Is a DARPA-like Activity Needed to Counter Violence in Civilian Spaces?

Important note: The following is a personal blog written with personal perspectives; nothing below represents the views of any current or past professional organization for whom I have worked.


I write this while flying 29,000 feet over the California desert. Night has fallen and the only signs of civilization are the isolated pockets of light below my feet that move like twinkling stars reflected in a black abyss below.

5 years and 9 months ago I was flying over another desert in similar darkness — one with much higher snow-capped mountains and even scarcer pockets of light below. I was with a group in a Spanish C-130 on a NATO flight over Afghanistan, hugging close to the mountains over the roar of the engines.

It was early 2009 and I was on U.S. DoD travel orders technically as a civilian assigned to help “think differently” regarding strategic effects and strategic communications with the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) military and humanitarian efforts in the region. I had purview to meet and talk with anyone I could, multiple nationalities, multiple backgrounds, local Afghans, non-government organizations, military and humanitarian operations.

Up until now, I have not written about my time in Afghanistan in part because (1) I still feel like it was just yesterday, and (2) what happened — what still is happening in that region — continues to write itself. The future of what Afghanistan does or does not become is still unwritten. In addition, some things I can’t write about regarding my time there and other things I don’t feel like if I did try to write about them, I couldn’t give them the full justice of the different perspectives associated with endeavors in the region.I don’t want oversimplify what was — and remains — a complicated set of human activities.

Two questions I did ask while in Afghanistan, as I met with and listened to hundreds of different perspectives in the region, was “Why are we here? Where are we going?”.

By asking why and where, I wanted to better understand the different perspectives that individuals working different efforts in the region had on what had brought them to this moment in the desert mountains. I wanted to know what they hoped to accomplish going forward.

Just as the backgrounds and experiences of the people I met were diverse, so too were their answers. Some answered we were here to provide stability to the legitimate Afghan government. Other said we were here because of 9/11.Some local Afghans thought we must be there with them because of Afghanistan geopolitical importance or its resources.Foreign NATO partners said they were there to provide solidarity and help bring democracy to Afghanistan.

By listening to these diverse perspectives, I hoped to identify clues that might point to ways we could collectively “think differently” regarding strategic effects and strategic communications the International Security Assistance Force could pursue.

Complexity Theory

While in Afghanistan I was not uniformed, and was able to grow a beard and travel in plain clothes. I also was fortunate to encounter several uniformed graduates from the U.S.’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) while in Afghanistan. I had just recently completed a PhD and two post-docs on bottoms-up leadership paired with complex adaptive systems theory — and the SAMS grads to their credit were eager to discuss the difference between complicated and complex systems. Several of the SAMS grads to this day remain my closest friends, scattered around the world. We had lively discussions on several different topics — and potential solutions — at the end of a long day.

During my time in-theatre, as I synthesized the different perspectives I heard in Afghanistan from both humanitarian and military groups, the “themes” began to coalesce around the premise that we were in Afghanistan because despite centuries of global progress, human nature hadn’t changed. By human nature I mean we humans do a spectrum of activities ranging from good, mundane, and not-so-good to each other. That said, even though human nature hadn’t changed over centuries of global progress, the ability for a small group of individuals (or even just one individual) to inflict damage half-a-world away had in fact changed.

Specifically: Globalization, which provides us the ability to fly halfway around the world on commercial flights and reach any place on the planet in almost 24 hours or less, presents challenges for a planet of 7 billion people (up from 4.2 billion in 1977) that will grow to 8 billion by 2022.

Technology advances both made it possible for people to move freely around the world in rapid fashion, and made it easy for large amounts of damage to be inflicted by a small group of people. Such is the dual-edged nature of technological progress.

Compared to our world of 500, 100, or even just 50 years ago — a small group of individuals nowadays can inflict more damage anywhere in the world compared to the past. That’s not to say that there weren’t times when humans 500 or even 1000 years ago went on sprees of violence — however usually it required more of than just a handful of humans to do so and the distances they could travel to inflict violence was limited.

Writing these words now, I know these statements don’t entirely do justice to the in-depth conversations we had in-theatre. However I feel like they are a good start (maybe I’ll write more later).

Thinking Differently

The reason why I write these words now is the tragic events that occurred in Paris on 13 November 2015. Clearly these events anger and sadden us. They should not have happened.

If we can get through the immediate rush of emotions, the question I think that is worth asking is: “Why are we here? Where are we going?” similar to when I was in Afghanistan, and then follow-up with “What could we do differently” — both in terms of the full spectrum of military and humanitarian efforts to counter such violence?

The why are we here, I think, is fundamentally the same answer:

While human nature has not changed, technology advances have made it possible for people to move freely around the world in rapid fashion, and made it easy for large amounts of damage to be inflicted by a small group of people.

Personally I’d like to think we could rise to the occasion and recognize we need to identify crowdsourced solutions so that civilians, in such violent events, are not completely helpless. Remembering the tragic terrorist attacks in Mumbai, where the attackers used the same social media, GPS, cell phones, web search, and other technologies that millions of civilians use for benign purposes daily — could we find a way to turn the tables and use these same benign technologies to demobilize or at least halt a potential violent act until authorities can arrive?

Could we do so in a way that empowered crowdsourced technology to prevent any one or small group of people from misusing them? By crowdsourcing them we would enable the masses to be less helpless in violent situations.

I write this as an open question about whether we could “think different” and invest in new science and technology (S&T) efforts to come up with humane, civilian-oriented solutions to stop such bad events like 11/13 or other events that proceeded it?

For example, could public buildings have sensors that if they picked up the sound of gunfire, issued some way of immobilizing all individuals near the source of the sound perhaps with flashes, sounds, or even foam (note: would have to ensure this stopped the attackers first and foremost).

Could citizens opt-in with their smartphones to provide security at a group event, again, helping to triangulate and demobilize the source any large sounds of gunfire (note: this would be useful to address school shootings too).

What form would such a crowdsourced demobilization take? I firmly believe if we assemble creative thinkers we can come up with some answers.

Time is Ticking

We can’t stop the march of technology — limiting global transportation or technology that empowers people would be retrograde, knee-jerk reactions that would send civilization backwards.

So as I fly 29,000 feet over the desert, I wonder if we need a DARPA-like activity centered on three axioms:

  1. Human nature hasn’t changed. We humans do a spectrum of activities ranging from good, mundane, and not-so-good to each other. Responding to these activities with retaliatory violence won’t change human nature or the likelihood that more events like this will happen in the future.
  2. Technology continues to process forward, empowering people to travel the global quickly and for individuals to do both wonderful and not-so-wonderful things that in the past were only available to nation-states (bio-capabilities come to mind).
  3. Civilians collectively should not be helpless in violent situations. They need crowdsourced, non-violent mechanisms (to prevent abuse, misuse, or false positives) to neutralize violent attacks that arise.

Given these three axioms, a such a S&T activity could be a series of public-private partnerships.

The private sector has just as much (if not more) interest in preventing these acts of violence from occurring and causing panic, loss of live, and destabilizing marketplaces. The private sector might also bring some creative solution to “think differently” about how to prevent these activities from occurring in civilian spaces.

So, do we need a DARPA-like activity to crowdsource methods to counter violence in civilian spaces?

Let me know your thoughts at LinkedIn; and if you know of a way I can help champion such an effort — feel free to message me directly; I live to serve and tackle near-impossible missions.

Photos all courtesy of NASA.
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