researches to meet the needs of stressed populations.  Perhaps some of these technologies may face similar or different design problems that inhibit them from having a sustained impact. (How does understanding and resolving design challenges apply to TIDES and design thinkers coming together?) TIDES’s relevance to my interest in combining art & design and environmental science/sustainability drew me in instantly. However, the pre-conceived notions about TIDES and actually learning about it within its military settings at Fort McNair are different.

           The more I read about TIDES, the more I understood its emphasis on sharing (not making or designing) the solutions, acting as a channel of communication between those in need of disaster relief and those with the resources to assist them. Additionally, it acts as the meeting ground for members in whole of government, public or private, and transnational groups, particularly at the Annual TIDES Technology Demonstration at Fort McNair and the Pentagon. When I began working closer with the TIDES team, my goal became clear: to assist with design thinking for the TIDES Demo.

However, I did more than “think” about design, I also heard about it in some of the meetings, presentations, conferences, etc. that I sat in. In one particular presentation, “Learning from the Octopus,” Dr. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst, discussed how to incorporate biology and its adaptable systems in a Missionary and Command context. Not only did he apply nature in a military environment, but what truly captivated me is the unique biological systems thinking he incorporated, which in its own essence is also design thinking. Hearing about his findings and new possibilities sparked exciting ideas about how to apply that research into other DoD areas, such as the 8 infrastructures in TIDES.  The whole systems approach among these infrastructures is based on the “six ways people die” model (hunger, thirst, illness, injury, too hot, too cold) from the Hexayurt Project. Fully understanding how these conditions are the reasons for everyday needs (that can be met with sustainable technologies) brings forth the human side of these infrastructures and a greater knowledge of why they would help to design a better world.

Creating and implementing these infrastructures is not enough to mitigate a disaster situation. TIDES addresses this issue through the Annual TIDES Technology Demonstration that brings together a variety of members from governmental to non-governmental groups to witness sustainable solutions working in a field environment and to engage with the minds that constructed the technologies. Durable designs require systematic thinking and that, I believe, can ensure sustainability. This systematic thinking is the whole systems approach TIDES applies in the Demonstration’s set up: solar technologies powering the Information & Communication Technologies and the lighting, where shelters stand tall, providing shade, etc. In this setting, design thinking for the TIDES Demo is crucial as it encourages systems thinking in order to engage vendors and visitors spark curiosity in those who do not know and instill depth to those who already know. 

Considering the limited amount of time I spent with TIDES, the impact I could have had on design and systems thinking was not as substantial as I would have liked. Nonetheless, what I still learned and took away a lot from this experience.

            One crucial thing I realized and would like to emphasize: TIDES can become the point of overlap for government and art & design, the meeting ground where they can use social impact and the 8 infrastructures to design communicate, collaborate, and explore new possibilities for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. This DoD research project functions to leverage global talent, outsourcing intellectual and creative minds that look to collaborate with one another and accelerate solutions sharing amongst each other and with those I need.

            Collaboration in this regard reminds me of A Better World by Design… (a sentence about what it is and what is collaborative about it)…This initiative focuses on social impact design with solutions similar to the infrastructures that TIDES researches. Formulating solutions in this context is about seeing where design thinking can chime in or where it is already incorporated and using that as inspiration. Ultimately, what will make such as collaboration more effective is finding a way forward that demonstrates why DOD, USG and international relief agencies should pay attention to design.

            As previously stated, many may not see a language between government and art & design or where, how, and why the two worlds should overlap. Nevertheless, TIDES  has collaborated with a RISD student (go into detail about how the collaboration worked) for two consecutive summers (my experience included) and sees the positive impact of such a partnership. The DoD would benefit greatly from working with a design affiliated community, and what it has to offer as this would better integrate art and sustainable design into TIDES education and program initiatives. But why is it important for the DoD to think in this way and how would it benefit?


            So where does TIDES begin to gain the design community?

Tapping into areas (related to TIDES’ interests) that already work with art & design students is a great start. A Better World by Design (mentioned previously) is a good example of such an area. It is a great place to start because 1) it already promotes collaboration and exploration between people/students (explain)…, second???…Furthermore, much can be given as can be gained if TIDES gets involved in this initiative. At RISD for example (explain how it has workshops every year…) Such a setting works well as place for TIDES to introduce itself, the work it does, the 8 infrastructures it researches, and present some of the technologies from the STAR-Tides closet, and possibly mention its goal with the “Survivable to Sustainable Project” (explain what it is) and how that can guide the systems thinking… I believe it is a great approach to give more insight to TIDES and formulate increased interest. However, it does not have to stop there. After facilitating interest, TIDES could create a semester or yearlong course/program that challenges design thinkers in HA/DR environments.


And what type of programs, courses, workshops, etc. could TIDES set up?

Many, particularly students, thrive in competitive environments. They also thrive when there is room for progress, whether it is individually or collaboratively. Considering that, creating a program or course that puts participants in a Disaster Relief context would be a stimulating environment as it would introduce and challenge the students to apply their design oriented minds in a DoD. Either that or assign teams to use previous scenarios as the context… Planning such a program/course could begin with the help of an intern.  The overall theme could revolve around proposing an idea or designing a technology that falls within the 8 infrastructures TIDES researches. It could be influenced by the work of one of the STAR-Tides members, for example, or be the extension/improvement of one…. The connection could begin with invitations to Camp Roberts field trials and or the Annual TIDES Technology Demonstration where the selected students would meet numerous vendors from STAR-Tides (the limitations – such as funding for student travel. Also, who would be allowed to go? Maybe opportunity for competition or is that too much?).


Why are these important areas for pat attention to? And why for the Department of Defense?

b.     Research project in a variety of formats is good…research project could act as a proposal for a design idea (with one of the STAR-TIDES network members?) or even research project that proposes a course (as suggested)…RISD kids can thrive from competition, thrive on competition

c.     When it comes to students being able to showcase technologies at the DEMO that can come from a student seminar…good to have a working title for the new upcoming DEMOs (so that students know what the theme is)


Design thinkers get challenged to apply their skills in uncommon areas

-they get to learn about other organizations that utilize sustainable design/technologies



The DoD would leverage more talent for their HA/DR missions

-Having a more visually critical and design oriented eye on the infrastructures or the Demonstrations, etc. can help enhance experience, improve sustainable qualities, etc. and illustrate a systematic approach to the use of the infrastructures, especially in extreme refugee conditions (where it can be a maximum of a 7year stay)


About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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