Empowering Veterans and Coal Miners with Modern Innovation Tools

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Editor’s note: Co-authored with Andrea Ippolito – Dept. of Veterans Affairs Innovators Network Lead

As our nation experiences exponential changes driven by technology advances in fields such as robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, digital services, smart sensors, mobile computing, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, there has been a ripple effect in citizen expectations that is driving a mandate for government to deliver better results, faster, through ever-evolving channels.

Recognizing this emering paradigm and under the leadership of David Bray, Chief Information Officer for the Federal Communications Commission, the recent Amercian Council for Technology Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) Executive Leadership Conference was organized to highlight the efforts of #ChangeAgents across government who are responding to this mandate. These #ChangeAgents act as innovators who seek to help their organizations and our public services thrive in the emerging exponential technology era.   One track of the conference explored the importance of transformative leadership in enabling citizens with bigger, better, faster, and smarter solutions, embracing the edge in pursuing change despite risks, and unleashing the intrapreneurs within government. Many robust discussions touched on how to better leverage technology advances to deliver citizen services. However, one particular thread emerged that warrants much deeper exploration for its potential ability to exponentially improve outcomes.

Delivering better citizen services with advanced technologies is only a portion of the value proposition. Advanced technologies can also be leveraged to lift recipients out of the support cycle by giving them marketable skill sets in the emerging economy.

The innovation process can be broadly defined by some version of the workflow described and depicted below. We realize that these generalized stages can take on various names, do not necessarily occur linearly, and you could argue for additional stages or sub-stages, but we will use this version here.

1)     Ideate: develop ideas for innovations and the entrepreneurs/intrapreneurs who advance them

2)     Discover: use experts or the crowd to down select ideas with the most promise to bring value

3)     Experiment: rapidly prototype or otherwise test innovations to evaluate, learn, and revise

4)     Assess: record and communicate outcomes and approve for further development

5)     Scale: transition the prototype or pilot test to full production to deliver broader value

The discussion at ACT-IAC suggests an opportunity, in some cases, to extend this process beyond the development, refinement, and scaling of ideas to include direct engagement, training, and empowerment of the recipient community that is being served by the innovation. For simplicity, we’ll depict that extension of the process to include empowerment in appropriate circumstances as a plus (+) since it is an additive step that can enhance value beyond the core innovation delivery chain.

(+)  Empowerment: using the innovations to engage recipients and advance their capabilities

The figure below depicts these major stages while including the (+) opportunity for additive value.

The addition of the (+) empowerment stage, where possible, takes more traditional innovation leadership and makes it truly transformative for the population being served.

To parallel the well-known parable, the typical innovation cycle for government support services creates better, faster, and cheaper ways to give a person a fish when in need. The (+) empowerment phase works to lift recipients out of the support cycle by teaching them to fish in the modern economy by helping them acquire in-demand skills.

Let’s walk through two examples of what this (+) empowerment stage looks like in practice.

In 2015, the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) launched the VA Innovation Creation Series for Prosthetics and Assistive Technologies. Led by the VA Center for Innovation, the goal of this program was to accelerate the development of personalized technologies to improve care and quality of life for Veterans. The challenge video is powerful and speaks directly to the level of engagement the VA conducted with Veterans to identify the core focus areas for the challenge.


They embraced the human-centered design methodology as part of the discovery phase to understand the needs of Veterans and then co-designed with them different opportunity areas of innovation. After setting the challenge priorities, the VA used open innovation platforms and focused workshops to engage the rapidly growing maker community with skills in 3D print design and rapid prototyping to contribute to identifying, building, and assessing solutions. Following the conclusion of the challenge, the submitted designs were open-sourced to allow the maker community at large to continue developing and advancing the most promising ones.

To this point, the path followed a pretty traditional open innovation process: identify and focus the challenge, engage a broad community in submitting potential solutions, assess those solutions for viability and value, and leverage advanced technologies such as 3D printing to deliver value to target recipients requiring support. However, in this case, the VA went beyond this traditional cycle to include a (+) empowerment phase. Based on substantial interest in the power of 3D printing from Veterans, the VA partnered with America Makes to help support a new program to help teach and train Veterans on 3D printing. This program was led by Michael Moncada and his team at 3D Veterans who launched an intensive, six-week 3D Veterans Bootcamp to teach Veterans how to develop and deliver 3D printed designs.


With this training, Veterans became not only recipients of the value of 3D printing but also creators of that value able to develop designs or launch businesses that benefit their peers and the community at large. Based on initial successes, the VA Center for Innovation is helping to expand the program in partnership with America Makes and 3D Veterans to provide more than 400 Veterans across six cities (Los Angeles, CA, Carson, CA, San Francisco, CA, Philadelphia, PA, San Antonio, TX, and El Paso, TX) training in advanced manufacturing skills (e.g. 3D printing and technical design) and entrepreneurship.

