Unraveling ‘Knotty’ Problems: ONR Helps Launch New Academic Center for National Security Innovation

Arlington, Va. – Jan 2014: Jim Blesse, standing, from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), explains project BlueShark to Lt. Col. John Moore from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. Project BlueShark is an ONR effort to create a high-tech, futuristic environment to demonstrate what operational work environments might look like and what emerging innovative technologies might provide in the next decade. (Navy photo by John F. Williams)

According to legend, in 333 B.C. Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great marched into the Phrygian capital of Gordium in modern-day Turkey. He encountered a wagon with its yoke tied to a pole, secured with a complex knot—called the Gordian Knot—so tightly entangled it was impossible to see where it began and ended.

Local myth said the person who could undo the knot would rule Asia. Studying the Gordian Knot closely, Alexander unsheathed his sword and sliced the ropes. The action is often celebrated as an example of strong leadership bringing a bold solution to a complicated problem.

Recognizing the modern need for bold answers to complex naval challenges, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has sponsored the creation of Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation (GKC)—a new academic center dedicated to helping the U.S. government re-envision its approach to national security issues. The GKC officially launched on Nov. 30.

“A Gordian Knot is a metaphor for an intractable problem,” said Chief of Naval Research (CNR) Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby. “Today, our nation faces many Gordian Knot problems, from near-peer competition to non-state actor threats, as we reimagine what naval power looks like in the 21st century. We’re seeking new disruptive technologies, new operational concepts, and new types of program management and mindsets.

“I believe this decade, the 2020s, will be pivotal to the success of our nation,” Selby continued. “I’m excited to help launch the Gordian Knot Center and look forward to seeing how the creativity, innovation and intellectual prowess of its students will strengthen the Navy and Marine Corps of the future.”

The GKC is dedicated to solving pressing national security concerns and empowering students to tackle real challenges at the intersection of commercial technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy) and the instruments of national power (e.g., diplomacy, information, military, economic). It will be based at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, which is located at Stanford in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the U.S. innovation ecosystem.

The center aims to bridge silos across the Department of Defense (DoD), industry and academia—and foster greater innovation by helping to develop and inspire the national security workforce, from employees to senior executives. 

It will coordinate resources at Stanford and throughout Silicon Valley to execute three lines of effort: (1) national security innovation education; (2) training for national security innovators; and (3) insight, integration and policy outreach.

ONR’s involvement with the GKC is the newest chapter in a seven-decade partnership with Stanford that began in 1946—when the command awarded grants to Fred Terman, dean of the university’s engineering school. He used the opportunity to set up the Stanford Electronics Research Lab, which advanced basic and applied research in microwave devices and electronics, enabled the university to become a leader in these fields, and sparked the investment and innovation that would create Silicon Valley.

Furthermore, the new center aligns with the CNR’s vision for future naval power—one based on faster development of unmanned, autonomous systems, vibrant partnerships with industry and academia, and reimagined naval formations.

“We as a nation must find ways to accelerate technology development and delivery to our naval forces,” said Selby. “By combining the expertise of Stanford’s national security policy leaders and Silicon Valley’s deep technology ecosystem, I believe the GKC will cultivate groundbreaking solutions with speed and urgency.”

Joe Felter, the GKC’s director and one of its founders—along with fellow founders, Steve Blank and Raj Shah—agreed: “In the coming decades, the U.S. will be engaged in great power competition with our strategic rivals, and there’s no guarantee we’ll come out ahead. Addressing the challenges facing the DoD and broader national security community demands unprecedented imagination and creativity.”

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