A mission to solve grand challenges

Grand challenges that bring together government, universities and industry, can solve near future problems using technologies innovatively

N Dayasindhu

[From tartanracing.org. Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team's self-driving SUV called Boss won first place in the DARPA Urban Challenge 2007. Tartan Racing's Chris Urmson became a key member of Google’s self-driving car project. In 2017 he co-founded Aurora Innovation. What was a grand challenge a decade back is on the cusp of disrupting urban transport today.]

There was much disappointment in India when news broke out that TeamIndus will miss the March 31 deadline for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. In fact, a few days later the organisers of the grand challenge announced that none of the five finalists will make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by March 31 and that the grand prize of $30 million will go unclaimed.

And yet, there is cause for celebration.

While this particular grand challenge does not have a winner, especially an Indian winner, it has seeded an idea among Indians that audacious goals like low-cost robotic space exploration are within reach when entrepreneurs, sometimes working together with government and universities, leverage technology innovatively. And that their ventures can lead to technological disruption.

It is also interesting to note that the just released Economic Survey 2018 refers to grand challenges relevant to India, and the importance of mission-mode R&D projects involving the private sector.

“To recapture the spirit of innovation that can propel it to a global science and technology leader from net consumer to net producer of knowledge India should…engage the private sector and the Indian diaspora, and take a more mission-driven approach in areas such as dark matter, genomics, energy storage, agriculture, and mathematics and cyber physical systems.”

At the global stage, an instance of the immense possibilities emerged as we wound down towards to the last few days of 2017, from half way across the world. A grand challenge was unravelling itself. DARPA (the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced the winners of the first phase of the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge. DARPA wants to identify the most efficient way of utilising the finite amount of radio spectrum available using machine learning and artificial intelligence. Why? In 2016 the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices including smartphones was estimated to be about 17.6 billion. This is projected to grow to about 30.7 billion in 2021. That is almost a 75% growth rate in five years. This has an impact on how the finite radio spectrum will be utilised in the near future.

In mid-December 2017, 19 teams with their solutions to the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge were pitted against each other and 10 were selected. This was the first of three finals. Two more finals will be held in December 2018 and December 2019 with increasing number of radios and complexity. The winning team of the December 2019 round is likely to receive a prize of $2 million, and more important, provide the building blocks to a solution that will make our smartphones, smartwatches, cars, TVs, refrigerators, pacemakers, etc. connect seamlessly to the internet in the years to come.

Grand challenges are becoming a preferred model to solve near future problems using technologies innovatively.   

For example, a more popular Urban Challenge—the autonomous vehicle grand challenge—sponsored by DARPA, ran in 2004, 2005 and 2007. In the Urban Challenge 2007, the Tartan Racing team, comprising members from Carnegie Mellon University, won the first prize. The second prize went to the Stanford Racing team from Stanford University. Post this grand challenge, Sebastian Thrun, a member of the Stanford Racing team, became an early leader of Google’s self-driving car project (now Waymo), which is probably the most successful autonomous vehicle project today. And Chris Urmson of the Tartan Racing team was also a key member of Google’s self-driving car project. What was a grand challenge a decade back is on the cusp of disrupting urban transport today.

The success of the grand challenges model has motivated other countries to leverage this model to get government, universities, and industry to work together. The EU grand challenges is an example of how countries in Europe have come together to address problems like secure, clean and efficient energy.

An important aspect of these grand challenges is that many of these problem contexts often have a military origin. For example, the Urban Challenge to create technology for autonomous vehicles in city roads was derived from the military demand to make a significant proportion of military land transport autonomous. While the grand challenges model originated in the early 21st century is fairly new, the broader concept of government departments bringing together universities and industry (both large companies and startups) to co-create technology (including IT) solutions to solve real problems has been around from the time of World War II in the US. These were then called technology-driven mission mode projects.

An exemplar mission mode technology-driven project in the US was the ARPANET. ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) of the Department of Defense, US, is now known as DARPA. Started in 1969, the ARPANET project was among the earliest to use packet switching, and developed the TCP/IP protocol. The ARPANET is the origin of the network that we know as the internet today. The popular perception, though sometimes disputed, is that the objective of ARPA was to build a network that was robust enough to survive a nuclear war. The universities that were part of the ARPANET project included University of California Los Angeles, Stanford Research Institute, and University of California Santa Barbara. The first ARPA site in the East Coast of the US was BBN Technologies, a company that also helped build the IMP (Interface Message Processor) system to connect different nodes on ARPANET. The IMP was a minicomputer containing special-purpose interfaces and software. In short, the ARPANET project was a successful partnership between the government, universities, and industry.

A collegial work culture

As a student of the history of innovation, I’m fascinated by the organisational aspects of mission mode projects including grand challenges. These projects are characterised by a flat hierarchy, meritocracy, and a collegial work environment. They are staffed by transdisciplinary teams of researchers, engineers and project management professionals. The teams that participate in a grand challenge and the DARPA project office are a good example of a flat transdisciplinary teams like the structure of the ARPANET project.

Another feature of these projects is the ability to combine heterogeneous or disparate components to create the technology innovation. Rarely was the technology innovation a result of using only off-the-shelf components. For example, the IMP in the ARPANET project was a modified Honeywell DDP-516 minicomputer whose code was written on a DEC PDP 1 and then ported to the Honeywell DDP-516. Or for example, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) was first used in an autonomous car context by the Stanford University team in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005. LIDAR, an application of laser technology, was earlier used by NASA astronauts to map lunar surface and archaeologists to map sub-terrain structures.

