Global Challenges – A Call To Action

by | Apr 12, 2020

It’s hard for many of us to recall right now, but right before the virus our news seemed to be a daily diet of disaster: forest fires, floods, melting ice-caps, a Middle East in flames, the deforestation of the Amazon … 

Whilst we all yearn for a return to normality, many are expressing the hope that a better world will replace the pre-virus world; a world, as we all know, that was – is – beset with huge, seemingly intractable global challenges: climate change, a rampant refugee crisis, food and water shortages, global poverty, conflict, terrorism, environmental catastrophe and humanitarian crises.

And, hard as it is right now to look beyond the outbreak, we need to remind ourselves that global pandemic is the apotheosis of just one of these challenges: disease.

Fifteen years ago, I had a vision of how we could tackle global challenges – not just pandemic, but all of them – including climate change, the biggest of them all (and, you could argue, the underlying cause of almost all of them).

The story involved the coming together of every single sector, but its central protagonist was an unlikely hero: the global Aerospace and Defence sector.

Why Aerospace and Defence? In my download moment, I saw that the industry I had come to know extremely well over a then 25-year career comprised a vast wealth of science and technology that simply never got used.

If you looked on the industry as an iceberg, the part above the waterline would constitute the ‘platforms’ (ships, tanks, aircraft, spacecraft), weapon systems and sensors it was known for. Everything below the waterline – pure science and technology paid for by us, the taxpayer – sat there, mostly untapped. A lot of it, I realized, could go towards, quotes, ‘saving the planet’.

The fact that it doesn’t is not, by and large, Aerospace and Defence’s fault, because (excluding the commercial/airline side of its business) the industry acts to serve a single customer – government/s. Governments direct, exclusively so, where this vast reservoir of science and technology goes.

I don’t think it has occurred to most governments that this pre-paid, untapped asset even exists. And it wouldn’t have occurred to me either, but for my last journalistic assignment: benchmarking the science and technology of the entire sector. In doing so, I saw patterns I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

This deep reservoir of knowledge, I could see, really could save the planet.

Whether we’re aware of it or not – whether we like it or not – we all benefit from this reservoir – satnavs, telecoms, computers, the Internet … they all started out there. And they took many years to reach us.

In the fight against global challenges, we don’t have years. We need all the ideas, all the IP, all the know-how that’s locked up below that waterline now.

In 2011, I invited the Chief Technology Officers of the nine global Aerospace and Defence giants to a summit in Washington DC. President Obama’s science adviser, Dr. John Holdren attended; so, too, did the US Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

Could they turn their considerable technical and intellectual muscle to finding solutions to global challenges, I asked them? Yes, they said, but there’s a problem: the technology isn’t the hard part; it’s our business model that stops us: we contract with governments; we don’t know how to survive in the commercial arena where most global challenges interface with the real world.

For the next three years, I worked with Dr. Ray O. Johnson, the visionary then-CTO of Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest A&D contractor, in trying to crack this issue. I know that for Marillyn Hewson, LM’s CEO up until a few months ago, now its chairman, this was her dream as well. It didn’t make it, because back then it was too hard a problem to solve. Russia then annexed Crimea, ISIS emerged as a global threat and ‘business as usual’ won out. But a great many Aerospace and Defence insiders – right across the industry – had put their hearts and souls into trying to make it work.

That, however, was yesterday’s world. Today, as it is for all of us, everything is different.

At NickCook.Works, in the weeks and months ahead, we will be working to tell a very different story. We want to tell a story that ends differently from the one above.

Whilst doctors, nurses and healthcare workers the world over battle to save us from the virus, and while everyone in food and other vital industries fight to keep us fed and sustained, we will be turning our minds to the world that emerges after the virus.

The key to this, we know, are cross-sector solutions to the challenges outlined above.

But for them truly to work, we need everyone on board: government, academia and industry – all industries; and, yes, this time, we need the Aerospace and Defence sector as well.

We have to find a key that opens up that Aerospace and Defence business model. And not just so that its science and technology and IP get to where they’re so vitally needed. Aerospace and Defence has one other skill – a central skill – that will be just as vital in this fight: the systems-of-systems engineering expertise that will work with all the other sectors to stitch together the over-arching solutions to global challenges.

As an adult looking back to that ten year-old child who became inspired to report on the industry when it put a man on the Moon – one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering and technical problem-solving the world has ever seen – I know that the sector can do this. I know, too, that for many people it’s a controversial proposition. But this now is all about moving forward.

Today, Aerospace and Defence is suffering from a big recruitment challenge. Millennials and Generation Z’ers are not going into the business as we Baby Boomers did. Why? It’s not entirely clear, but one of the reasons may be because it no longer ‘macro-innovates’ in the way that it used to during the Apollo programme.

Another is because its purpose isn’t entirely clear either to a generation that identifies with a new set of values: one in which climate change – the biggest threat ever to our planet – is front and center of its concerns.

What greater purpose could there by right now than saving the planet? From switching Aerospace and Defence’s business model from national defence to global defence?

Here’s what we at NCW undertake to do:

  • In the days, weeks and months ahead, we want to re-start this narrative – to make it a stimulus for action.
  • It begins with a call for interview with a range of business leaders who would like to be a part of an initial discussion – one that will lead to action.
  • Within this forum, which will be entirely transparent, we will corral and collate the data on the NCW website so everyone can see it and be a part of the conversation.
  • This will be a top-down, bottom-up approach. At the top, we will be gathering the views and insights of strategic insiders across all sectors, A&D included.
  • From the bottom-up, we will be reaching out across social media to engage all views, across all generations. We particularly want to engage those Millennials and Generation Z’ers now entering the workplace.
  • Our core team of storytellers and management consultants will then collate and distill the arguments – and the data – into a series of ideas and plans that we will share with our participants. A key part of this dialogue will involve A&D, of course – what it can contribute to a cross-sector initiative for solutions to global challenges; not just to pandemic, but to all challenges.

Our team is ready. Please join the discussion. And please share this with anyone – across LinkedIn and/or social media more widely – who, exec or non-exec, academic, industrialist, NGO or government insider, you feel may be able to help too.