Acknowledging the irreversible rise of new emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) that can be applied in defence, but also knowing that their full operational integration into existing high end military platforms (weapon systems, frigates, planes, etc.) will take years if not decades, the Dutch have opted for a mixture of both approaches, old and new. The idea is to maintain and improve some of the proven traditional ways and means to promote military innovation inside the restricted defence environment; while at the same time embrace a much more open, flexible and short-cyclical innovation agenda relying on defence-relevant tech products and services available on the commercial market.

This is also the chosen course of action that emerges from the MoD’s Defence Strategic Knowledge & Innovation Agenda (Strategische Kennis- en Innovatieagenda, or SKIA) for the years 2021-2025, published in November 2020: the Netherlands will continue to both invest in classical (long-term) defence R&T and, simultaneously, increase their efforts to apply available civil technology for military purposes, in what is called “short cyclical innovation”.

 

Innovation centers, linked in a vast network

This trend had started even before the latest version of SKIA was published, several years ago when the Dutch MoD started to look for ways to better use and integrate commercial tech assets from the outside world into existing defence capabilities.

A first important step was made with the creation of numerous innovation centers, dealing with different specific topics and placed high up in the MoD hierarchy. They started to experiment and look for ways to embrace civil innovations (in parallel to the traditional defence R&D unit which continued its work in the classical defence environment), using both a demand and opportunity-driven approach.

The demand driven innovation approach, where solutions are searched from in the outside world for well-known military problems or demands, saw the Dutch MoD actively reaching out to civil partners (especially start-ups and SMEs) at technology fairs, business platforms etc. with the help of the existing Regional Development Societies, which are provincial facilitators for start-ups. A special Field Lab Smart Base was also set up, offering possibilities to test and improve assets for future military bases, which attracted many start-ups and SMEs. Under the opportunity-driven innovation approach, the Dutch MoD started to scan the commercial market for assets that could potentially be interesting for defence. Here the MoD teamed up with so-called innovation hubs or incubators, usually build around universities or tech-companies.

Today, all those actors - innovation centres, innovation hubs and incubators to name only them - are interconnected and part of a wider, decentralised and flexible Defence Innovation Network (Innovatienetwerk Defensie), a true innovation ecosystem, on which rely the Dutch defence innovation efforts and ambitions.

  • Dutch defence innovation cosmos

What are the main characteristics of the Dutch innovation strategy in Defence?

To keep up with the current, rapid pace of technological development in a constantly changing environment, it is necessary to be agile and adaptive while, at the same time, follow a path that is insightful and measurable. Our defence innovation strategy entails all these characteristics as it is based on four main pillars.
First, it acknowledges the need to adapt to the innovation pace of the outside, civil world. It is clear that civil developments will not wait for the military to catch up. It is also clear that our adversaries will use those civil developments even if, in the first place, they were never meant to be used in armed conflicts. As our Armed Forces have to be effective, we must adopt the innovation pace of the world around us. Without that, we won’t be able to face today’s threats, and even less those of the future.
Secondly, we need to combine this short-cyclical innovation with traditional military innovation. Because despite the emergence of new technologies and warfare methods, we will still be confronted with classical weapon systems which also continuously become more high-tech and robust. In reality, there is no obvious separation between short-cyclical and classical innovation; both are fusing, effectively using best practices from both worlds.
Thirdly, we put a lot of emphasis on Concept Development & Experimentation (CD&E) that enables us to drastically reduce the lead time of modernisation projects. The development of both new equipment and new concepts will become more efficient. Both engineers and soldiers are encouraged to constantly look for opportunities in this domain.
And finally, there is the need to closely cooperate in ecosystems with civil incubators and accelerators. Short cyclical innovation is often driven by start-ups. Although agility is key in early design stages, a certain robustness and maturity is necessary in the implementation phase. This is where civilian incubators and accelerators come in. They are part of so-called ecosystems, often connected to universities or tech companies, and therefore have access to important developments which we, as MOD, are interested in. Promising start-ups are given the opportunity to participate in start-up programmes, which transforms them from inventors to entrepreneurs.

How big of a challenge is/was it to get the civil tech innovators engage with the MoD?

We have no problems finding innovators interested to engage with the MoD. On the contrary: many innovative companies and start-ups are attracted by the opportunities for product development as well as the experimentation and testing facilities offered by the Ministry.
 
And to get the military structures to open up to the civil world?

If, at the beginning, there was perhaps a certain reluctance from the military side to open up, it has rapidly vanished. The real problem lies in the procedures, regulations and legislation. Making the defence structures ‘innovation compatible’ is one of the biggest challenges we are confronted with.
 
The Dutch model is based on a network of ‘innovation centres’ and ecosystems. Would you say that decentralisation and specialisation are key prerequisites for success?

Decentralisation and specialisation surely boosted demand driven innovation. Since we never used a centralised model with a single innovation unit, we cannot determine if they were prerequisites. We do however notice that it is essential, though not simple, to constantly share knowledge and experiences for building up an efficient defence-wide knowledge base. Also, we should not forget that funding as a key prerequisite for success.
 
Is there something particular from the Dutch defence innovation model that could/should be applied at a wider EU level?

The most important thing is not to be fixed on a single model/approach but to embrace flexibility. Even in our relatively small defence organisation we don’t use one innovation model as a blueprint. Every service uses its own variant of the model, suitable for their specific needs. This flexibility is needed even more at the wider EU level. Flexibility plays an important role, especially when working in networks and ecosystems. Flexibility is also our leading principle in our efforts to make procedures, regulations and legislation ‘innovation compatible’. There is no doubt that regulations are indispensable for the effective deployment of a military organisation and for governmental organisations as a whole. However, when it comes to innovation, a mind shift from rigidity to flexibility is paramount.
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