By Ian Roxborough
On Tuesday Star-Tides kicked off its 8th annual technology demo. Not your usual Department of Defense event, the tech demo is, in the words of David Becker, “more like a science fair than a trade show.” Several dozen companies and small start-ups showcased their wares: from something as elegantly simple as a drum to roll water from one place to another to remote 3-D printing to produce customized robots and miniaturized drones for disaster relief.
The demo was not just about geeks and their gadgets, whether low-tech (affordable energy, shelter, and water) or high-tech (communications and mapping); it was also about how the Department of Defense can help in a range of humanitarian disasters. And there’s the rub: as Sarah Williamson (from Protect the People) and Sam Bennett (from TIDES) made clear in their afternoon talk, the organizational cultures of the Department of Defense and the humanitarian community are vastly different. There is a real interoperability issue between the various human and organizational components of the HA/DR community.
This is evident even in their approach to research and development. The humanitarians want cheap, light, off-the-shelf solutions and they want them now. The Department of Defense, to the contrary, wants top-of-the-line, durable equipment that can be used for multiple purposes, and they can’t deliver quickly. The issue is how to bring these different cultures together and create some sort of synergy.
To complicate matters even more, there is an increasing interface between population-centric military operations and organized efforts at promoting peace. Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb of the United States Institute for Peace talked about the Peace Tech Lab, a new initiative to use emerging technologies, particularly in the social media domain, to monitor and mitigate emerging conflicts. This requires a radical collaboration across disciplines, between data scientists and social scientists. Speed and agility are of the essence in nipping emerging conflicts in the bud, and the USIP is now setting up a 24/7 open situation room to act as a data hub where multiple actors can share information.
The emerging approach to HA/DR lies in partnering between different kinds of organizations, and that’s where the private sector is increasingly important. There is increasing interest on the part of for-profit organizations in promoting peace and stability and dealing with disasters. Perhaps there is an emerging twenty-first century military-peacetech-industrial complex where soldiers and humanitarians will work together with geeks, entrepreneurs and social scientists to make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be nice if it came true?