Another example comes courtesy of the coal industry. In the last several years, the mining industry (including coal) has begun to recognize the value that drones can bring to all aspects of their value chain from exploration and development (airborne data collection and surveying) to safety and security (search and rescue support) and productivity (stockpile mapping). The traditional innovation cycle would identify opportunities for drones to add value, experiment with the application of those opportunities in real world settings, and scale the deployment of drones in areas with the greatest value.

The ultimate deployment of drones could benefit workers as their companies operate more profitability and their capabilities are augmented, or it could displace a portion of the workforce whose jobs are done more efficiently by the drones. The federal government is seeking to add a (+) empowerment stage to this innovation cycle by leveraging its Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative and a partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission to train former coal workers to operate drones. While drones are rapidly proliferating across government and commercial applications, there is a shortage of qualified operators for the vehicles and their advanced sensing equipment. As with the VA example, a modern technology is not only being used to create new value for a recipient community but is also being used as a lever to empower that recipient community with highly marketable skills in the emerging economy.

The 3D printing and drone operators use cases that represent examples of transformative innovation leadership look beyond just using advanced technologies to provide support more efficiently to leveraging training in those same technologies to lift recipients out of the support cycle. The question now becomes where else can this (+) empowerment stage be added to government innovation cycles. Some opportunities may include:

·        Crowdsourced data gathering has been deployed in developing countries to enable citizens to capture critical information in data poor environments about things like food availability, market prices, and infrastructure. Smart phone technology and a gig economy operating model that pays incremental incentives per completed task enable the collection and validation of this data. The data collection model is relatively new and there are challenges. However, there may also be possibilities to lift recipients of support out of the support cycle by engaging them with smart devices and a managed task list as paid collectors of critical data required to deliver better services for their communities.

·        Algorithms are playing an increasingly important role in public service delivery and quality.   As the prevalence and importance of often opaque algorithms increase, it will be critical to guard against bias and unintended consequences to protect the social good. Could members of recipient communities be trained to assess algorithms for bias by evaluating the accuracy and appropriateness of input / output pairs?

·        Machine learning holds promise for supporting public service value delivery chains that continually improve without human intervention. However, for supervised machine learning algorithms to be effective, they require extensive training to establish initially appropriate input / output pairs and to assess the accuracy of classifications applied to new data. As human computer interfaces improve to enable training and validation of machine learning algorithms by less technical users, could recipient communities be directly engaged in training and validating the algorithms that govern the delivery of their services?

While these potential opportunities are speculative, they outline approaches where a recipient community member could not only receive better services from advanced technologies but could also learn skills relevant to using or improving those technologies that could be highly marketable in the emerging economy. If these new skills are combined with a gig economy, micro-payment for micro-task type approach, the government may find pathways to further empower these recipients and lift them out of the support cycle. To realize these potential benefits, more public sector innovation programs will need to look beyond the standard innovation cycle to explore the potential for a (+) empowerment stage that extends the value of the innovation through direct recipient community engagement, training, and enablement.

We encourage readers who have other examples of public sector use of the (+) empowerment stage or ideas where it may be applicable to join the conversation in the comments.

Co-Author Information

Getting her start at VA as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, Ms. Andrea Ippolito now leads the VA Innovators Network within the VA Center for Innovation (you can read more about the VA Innovators Network outcomes in this blogpost), Ms. Ippolito has pursued doctoral studies in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT and is the Co-Founder of an innovative application that improves access to care called Smart Scheduling (acquired by Athena Health in 2016). She also previously served as the Co-Director of MIT’s “Hacking Medicine” program, as an Innovation Specialist at the Brigham Innovation Hub and Product Innovation Manager at Athena Health. Ms. Ippolito completed her MS in Engineering & Management at MIT. Prior to MIT, Ms. Ippolito worked as a Research Scientist within the Corporate Technology Development group at Boston Scientific. She obtained both her BS in Biological Engineering in 2006 and Masters of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering in 2007 from Cornell University.

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Michael WhitakerDr. Michael “Whit” Whitaker is Vice President of Emerging Solutions for ICF International. He is responsible for fostering a culture of innovation where creative thinking, experimentation, prototyping, rapid iteration, and deep understanding of markets, clients, and end-user needs are used to develop new solutions that drive growth and customer satisfaction in rapidly emerging markets. Follow Whit on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn

Michael Whitaker

As Vice President of Emerging Solutions for ICF International, Dr. Michael “Whit” Whitaker is responsible for fostering a culture of innovation whereby creative thinking, experimentation, prototyping, rapid iteration, and deep understanding of markets, clients, and end user needs are used to develop new solutions that drive growth and enhance customer satisfaction in rapidly emerging markets. Dr. Whitaker has a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering (Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Design) from the University of Colorado–Denver and an M.S. and a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. He is also a member of the ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation (https://www.actiac.org/participation/institute-innovation). Follow Whit on Twitter (@Papa_Whit) or connect on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelwhitakericf)




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