Steve Blank The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford


to think deeply, to act quickly – think deeply, act quickly

75 years ago, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) helped kickstart innovation in Silicon Valley with a series of grants to Fred Terman, Dean of Stanford’s Engineering school. Terman used the money to set up the Stanford Electronics Research Lab. He staffed it with his lab managers who built the first electronic warfare and electronic intelligence systems in WWII. This lab pushed the envelope of basic and applied research in microwave devices and electronics and within a few short years made Stanford a leader in these fields. The lab became ground zero for the wave of Stanford’s entrepreneurship and innovation in the 1950’s and 60’s and helped form what would later be called Silicon Valley.

75 years later, ONR just laid down a bet again, one we believe will be equally transformative. They’re the first sponsors of the new Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford that Joe Felter, Raj Shah, and I have started.


Gordian What?

A Gordian Knot is a metaphor for an intractable problem. Today, the United States is facing several seemingly intractable national security problems simultaneously.

We intend to help solve them in Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. Our motto of to think deeply, to act quicklythink deeply, act quickly, embraces our unique intersection of deep problem understanding, combined with rapid solutions. The Center combines six unique strengths of Stanford and its location in Silicon Valley.

  1. The insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
  2. The technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
  3. Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
  4. Silicon Valley’s deep technology ecosystem
  5. Our experience in rapid problem understanding, rapid iteration and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
  6. Access to risk capital at scale

Our focus will match our motto. We’re going to coordinate resources at Stanford and peer universities, and across Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem to:

  • Scale national security innovation education
  • Train national security innovators
  • Offer insight, integration, and policy outreach
  • Provide a continual output of minimal viable products that can act as catalysts for solutions to the toughest problems

Why Now? Why Us?

Over the last decade we’ve created a series of classes in entrepreneurship, rapid innovation, and national security: Lean LaunchPad; National Science Foundation I-Corps; Hacking for Defense; Hacking for Diplomacy; Technology, Innovation and Modern War last year; and this year Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition. These classes have been widely adopted, across the U.S. and globally.

Simultaneously, each of us was actively engaged in helping different branches of the government understand, react, and deliver solutions in a rapidly changing and challenging environment. It’s become clear to us that for the first time in three decades, the U.S. is now engaged in a Great Power Competition. And we’re behind. Our national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage) is being challenged and effectively negated by autocratic regimes like China and Russia.

GKC joins a select group of national security think tanks

At Stanford, the Gordian Knot Center will sit in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies run by Mike McFaul, ex ambassador to Russia. And Mike has graciously agreed to be our Principal Investigator along with Riitta Katila in the Management Science and Engineering Department (MS&E) in the Engineering School. MS&E is where disruptive technology meets national security, and has a long history of brilliant contributions from Bill Perry, Sig Hecker and Elisabeth Pate-Cornell and others. (Stanford’s other policy institute is the Hoover Institution, run by Condoleezza Rice, ex secretary of state). All are world-class leaders in understanding international problems, policies, and institutions. Other U.S. foreign affairs and national security think tanks include:

We intend to focus the new Center on solving problems across the spectrum of activities that create and sustain national power. National power is the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information, military and economic strength as well as its finance, intelligence, and law enforcement – or DIME-FIL. Our projects will be those at the intersection of DIME-FIL with the onslaught of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, semiconductors, commercial access to space, et al.). And we’re going to hit the ground running by moving our two national security classes — Hacking for Defense, and Technology Innovation and Great Power Competition (which this year is now a required course in the International Policy program) — into the Center.

We hope our unique charter, “think deeply, act quickly” can complement the extraordinary work these other institutions provide.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR)

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been planning, fostering, and encouraging scientific research—and reimagining naval power—since 1946. The grants it made to Stanford that year were the first to any university.

Today, the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps is looking to find ways to accelerate technology development and delivery to our naval forces. There is broad consensus that the current pace of technology development and adoption is unsatisfactory, and that without significant reform, we will lose the competition with China in the South China Sea for maritime superiority.

Rear Admiral Selby, Chief of Naval Research, has recognized that it’s no longer “business as usual.” That ONR delivering sustaining innovations for the existing fleet and marine forces is no longer good enough to deter war or keep us in the fight. And that ONR once again needs to lead with disruptive technologies, new operational concepts, new types of program management and mindsets. He’s on a mission to provide the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps with just that. When we approached him about the idea of the Gordian Knot Center he reminded us, that not only did ONR sponsor Stanford in 1946, they’ve been sponsoring our Hacking for Defense class since 2016!  Now they’ve become our charter sponsor for the Gordian Knot Center.

We hope to earn it – for him, ONR, and the country.

Steve, Joe and Raj

Lessons Learned

The Center combines six unique strengths of Stanford and its location in Silicon Valley

  • The insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
  • The technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
  • Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
  • Silicon Valley’s deep technology ecosystem
  • Our experience in rapid problem understanding, rapid iteration and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
  • Access to risk capital at scale

Our focus will match our motto. We’re going to coordinate resources at Stanford and peer universities and across Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem to:

  • Scale national security innovation education
  • Train national security innovators
  • Offer insight, integration, and policy outreach
  • Provide a continual output of minimal viable products that can act as catalysts for solutions to the toughest problems

Filed under: Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation |





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