Grand challenges for India

The question that comes to mind now is this: Where does India stand in leveraging this model. Two initiatives that are currently active are the Atal Grand Challenge Awards and BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) Grand Challenges India. The objective of the Atal Grand Challenge Awards is developing novel disruptive technologies that are ultra-low cost, low maintenance, durable and customised to the local conditions of India. It aims to energise the local scientific and engineering community/academic institutions and engage them in innovative research and development towards finding novel solutions. The BIRAC Grand Challenges India focuses on projects that can dramatically change the health and development landscape in India and other countries facing similar challenges. These grand challenges are steps in the right direction, though it is still early to assess their impact.

Has India attempted similar projects in the past, and have they been successful? Let us examine a few of the exemplar past mission mode projects that India has successfully executed; it appears that the government and universities tango well in India. This may be a result of the government funding almost all the top research universities and labs in India. Mission mode projects from ISRO (established in 1969), which led to the indigenous development of India’s rockets and satellites, had little industry participation in the early days. In fact, ISRO’s genesis and early projects were shaped by the Physical Research Laboratory, a premier national research lab.

An early successful example of the tango of government and industry in India for a mission mode project is the Indian Railway’s Passenger Reservation Project. Indian companies like CMC (Computer Maintenance Corporation) and multinational companies like Digital participated to make it a resounding success in the mid-1980s. The history of large-scale technology-driven mission mode projects reveals that India was successful in getting two actors to tango successfully—one was the government, and the other was universities/research labs or industry.

Is there a history of an Indian technology-driven mission mode project where the three actors—government, universities/research labs, and industry—have worked together successfully? The answer is, yes. That distinction goes to the Air Defense Ground Environment Systems (ADGES) project that ran between 1969 and 1984. The ADGES project, a truly audacious technology driven Indian mission mode project in scope and scale, was among the most sophisticated projects that India has ever executed. 

ADGES was a project funded by the Indian government’s Department of Electronics for the Indian Air Force. Some of the stalwarts of Indian science and technology like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Prof. MGK Menon, were initial champions of this project. The ADGES consisted of radars to detect intruders into Indian airspace, and a system to assess their probable flight plan to enable the Indian Air Force to decide on an appropriate response. The ADGES consisted of a network of special purpose computers, software, interfaces, and communication networks that processed the radar input, and provided a control and command capability that facilitated a suitable response to an intrusion. This response included alerting the nearest airfield from where an Indian response would be launched, directing Indian aircraft to the intruders and place them at a positional advantage over the intruders, and directing them safely back to the nearest airfield. In short, ADGES was a mission critical national defence system that proved to be an excellent deterrent for intruders ever since it became operational.

Some sceptics may think that it would have been easier to buy these systems off-the-shelf from international suppliers. While that was possible, it would have meant that the Indian defence strategies and tactics would be exposed to these international suppliers.

Prof. PVS Rao of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) successfully led the project from start to finish. Prof. Rao recollects the genesis of the ADGES project, its complexity, and the interplay between different organisations in this video. It is a fascinating story of how the Indian Air Force, Department of Electronics, and a research institution like TIFR came together for the project. TIFR worked closely with the Indian Air Force to design the ADGES system. A public sector company ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India) and a private sector company Tata Electric Company were roped in to build the computing and radar hardware, respectively. Interestingly, ADGES was a robust system that was in use much after its initial operational lifetime.  Prof. Rao recollects the successful execution of the project in this video.

It requires a systems thinking approach

Successful grand challenges and technology-driven mission projects have profound impacts. They shape human life (internet from ARPANET), help developing countries build world-class technology expertise (creation of ISRO), and vastly improve delivery of citizen services (passenger railway reservation system of Indian Railways).  Is there a secret sauce to their success?

A study of successful grand challenges and technology-driven mission mode projects from across the world teaches us a few lessons on the reasons for their success. Thomas P. Hughes, one of most influential historians of technology, reveals that socio-technical systems, i.e. managing such projects, and user adoption often provided a bigger challenge than the technology-related research and development.

Socio-technical systems consist of the technology, the organisations that develop and use the technology, and the social processes that govern use of technology and organisational functioning. Succeeding in these projects requires leaders and key members of these projects to be systems builders. These systems builders lead projects across the design, research and development, and implementation/deployment phases. More important, the systems builders should be adept in the organisational aspects of stage-setting, funding, etc. Thus they are transdisciplinary, and manage both the technical and organisational aspects of the project. This approach is called systems thinking that developed in the mid-1950s.

It is an interesting coincidence to note that the creator and main proponent of systems thinking, Jay W. Forrester, a faculty member in MIT’s Sloan School of Management, was a leader in the early phases of the US air defence project SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) in the early 1950s!        

(The views are personal.)

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About the author

N Dayasindhu
N Dayasindhu

Co-founder and CEO

itihaasa Research and Digital

Dayasindhu is co-founder and CEO of itihaasa Research and Digital. itihaasa has researched and chronicled the history of Indian IT over the past six decades. It has captured the important milestones in the evolution of Indian IT through the recollections of leaders who have shaped its history. History of Indian IT is a digital museum app, free to download on App and Play stores. itihaasa also studies contemporary topics in Indian IT.

Dayasindhu's research interests are industry evolution and clusters, competitiveness, innovation, and leadership focused on the IT and high tech industry in India. His papers are cited by researchers in all permanently inhabited continents of the world. He holds two United States patents. Dayasindhu is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and IIT Madras.

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