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The Future’s Laboratory

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala -- Air University faculty and students have partnered with regional universities in an effort to collaborate on common issues that cross over civilian and DoD interests.

Faculty and students from Auburn University, Auburn University at Montgomery, and Air University - as well as local business and government leaders - have begun monthly joint roundtable meetings, in an effort to collaborate, innovate, educate and advocate, calling the program the Future's Laboratory.

"The Future's Laboratory is a joint venture between Auburn, AUM and AU faculty and students, designed to create a research, teaching and outreach collaboration commons whereby civilian and military education institutions can interact on topics of common interest," said Dr. Robert Norton, Auburn University Professor and the Laboratory's coordinator of national security initiatives. "The laboratory's immediate priority is to create a series of roundtable events, whereby students and faculty from their respective institutions can meet and discuss potential problems and opportunities, with the expressed desire to create innovative solutions. It is the expressed hope for the laboratory that the first meetings evolve into future collaborations as joint teams develop and mature."

These roundtable events have already yielded positive responses, gaining momentum from interest throughout the partnering institutions. January's event featured Mr. Jason Lancaster, who heads a cyber hunter team at Hewlett Packard, who spoke about hunting cyber adversaries in the era of nation state threats and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Almost 50 attended the January meeting, double the number from the initial meeting the previous month, which dealt with cubesats. Attendance is expected to continue to grow as requests to attend have poured in for the February meeting, which will feature Mr. Tom Wojszynski, a cloud operations executive from Google.

"We want these meetings to spark relationships that will form small groups that team up to answer questions that individually they cannot," said Mr. Michael McKim, from the Education Support Squadron. "A lot of people say that coffee houses started the Enlightenment. All of a sudden you had a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a biologist, and a physicist all drinking coffee together and talking about a wide range of new ideas. That is what we are trying to create here with the Future's Lab.  These roundtables are just the beginning."

The Future's Laboratory was started by faculty from the three founding institutions as a way to collectively solve problems.  They realized that they were working on similar issues independently, but could work more effectively together and achieve innovative solutions that might have otherwise been unavailable.   

"This is an organic effort for people that may not have collaborated before to do so in new ways," said Norton. "We hope by functioning this way, we come up with solutions to hard problems, the wicked problems that the United States is facing. Typically these things go, 'give us a lot of money and we will do great things.' What we are saying is, 'we are going to do great things, and there may be money down the line,' but we are going to do these things up front."

Civilian academia, military academia, and business all gathering with a shared interest in viewing problems through different lenses is the formula for the Future's Laboratory. Their belief is that there are no rules that guarantee innovation, but diverse viewpoints and expertise gathered together will combat problems and may provide solutions to issues that are just coming over the horizon.

"That is something that sounds so simple, but we haven't been doing it," said Norton. "We tend to keep in the lane that we are in, stovepiped. Often times we don't think that the military may be working on the same problem or vice versa, but the combined efforts can better assist both parties."

Potential collaboration examples include looking at ISIL's use of water as a weapon, regional stability forecasts for 2020, working dogs, and cube satellites.

AUM has stepped up as host for these events and, with the help of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, has arranged for meeting places off base to alleviate potential issues, such as base access for civilians wanting to attend on short notice.

Information and discussions derived from these meetings have already begun to spawn new collaborations between the institutions of the various faculty and students, with requests for future partnerships to continue discovering solutions. 

The Future's Laboratory is not exclusive to faculty and students of the three founding institutions. Other colleges, universities and businesses are already asking to join the effort, growing the base of expertise and bringing with them other ways of looking at things. Various military organizations have already asked about developing future joint ventures.  Both Norton and McKim believe these partnerships will add to their mission.

"There are no limits to what the Future's Lab could research," said McKim. "We are looking for ideas from everyone - from the first semester college freshman, to the airman straight out of basic training, to the CEO of a business. Diverse thought processes and new ways of looking at things are what we are all about."  The future demands new ways of thinking, new collaborations and partnerships.  The Future's Laboratory aims to provide a place to do just that.