The Kodak Challenge and Co-Created Futures

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In a May 2014 essay in The National Interest, Josh Kerbel, Chief Analytic Methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency, urged the broader intelligence community to take a long introspective look at the fate of a onetime American corporate icon, Eastman Kodak. Kerbel warned the intelligence community is poised for similar obsolescence if it fails to reshape a multitude of legacy characteristics unaddressed since the demise of the Soviet Union. Kerbel cautioned against incremental adjustments, but acknowledges paradigmatic shift will be daunting (and unlikely). To re-establish its indispensability to decision-makers, Kerbel advised a comprehensive overturning of the community’s overall business model or else suffer Kodak’s fate. Fortunately, Kerbel’s wise counsel – admittedly “twenty years late” – has been heeded.

“surviving the twenty-first century together will require us to adopt longer horizons of thinking, acting, and collaborating. We need to play games that stretch our collective commitment months, years, or even decades ahead. We need to start playing with the future.”

Formally incorporated as the Eastman Kodak Company by George Eastman in 1888, Kodak became synonymous with photography in the 20th century. In 1900, Kodak made mass market photography possible with the introduction of the Brownie; by 1976, Kodak held a 90 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States. Trading around $90 in 1997, the company slowly declined, however, over the next fifteen years, as it failed to make the transition to digital photography, even though its scientists invented the first megapixel camera in 1986. On January 3, 2012, Kodak shares were trading at 76 cents; two weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

During the same period, another famous American company began its turnaround. At Apple Computer, Steve Jobs returned to much acclaim in 1997 and within one year had returned it to profitability. In 2004, Jobs initiated top secret Project Purple to design and produce an Apple phone. Development continued for three years and cost an estimated $150 million.

In 2007, Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The device became an overnight success, selling 6.1 million units in the first five quarters. It launched a revolution in digital devices, of which Apple remains a leader. The stylishly designed device featured a touchscreen interface, internet connectivity, ample storage, music playback -- and, fatefully, a 2.0 megapixel camera.

Kodak’s last profitable year occurred in 2007.

As with many overturned incumbents, the collapse comes not from behind, but from the periphery. In 1976, Apple began as a groundbreaking computer company; thirty years later, the company’s relentless pursuit of electronic design perfection simply blindsided Kodak.

As with many overturned incumbents, the collapse comes not from behind, from the periphery. In 1976, Apple began as a groundbreaking computer company, but its essence, especially under Jobs’s leadership, was the relentless, almost fanatical, pursuit of electronic design perfection. Kodak was simply incidental collateral damage.

In truth, the company was dead the minute leadership failed to capitalize on its megapixel innovation; it just wasn’t broke yet.

Like the intelligence community.

From this perspective, comparing the intelligence community to Kodak can be somewhat unfair. Kodak is subject to the discipline of the market; without profits, the company perishes. The intelligence community, consisting of sixteen agencies dating back to 1947, are reliably funded year after year, regardless of performance.

The intelligence community is capable of innovation. From cryptography to portable gadgetry to overhead satellite imagery to remotely-piloted vehicle strikes, the intelligence community has pushed the limits of technology and succeeding in contributing to the defense of national security -- when the adversary is named.

Against global threats and the dynamics of globalization, the intelligence community cannot focus its capabilities. Intelligence consumers (e.g. the elected leadership) is partly to blame, but so is organizational inertia and stovepiping and classification.

Kerbel recommends doubling down on secrecy: “the IC can uniquely promote policy success by routinely providing policy makers a secure, well-informed and policy-agnostic environment in which policy options and potential outcomes can be proactively floated and explored without those options being prematurely disclosed and, thus, undermined.”

A shaky reed to lean on given politicians’ propensity to leak and (especially) the huge population with access to classified materials. Moreover, as the Manning and Snowden episodes demonstrate, the stockpiling and compartmentalization of classified information only becomes a veritable "info-bomb" that harms only the stakeholders, hardly the basis for “a valuable and relevant service.”

“in a world of changing climate, geopolitical tensions, and economic instabilities, there are plenty more problems to be tackled with our collective imagination”

Secrecy impairs the intelligence community’s peripheral vision and precludes any chance any of the eight legacy characteristics Kerbel laments (hierarchical organization, client inattentiveness, unchanged methodologies, segmented cognition, underutilized technologies, biased language, inadequate metrics, and (again) the preference for classified over open source information) will ever be reshaped.

As such, the community would be advised to consider the source of the quotes cited throughout this essay: Dr. Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned game designer. She is also a futurist, serving as the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future. Her research focuses on how games are transforming the way we lead our real lives, and how games can challenge players to tackle real-world problems, such as poverty, hunger and climate change.

The key is massive multiplayer collaboration.

Wikistrat, founded in 2009, is a geostrategic analysis firm and describes itself as the “world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy leveraging a global network of subject-matter experts.”

A Web 2.0 enterprise, Wikistrat represents a complete inversion of the intelligence community. Wikistrat is a flat virtual entity, transparent to the client, methodologically dynamic, enabled by technology, and based on open source information. Most importantly, Wikistrat is premised on collaborative cognition, in which cooperative gameplay results in competitively developed analysis.

In simulation after simulation, subject matter experts around the globe interact seamlessly around the clock on a dedicated wiki platform drafting scenarios, policy options, red team critiques, and master narratives -- all under the guise of the client. Every contribution is subject to immediate feedback, through points and peer review. The outcome is a co-created range of solutions.

The author has participated in a variety of Wikistrat simulations and can attest to how the competitive format provides the engagement and incentives as well as the basis for insights unavailable elsewhere. More consequently, the author can attest to how rich the collaborative dialogue is, how insightful participants’ contributions are, and how ahead of the curve the simulation space is.

Not bad for a “massive multiplayer” game.

Epilogue

Between the 7th and 24th of April, Wikistrat conducted a simulation asking its analytic community to propose what will be the next big company to fail between now and 2030, envision which company will take its place, and explore the potential economic, (geo)political, social and technological ramifications of this change.

The inspiration was the collapse of Kodak.

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