Editor’s note: Last fall, Stanford University hosted a brand-new class—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. This year, the course is once again being taught by Steve BlankJoe Felter, and Raj Shah, but they have broadened the scope to examine how technology and innovation impact the whole-of-government approach necessary to successfully compete with great power rivals. Once again, Steve Blank is writing about each class session and offering MWI readers the opportunity to follow along with the new course. Read about previous sessions here.

Class Nine

We just had our final session of our new national security class at Stanford—Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition class. Joe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to give our students insights on how commercial technology (AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others) will shape how we employ all elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).

This class has four parts that were like most lecture classes in international policy:

  • Weekly Readings, five to ten articles per week.
  • More than twenty guest speakers on technology and its impact on national power—including prior secretaries of defense and state, current and prior National Security Council members, and four-star generals who lead service branches.
  • Lectures and class discussion.
  • Midterm individual project—a two-thousand-word policy memo that describes how a US competitor is using a specific technology to counter US interests and a proposal for how the United States should respond.

The fifth part of the class was unique:

  • A quarter-long, team-based final project. Students developed hypotheses of how commercial technologies can be used in new and creative ways to help the United States wield its instruments of national power. And then they got out of the classroom and interviewed more than twenty beneficiaries, policymakers, and other key stakeholders testing their hypotheses and proposed solutions.

At the end of the quarter, each of the teams gave a final “Lessons Learned” presentation with a follow-up, team-written paper of three to five thousand words.

By the end the class all the teams realized that the problems they had selected had morphed into something bigger, deeper, and much more interesting.

Team Army Venture Capital

Original problem statement: The United States needs to reevaluate and improve its public venture capital relationship with companies with dual-use technologies.

Final problem statement: DoD needs to reevaluate and improve its funding strategies and partnerships with dual-use mid-stage private companies.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We knew that these students could write a great research paper. As we pointed out to them, while you can be the smartest person in the building, it’s unlikely that (1) all the facts are in the building, and (2) you’re smarter than the collective intelligence sitting outside the building.

Team Conflicted Capital

Original problem statement: Chinese investment in US startups with critical technologies poses a threat to US military capabilities, but the lack of transparency in venture capital makes it challenging to track them.

Final problem statement: Chinese adversarial venture capital investments in US dual-use startups continue to threaten US military capabilities across critical technologies, but the scope of the problem is relatively small. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs can play a role in addressing the challenge by shunning known sources of adversarial capital.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

By week two of the class students formed teams around specific technology challenges facing a US government agency and worked throughout the course to develop their own proposals to help the United States compete more effectively through new operational concepts, organizations, and strategies.

Team Aurora

Original Problem Statement: How can the United States employ its cyber capabilities to provide the populace of China with unrestricted internet access to bolster civil society against Chinese Communist Party crackdowns, in order to pressure China, spread American liberal values, and uphold US freedom of action in the information domain?

Final Problem Statement: How does the US government leverage a soft-power information campaign to support Hong Kong residents’ right to self-determination and democratic governance without placing individuals at undue risk (of prosecution as foreign agents under the national security law)?

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We wanted to give our students hands-on experience on how to deeply understand a problem at the intersection of our country’s instruments of national power—diplomacy, information, military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement—and dual-use technology. We did this first by having them develop hypotheses about the problem; next by getting out of the classroom and talking to relevant stakeholders across government, industry, and academia to validate their assumptions; and finally by taking what they learned to propose and prototype solutions to these problems.

Team ShortCircuit

Original Problem Statement: US semiconductor procurement is heavily dependent on the Taiwanese company TSMC, which creates a substantial vulnerability in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or other kinetic disruptions in the Indo-Pacific.

Final Problem Statement: How should the US government augment the domestic semiconductor workforce through education and innovation initiatives to increase its semiconductor sector competitiveness?

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We want our students to build the reflexes and skills to deeply understand a problem by gathering firsthand information and validating that the problem they are solving is the real problem, not a symptom of something else. Then, students began rapidly building minimum viable solutions (policy, software, hardware) as a way to test and validate their understanding of both the problem and what it would take to solve it.

Team Drone

Original Problem Statement: Drones can be used as a surprise element in an amphibious assault to overwhelm defenses. In a potential Taiwan Strait crisis, there is a need for a low-cost and survivable counter-drone system to defend Taiwan.

Final Problem Statement: Taiwan needs a robust and survivable command-and-control system to effectively and quickly bring the right asset to the right place at the right time during an invasion.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

One other goal of the class was testing a teaching team hypothesis—that we could turn a lecture class into one that gave back more in output than we put in, that by tasking the students to (1) use what they learned from the lectures and then (2) test their assumptions outside the classroom, the external input they received would be a force multiplier. It would make the lecture material real, tangible and actionable. And we and they would end up with something quite valuable.

Team Apollo

Original Problem Statement: The Space Force must leverage commercial innovation and establish a trained, experienced acquisition workforce that will deliver innovation impact that the Space Force requires.

Final Problem Statement: The United States Space Force lacks the supply chain and rapid launch capabilities needed to respond to contingencies in space. The private sector possesses these capabilities but is not being adequately leveraged or incentivized.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We knew we were asking a lot from our students. We were integrating a lecture class with a heavy reading list with the best practices of hypothesis testing from Lean LaunchPad/Hacking for Defense/I-Corps. But I’ve yet to bet wrong in pushing students past what they think is reasonable. Most rise way above the occasion.

Given this was the first time we taught integrated lectures and projects our student reviews ranged from “We must have paid them to write this,” to “Did they take the same class as everyone else?” (Actually it was, “Let’s fix the valid issues they raised.”)

Team Catena

Original Problem Statement: China’s cryptocurrency ban presents the United States with an opportunity to influence blockchain development, attract technical talent, and leverage digital asset technology.

Final Problem Statement: The Chinese Communist Party’s economic coercion makes countries such as Australia dependent on China’s economy and vulnerable to the party’s will. The United States must analyze which key Australian industries are most threatened and determine viable alternative trading partners.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

All of our students put in extraordinary amount of work. Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will go off to senior roles in the State Department, the Defense Department, policy, and the companies building new disruptive technologies. They will be the ones to determine what the world order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for a free and open region and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will it be an autocratic and dystopian future coerced and imposed by a neototalitarian regime?

This class changed the trajectory of many of our students. A number expressed newfound interest in exploring career options in the field of national security. Several will be taking advantage of opportunities provided by the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation to further pursue their contribution to national security. Inspired by our experience with this course, we decided to increase the focus of the Gordian knot Center on developing and empowering the extraordinary and largely untapped potential of students across the university and beyond.

Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Don McCullough