White City a blueprint for security innovation says NATO Head of Innovation


Rob Murray, Head of Innovation at NATO

Rob Murray, Head of Innovation at NATO

NATO's vision for innovation in security and defence was the focus of a recent talk delivered by their Head of Innovation.

Rob Murray is responsible for mapping out what innovation means to NATO, and for figuring out how to build an organisation towards NATO’s 2030 goals.

Rob recently addressed the ISST Innovation Ecosystem, a group of leading industry, academic and governmental organisations in the national security and defence innovation space, of which NATO are a partner.

Max Swinscow-Hall caught up with Rob to find out more about his message around NATO’s innovation vision and the challenges of delivering this.


What is your team’s vision for the future?

In our vision for the future, we see new innovations and ideas being resourced and tried, and we see these tried and tested ideas informing policy making, and breaking down the bureaucratic barriers of acquisition in defence and national security.

We want to see small, agile, innovative and creative companies bring ideas into the national security and defence space, to solve problems and create new markets.

We’re not so much looking at specific projects, such as AI in predicative aircraft maintenance, for example. Our real job at the NATO Innovation team is to create the environment and culture where innovation can flourish, and we want this to happen across 30 countries, because this is what NATO represents.

What we’re seeing at White City and the ISST Innovation Ecosystem, which is bringing together the triple-helix of academia, government and industry, is absolutely a blue print for the way in which we want to be thinking about innovation in the context of national security and defence. NATO is founded on the principle of multilateralism and so this triple-helix approach is something that resonates with us.


What areas of innovation are you particularly interested in?

In terms of what we’re trying to innovate, a good starting point is the seven technology areas which the NATO member states have articulated as being of particular interest: AI, Data, Autonomy, Space, Hypersonics, Quantum and Biotech. But you can’t only consider these in isolation. There are big questions around the impacts of synthesising these technology groups, and what it means for national security and defence both in terms of how we use them and how we deter adversaries from doing so.

Of fundamental importance to this is responsible use; one of the core principles of NATO. It isn’t just a question of innovating technologies, but about developing and articulating norms, principles and ethics to their use.

It also means we need innovations in business models, organisational models, and other ways of improving how we go about doing the business of national security and defence.


What are the main challenges?

Looking at the member states of NATO, between the 30 countries we have roughly 1 billion citizens, 1 trillion USD in combined defence budgets, some of the world’s top universities and global financial centres. So all of the ingredients for successful innovation are there, and you might say that the job should be fairly straightforward.

However, this is not always the case. There are real challenges around finding a political middle ground and ensuring technological interoperability.

NATO as an alliance represents 30 countries, so bringing in our vision in the first place requires a lot of negotiation to find that middle ground. To give you an example, 90% of EU members states are represented in NATO but roughly 80% of NATO funding comes from outside of the EU. This highlights the importance and challenge of finding that middle ground between so many countries.

Most governmental organisations were shaped heavily from the first industrial revolution and...[not] in the most effective way to take advantage of these new technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

One example of solid middle-ground is the seven technology areas, although here there are challenges of interoperability. There is real buy-in from all of the governments on the desire for innovation in these seven technology domains, but many countries aren’t fully digitised yet across the public sector, and many of the technology areas are heavily dependent on data and digitized data to some degree. So digitization is a massive challenge and undertaking in itself. One thing we’re seeing from covid is the acceleration on the trajectory towards this.

We have an additional challenge in organisational structure. Most governmental organisations were shaped heavily from the first industrial revolution and are centred on specialisation. As such we’re not always organised in the most effective way to take advantage of these new technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

A third challenge is around the cultural acceptance of risk. It is difficult for public sector workers to see the benefits of trying to develop innovations, which are by their nature high-risk, and so might not generate a return on public resource investment.

And this also plays into the interoperability challenge. Some countries find it politically more challenging to justify investments in new technology domains. Now you could simply focus on the more advanced nations, but one of our core aims as NATO is to minimize the interoperability stretch between Allies.

This is particularly important when you have some nations developing new technologies at different speeds, it means that when NATO needs to operate in a military function as an alliance, then we risk Allies not being able to operate with one another. And this could undermine itself the grand strategic point about deterrence.

What are some of the things your team has been looking at to date?

In Brussels, we’re very focused on policy that can create the right sort of incentives and support.

One example area which has been a recurring problem across many nations is the idea of nefarious foreign investment. Essentially, what we’ve seen is start-ups in the national security and defence space taking funding from investors whose money it later turns out is ultimately coming from an adversarial state. Unfortunately, this can kill a start-up leading to a loss of innovation.

An area we are currently developing is a potential standard which Allies can choose to adopt that describes trusted capital and finance screening at the national level, to support their national security start-up community.

That’s just one specific example. Another perhaps broader example of an area we’re interested in is the distribution of talent verses capital and organisational resources. As NATO we see a lot of engineering and other talent across the 30 nations, but as the capital is largely concentrated in a few locations, there is a lot of talent and potential getting missed. So if you think about VCs in London or California, they might well not be looking at the talent which exists across central and eastern Europe. We’re looking to smooth that distribution.

Finally, you touched on human capital in your last comment. I was wondering what skillsets you see as being needed by today’s leaders in national security and defence?

Leaders today need to have a good understanding of the technologies driving the emerging threat landscape such as data science, cyber and machine learning for example.

It is great to see that the US Naval Academy recently introducing cyber training for cadets. To become tech ready we need to see all levels of leadership, both military and civil, have a greater understanding of how to use these new technologies if we are to truly benefit from them.

At NATO we also see the need to merge technical competence with the ability to speak the language of diplomacy as well as the language of business.  It is these three areas of technology, diplomacy and business which reflect the landscape we now operate in.


Max Swinscow-Hall

Max Swinscow-Hall
Institute for Security Science & Technology


White-City-Campus, Security-science
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