We are in an age of explosive technical growth and the wondrous possibilities that such innovation brings. We see it around us in impressive new commercial products, but frequently wonder why such products seem to fall short of their promise, and why we don’t see such developments occurring across all technologies.

Why do the latest computers seem no faster than the ‘old’ ones they replace? Why do memory capacity, battery life, display technology, external interfaces and product-to-product compatibility seem bogged down in a seemingly hopeless quagmire of technical stagnation? Why does reliability seem to worsen with each product introduction? Why are we not seeing greater benefits in military theatres from such technical advancements?

Competition and classification

The answers are not found within the limits of science and engineering, but in the policies, priorities and motivations of corporations and governments. From the corporate perspective, the pace of the introduction of technical advancements is determined by balancing issues of competition against the need for the long life of existing products. This is driven by the need for companies to show consistent growth. For military products, the pace of the introduction of new technology is slowed in part by the high cost in terms of both money and time of the military development process, and in part by the need for the stability and supportability of existing military systems, drivers that do not exist in the commercial world.

"Just because the technology exists does not mean it will be distributed to the masses."

Many advanced technology developments are controlled by governments, who don’t want their technology exported to hostile governments or insurgents. Any technology that looks promising for military use is controlled or classified. As effective as such classification is for limiting the dissemination of technology, it also has the effect of shutting down international cooperation which would otherwise be helpful in the development of new technologies.

Even the ubiquitous digital processor is limited in speed and power by this need to control the spread of technical capability, with the most basic laptop and its operating system export-controlled. Just because the technology exists does not mean it will be distributed to the masses, which limits the commercial development of some advanced technologies.

Corporate protections are placed on internally developed technical information to prolong the shelf life of any products resulting from it, and it is the current nature of corporate culture that any technical data that can be gleaned from another company will be used to develop competing products rather than to further develop that technology for the mutual benefit of both corporations. These simple competitive forces result in much duplication of effort and reduce or eliminate the sharing of any new developments.

An environment of fear

To further complicate matters, there are companies today that do nothing but collect the patents of others. These are not groups of highly skilled scientists and engineers, but rather lawyers who see good business in suing companies whose new products may include patented technical innovations. The corporate fear that results stifles commercial innovation as much as any governmental threat of data classification. Even the patent process itself is open to abuse through the patenting of very broadly defined processes or devices.

Within a corporation is the next level of information control, the corporate governance and compliance department, initially created to foster awareness and help create and implement data and material control measures. In some companies, these departments have become so powerful as to foster an environment of fear, which keeps researchers from seeking outside assistance.

To ensure that the right controls are in place, governments are now performing wide-ranging communications monitoring, including that of telephone and internet voice and data traffic. The recent growth of the use of these systems was given the justification of anti-terrorism, but they are also being used across government agencies to monitor communications for financial, political and technological data transmissions. A scientist or engineer who wishes to communicate with an overseas colleague to gain assistance in a technical problem does so in fear that his transmission may be misconstrued as a violation of government data protection protocols, an unintended constraint in further technical development.

New standards

Many products involve external electronic communications, and there are excellent public standards for multi-device interfaces. Unfortunately, the very reason for which these interfaces were developed and made public becomes the reason many corporations avoid them. They are public, and therefore don’t allow corporate control of their products and the devices that connect to them. Developing new public standards can be a major benefit to corporations who enjoy the advantage of defining these standards. But having an exclusive, unshared standard severely limits the development by competitors of other devices or systems that utilise that standard.

In the mission system integration business, where many sensors, processors and communication devices are brought together in one system designed for easy and effective use by military operators, the resistance by some corporations to share their internally developed communications protocols can stop such development in its tracks. Those end-users that have an urgent need for these mission-critical systems are told they cannot have them because some companies won’t release their internally developed communications protocols to third parties.

The desire of certain governments to assist in the financial growth (and therefore political stability) of third world nations, along with the impulse of corporations to minimise costs, encourages the relocation of as much corporate development and production capability offshore as possible. Although such a strategy can result in greatly increased profits, it can also break the link between production and engineering, and can at worst result in the loss of domestic technical expertise, replacing it with cheaper, not necessarily better, foreign expertise, putting an end to the advantage of technical ‘lessons learnt’. The loss of domestic manufacturing expertise and capacity, and the subsequent loss of product quality and reliability caused by this strategy, combined with a dramatic rise in domestic unemployment and negative trade imbalance, need to be included in the overall decision process to proceed with such offshore transfers.

We have seen much development in processors, peripherals and software, but we see a slower pace of development in sensors, materials, propulsion and power systems. Remote sensing, so critical to the field of military theatre awareness, is still in its technical infancy. It is the most prized of technologies in military circles, but it is also the most tightly controlled. Although there is much development work happening globally in this field, this is also the field where international information sharing is least encouraged.

A long-term growth plan

In the light of these two major barriers to innovation – the economical, through corporations, and the political, through governments – what can be done to rekindle innovation, to create an environment that encourages development, rewards developers, allows for mutually beneficial cooperation, allows communication and encourages the further development and use of international standards?

"Remote sensing is the most prized of technologies in military circles, but it is also the most tightly controlled."

Governments can help through a review of the technology classification process, ensuring that technology control methods are used for the purpose of national security and not for regional commercial protectionism, by enabling cooperative developments to occur rather than stopping US companies from selling their products abroad in competition with overseas companies selling the same technology.

Corporations can help by better balancing the next quarter’s growth against the value of a long-term growth plan, where the benefits of technical innovation can lead to longer-term corporate prosperity as well as better service to their communities and customers.

This is a cultural problem, endemic to the very nature of corporations and governments, requiring a recognition of the need to change the way we think and operate in order to open the floodgates of technical innovation.