Across almost a year of the Air Force Academy’s CyberWorx sprints, design thinking has “proven its value” as a problem-solving technique for the Air Force, said director Col. Jeffrey Collins.
Since sprints started last August, each has brought unexpected outcomes, novel solutions and positive feedback from Air Force leaders.
“The outcomes of the sprints have been surprising in every case … so that gives us great hope that this is a great way of getting industry insight into how we can solve our problems, and then figuring out how we can move forward based on that insight,” Collins said.
In partnership with the Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization at Catalyst Campus, CyberWorx design sprints bring military members, industry professionals and academic leaders together in one room, where they use design thinking to come up with quick and creative solutions to cyber problems.
The sprints gather experts from fields as diverse as archeology, animation, gaming, anthropology, autonomous vehicles, marketing, data analytics, virtual reality and social science research.
“The cognitive diversity we build in the teams is really important to get those surprising answers, because you bring in people that don’t share our perspective and then you learn from them,” Collins said.
Unlike most of the military, CyberWorx runs with the philosophy that risk-taking and failure are not only OK, but essential.
Collins said the willingness of high-level leadership “to continue to accept that moving forward rapidly — even if it means that you may fail — is important to get after agility” is critical to the success of CyberWorx sprints.
At the Initial Operating Capability event in March, Gen. Jay Raymond encouraged CyberWorx to “be willing to fail … being risk-averse will crush the creativity necessary for this organization to succeed.”
CyberWorx has run six sprints and design projects so far. Collins and Lt. Col. Mike Chiaramonte of CyberWorx gave the Business Journal a state-of-play update on each one.
21st Cyber Century training model
Air Force Space Command Air Education Training Command sought ways to improve learning outcomes and throughput for initial skills training at Keesler Air Force Base, home to foundational training schools for Air Force cyber careers.
About 35 people worked on the sprint, which produced five recommendations to the Air Force, as well as a commercial product based on the sprint discussions — a next-generation cyber training platform called Cyber Mission Force One, by Springs-based Rim Technologies. Another outcome: Keesler began running one class differently, and as a result students began graduating up to nine days faster, and with better performance outcomes.
“Nine days is a lot of money, especially when you’re talking about what ostensibly is thousands of people going through the school,” Chiaramonte said.
Cyber risk ecosystem
This cadet class addressed the challenge of making highly technical risk information from cyber technology easy to understand for commanders with no cyber background. After visiting a number of Air Force bases for research, they conceptualized a “cyber risk ecosystem” for presenting the information. Of the seven industry partners that participated, three — Boecore, LinQuest and MTSI — merged intellectual property they owned individually in various market sectors, to creatively solve the problem.
“They’re carrying that forward,” Chiaramonte said. “So right now they’re working on building a proof of concept that we can go demonstrate down in 24th Air Force and hopefully give the warfighters.”
Air Force Cyber C2
Cadets and industry participants focused on how the Air Force should command and control cyberspace forces.
“The command-and-control policy was a little bit dated, and of course cyber’s been changing so much it really didn’t align with what’s going on,” Chiaramonte said. After visiting five Air Force bases to learn what was and wasn’t working, the teams created a conceptual design for a new command-and-control structure.
“They out-briefed that design to a team of policy writers from the Pentagon 24th and 25th Air Force who then spent three days on-site, drafting the first draft of what the policy would be. They then back-briefed the cadets and said, ‘Of your recommendations, these were the ones that changed what we’re going to do’ … and that policy is going through the Air Force corporate process.”
Collins added the immediate feedback was “exactly what you want” in project-based learning.
“Sprinters … want to know that what they’re spending their time doing is actually going to make a difference,” he said, “because that makes the depth of learning just that much better.”
Functional mission analysis
The challenge: How to work out which cyber elements could positively or negatively impact a core function, such as the successful operation of a weapons system.
“In the Air Force, if I want to drop a bomb from an F-22 and kill a building at a specific location and time, what are all the things that a cyber actor could do to prevent that from happening?” Chiaramonte said. “That could be fuel pumps, that could be health systems, a whole number of things … could get in the way of us doing that when we want. So how do we identify that? How do we defend it? What’s the whole process?”
The Air Force asked for help streamlining and integrating outcomes among 12 Pathfinder squadrons tasked with that work.
“Before that sprint was over, the guy from the Pentagon in charge of that effort had already said there are three things that have come out of this … that they’re implementing in policy now to improve how that was executed,” Chiaramonte said.
Giving sprinters a “blank slate” for using the design thinking process to confront “the real problems facing the real users” also helped, Collins said. “You’re face to face with that person who’s able to articulate, ‘Here’s the struggle that we’re having’ in a way that you might not hear about.”
AF smart bases
Military members and industry partners developed user stories on how to best utilize emerging “smart cities” concepts in Air Force operations, to improve mission effectiveness and airmen’s lives on smart bases of the future.
“The Pentagon received that very positively — and so well that we now know what we’re doing, direction-wise,” Collins said. Cadets will begin a follow-up sprint in the fall, looking at implementing smart base technology to improve academic and cadet life, Chiaramonte said.
“That gives us an experimental case study to move forward with a little more detail [and] with the bigger Air Force as well,” he said.
Maxwell AFB and USAFA will be the experimental bases.
What is flying around in orbit — and where is it? What data can be gathered and trusted to answer that question, and how quickly?
The #AFSpaceSA sprint is aimed at finding the best options for using academic, commercial and foreign data to make better decisions for operational advantage in the space domain.
“A lot of that data is not just government data — there are amateur astronomers who see things, there are commercial entities that are cataloging things in space, there are nongovernmental organizations, and then there are foreign governments publishing a lot of that data,” Collins said. “The question was really how might we take advantage of those additional sources of data while still maintaining the highest decision quality data. They came up, over the course of the week, with several important answers, focused along usability of the data.”
After receiving the outbrief, Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, director of Integrated Air, Space, Cyberspace and ISR Operations at Peterson AFB, said #AFSpaceSA was a great event.
“I appreciate the partnership with CyberWorx and … industry partners to help us think through some problems in a different way than we traditionally think about them,” he said.