The Pentagon is evolving. Will the D.C. region follow?

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This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. Last week in Boston, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced significant improvements and expansion of the Pentagon’s capability to work with agile innovators. These two events are related in very important ways.

The Apollo program’s moon landings remain among the most significant accomplishments of “big science,” the term used to describe a program of developing and achieving innovations using large centralized teams. Generally, big science addresses challenges that are believed to not be suitable for solution by small autonomous groups.

During World War II, big science became a tactic for creating advanced technologies, the most emblematic being the Manhattan Project — the research and development effort behind the first nuclear weapons. After the war, big science continued to be the primary model for discovering new innovations. A vast network of university and federal labs was created to continue to advance technology, and the model was adopted by private companies such as AT&T in its Bell Labs.

Much of the development and application of big science was promoted and funded by the Department of Defense. As Secretary Carter stated last week, the Defense Department had a long history of working to develop important new technologies such as the jet engine, satellite communications, Internet, and GPS. He noted that this “cooperation among industry, the academy and government helped make our military what it is today: the finest fighting force the world has ever known.”

Over the last 20 years, the big science model has been challenged by the emergence of innovation from small and agile teams. It has been facilitated by the commoditization of software — lowering the costs of creating software  to effectively zero — as well as the…

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