Following on my post from a couple of weeks ago, and in the spirit of eating your own dogfood, I would like to share some ideas about open innovation at NASA. Please note that the below list is not exhaustive, and that they are just ideas, although some are much further along than others. Additionally, these ideas are not all mine, although they are coming from my (spacecraft + software) bias. Not only do all the projects below promote transparency in practice (both internally and externally), but it also creates a culture of action and has many positive intended consequences. However, that is for a different conversation. Below is a list of ideas that have stuck over the last few years that are both small developments (free) and large initiatives ($900M+).
• Interactive x500
• Side Project App
• Open Innovation Fund
• Co-working / Coffee Shop Environment
• Participatory Exploration as a Level 1 requirement
• Reward Cost Underuns
• NASA Open Source Agreement (NOSA) Continuous Release Authority
• NASA Application Programming Interface (API)
• NASA Advanced Research Projects Agency (NARPA )/ ARPA-N / NIAC++
• Red Planet Capital
• X Class Missions + Launch initiative
Further below is a paragraph describing each idea. I welcome and encourage your comments!
NASA calls it x500, but it really is LDAP. This is the closest thing we have to a profile directory. NASA is working on deploying Microsoft SharePoint at a number of centers, and perhaps Agency-wide, but really, we just need some sort of an employee directory that works. It would be nice to have query on any field (see Langley’s NASA Phone for a Mac), workable on a mobile platform, click the phone number to call it, see a picture of your colleague, and with a simple little Google Maps mash-up to find your colleague. Is this open innovation? No, but it is a perfect example of a technology which would enable greater openness and transparency, giving employees more substantial opportunities to connect. Also, if we have a platform like this, we can add additional information as people use it (such as which projects they previously worked on, published papers, current projects, side projects, what they did & learned last week, what they will do next week, etc.).
Side Project App
Google calls it “20%-time.” NASA people call it “Google-time.” This concept allows an employee to work one day a week on whatever they are passionate about, that is also in-line with the company’s/organization’s goals. Anecdotally, many of Google’s new products get incubated internally from this policy. In practice, many salaried employees at Google end up working more than 40 hours a week, much like the NASA workforce (so, don’t worry about misappropriation of funds). Let’s work with our Union representatives to ensure that such a platform will be optional. But we need a web platform for our “idea” people to communicate concepts, and an environment for our “doer” people to join new projects and contribute solutions. Make it social: allow people to comment, endorse, and follow side projects. Link this to the interactive x500 showing with projects you work on, endorse, and follow. You want innovation? Create the environment and listen to your workforce.
Open Innovation Fund
If you have an Interactive x500 + Side Project capability, put in a new field for what people would do for $10K, $50K, or $200K. That is it. If you have money that needs to be obligated at the end of the fiscal year, search through side projects of interest to your funding profile and support it. If you have a Center Investment Account and want to see what your workforce is really working on and want to send them a message that you are watching, listening, and supporting, then fund them. If you are at NASA HQ and want an Open Innovation Fund, then these are the people you would fund. You take the culture of linearly reporting and hording information out of the equation that could flatten the Agency and reward people for being in action.
Co-working / Coffee Shop Environment
Don’t discount the face-to-face encounters. I don’t know how many collaborations were started by a simple, informal meet-up in the cafeteria. Let’s create a physical space at our respective centers that has space for people to plug in and work. Simple, and it works. It also keeps your employees on-base and caffeinated.
This is for the spacecraft geek in me. When you look at an iPhone, I see a spacecraft. Sure it is only one degree of freedom (with it vibrate mode) and doesn’t have solar panels, but it is a spacecraft with a radio, CPU, payload (camera), power control system, accelerometer, etc. Okay, not quite, but you get the picture. Research & Development (R&D) has changed over the last half century in the U.S., and many technologies that NASA has enabled (i.e., the transistor) have turned into a high-tech industry. So, let’s use this technology that has been developed for other purposes for the space program.
Give 9 people, 9 months and $900K in scrum management style and let them go. Allow them to make mistakes and learn from it. Allow our (young) engineers to build something from start to finish, allow our (young) scientists to play the role of being a Principal Investigator (PI), allow your (young) business manager/mission support personnel to be part of this team to get things through procurement and legal. Allow them to build their own spacecraft (which fits in the ESPA envelope) from start to finish in 9 months. After their 9-month rotation, the spacecraft gets put on the shelf, the team goes back to their previous job and the next crew comes in and starts over with their own design. The myth is real that the barrier to entry to space is access, but it is a myth. Build some spacecraft wisely and a flight opportunity will come. But regardless, if the purpose of such an initiative is to train people, then the product is icing.
Participatory Exploration as a Level 1 requirement
Each good program has ~ 6 top level requirements (Level 1 Requirements) which derives all other requirements. In a program there is traceability from each activity and parameter to its host requirement all the way up the line to a Level 1 requirement. This waterfall approach works, and makes sense for enormous engineering efforts. Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) is typically a percentage of the program’s budget and isn’t part of the requirement process. The Agency is making great strides within the E/PO and ‘special project’ community to have participatory exploration, but if we are able to get it into programs, then we should start it early. The earlier in a program that you allow the American Public, one of NASA’s key stakeholders, to become part of the mission, the easier and more rewarding (for both the participant and NASA) this collaboration becomes. One little tweak in a requirement early in a program could open up a new realm of public participation.
Reward Cost Underuns
It sounds crazy, I know, but seriously. Let’s allow all programs to keep half of what they don’t spend (assuming they’re successful), and allow the program to invest in discretionary projects at the team’s discretion (also within the funding profile).
I misspoke in my e-mail a couple weeks ago where I said that Participatory Exploration was the main thing NASA is doing on open innovation. We have Centennial Challenges. We cannot talk about open innovation at NASA without mentioning Centennial Challenges. So, let’s fund Centennial Challenges for real. Recall that the DARPA grand challenge was $1M and took more than ~$6M to produce. For Centennial Challenges, NASA puts up the purse and our Allied Organizations run the competition with NASA endorsement (ie, without NASA money). It is absolutely mind boggling how effective Centennial Challenges have been with their funding level. So, again, let’s fund it for real. Oh, and then open up ideas from the public to submit potential challenges, then write the project openly for others to contribute in this extremely time consuming task. This is a lot harder than it sounds (ask the X-Prize), but it is a problem that can be solved. Oh, and let’s also expand it to Software prizes to (how about a NASA Hack Day, similar to Yahoo!’s Hack Day?)
NOSA Continuous Release Authority
The NASA Open Source Agreement (NOSA) is an excellent process to have software written for NASA to be released open source. The true value of open source software isn’t in only allowing others to see your source code, but to create an environment for interested developers to assist in the enhancement of the software. Also, an active community begets an active community, so you cannot just throw software over the fence; you need a community manager and funded NASA people to be developing the software. Again, this means that it isn’t released when it is finished; it is developed under a continuous release authority in the open.
We have data and tones of it. We have policies to archive our data and the ability for people to retrieve it and use it. The Data Archive Centers (or DACs) are in a variety of databases throughout the country and accessible via different processes and websites, which make it extremely difficult to (a) know that it is there (b) now where ‘there’ is and (c) know how to get it. Okay, but then once they get it, the data is in a variety of formats and in some cases, in its raw form. This makes it difficult for non-specialists to use the information, let alone non-scientists. A NASA Application Programming Interface (API) will allow NASA to host the data, but allow third parties to use the data for other purposes. This is no small undertaking, and the reward is uncertain, but I believe is one of the best ways of getting space into the public (with unforeseen mash-ups), allowing innovative data analysis tools to be developed, and fostering citizen science to grow.
NARPA / ARPA-N / NIAC++
Broadly speaking, for the last three decades NASA has changed its R&D strategy every 18 months. That isn’t long-term, nor innovative! What ends up happening, is that old ideas get repackaged, re-pitched, and partially funded. We recycle mission concepts and technology development. On the heels of President Obama’s National Academy of Science speech on Monday and the Stimulus package, let’s get a sizable chunk of discretionary money to work on high-risk, high-return technologies. We currently have Research Opportunities and Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES), Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP), and IPP Seed Fund, but this is far from an Agency-wide investment into future enabling technologies. We did have NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIACS), but that was cancelled in the last couple of years. These strategies are more short-term, program enabling technologies. But follow the ARPA-E model and make it a small, separate organization to avoid the recycling of projects and personal relationships.
Red Planet Capital
NASA was very close to implementing our version of In-Q-Tel called Red Planet Capital. This is a venture capital firm seeded by NASA dollars to invest in companies (presumably in technology companies) which has a benefit to NASA. Now, not to talk out of both sides of my mouth, but it is time to dust that project off again!
X Class Missions + Launch Initiative
A new class of missions is being developed in the Science Mission Directorate (or SMD, which as over 90% of NASA spacecraft). Venture Class Missions are for the Earth Science Directorate, but it warrants a relook at how we institute missions. We have PI-led missions and strategic missions. Personally, I am extremely impressed with the PI-led mission process, however the process should be commensurate with the particular mission type. For instance, missions shouldn’t have to spend the same amount of time getting through Phase A (Concept Study) as it does to go from Phase B through Phase D (Detailed Design, Fabrication, Testing, Launch, and Check-out). The longer the entire mission life-time is, the more likely you will have different people working on different elements of the project requiring much more documentation and review. The longer the program and more documentation and review required, the more people you have on the program. Long + More People = Expensive. Since it is expensive and we have a more or less constant top line budget, then you want to make sure you are choosing the correct mission, and take a long time to get through Phase A. Expensive + More Time = Expensive ++. Because it is very expensive, you don’t want it to be successful and will buy down risk. Low Risk + Expensive ++ = Few Missions.
So, let’s do a PI-led mission that has a cost cap of $50M, spend two-months (one month working, one month review) in Phase A and 20 months to on-board check out. Phase new missions to be started each month and bulk-buy small launch vehicles to stimulate a production line within industry. Each mission happens quickly (within a congressional election cycle and attention span of the public) and assuming it would cost NASA $50M for the mission + $5M for NASA management, reviews and support (i.e. The Program Office + independent assessment) + $20M for a launch vehicle, this is a $900M venture each year. But then again, two years = 24 missions. Will you get ground-breaking science? Maybe. Will you stimulate an industry, workforce, and ingenuity? Yes.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Service (COTS) mechanism to have NASA buy services is excellent and should be propagated. Let’s buy more services: Astronaut transport, lunar cargo transport, lunar communications, etc. The COTS selection process is hard to beat, so I would use that as a point of departure.