Steve Blank Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition  – Wrap Up


This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just had our final session of our Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition class. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed the class to give our students insights on how commercial technology (AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others) will shape how we employ all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).

(Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class, and summaries of Classes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 6, 7 and 8.)


This class has four parts that were like most lecture classes in international policy:

  • Weekly Readings – 5-10 articles/week
  • 20+ guest speakers on technology and its impact on national power – prior secretaries of defense and state, current and prior National Security council members, four-star generals who lead service branches
  • Lectures/Class discussion
  • Midterm individual project – a 2,000-word policy memo that describes how a U.S. competitor is using a specific technology to counter U.S. interests and a proposal how the U.S. should respond

The fifth part of the class was unique.

  • A quarter-long, team-based final project. Students developed hypotheses of how commercial technologies can be used in new and creative ways to help the U.S. wield its instruments of national power. And then they got out of the classroom and interviewed 20+ beneficiaries, policy makers, and other key stakeholders testing their hypotheses and proposed solutions.

At the end of the quarter, each of the teams gave a final “Lessons Learned” presentation with a follow-up a 3,000 to 5,000-word team-written paper.

By the end the class all the teams realized that the problem they had selected had morphed into something bigger, deeper and much more interesting.

Team Army Venture Capital

Original problem statement: the U.S. needs to reevaluate and improve its public venture capital relationship with companies with dual-use technologies.

Final problem statement: the DoD needs to reevaluate and improve its funding strategies and partnerships with dual-use mid-stage private companies.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We knew that these students could write a great research paper. As we pointed out to them, while you can be the smartest person in the building, it’s unlikely that 1) all the facts are in the building, 2) you’re smarter than the collective intelligence sitting outside the building.

Team Conflicted Capital

Original problem statement: Chinese investment in US startups with critical technologies poses a threat to US military capabilities, but the lack of transparency in venture capital makes it challenging to track them.

Final problem statement: Chinese adversarial venture capital investments in U.S. dual-use startups continue to threaten US military capabilities across critical technologies, but the scope of the problem is relatively small. VCs and entrepreneurs can play a role in addressing the challenge by shunning known sources of adversarial capital.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

By week 2 of the class students formed teams around a specific technology challenge facing a US government agency and worked throughout the course to develop their own proposals to help the U.S. compete more effectively through new operational concepts, organizations, and/or strategies.

Team Aurora

Original Problem Statement: How can the U.S. employ its cyber capabilities to provide the populace of China with unrestricted Internet access to bolster civil society against CCP crackdowns, in order to pressure the PRC, spread American liberal values, and uphold U.S. freedom of action in the information domain?

Final Problem Statement: How does the USG leverage a soft-power information campaign to support Hong Kong residents’ right to self-determination and democratic governance without placing individuals at undue risk (of prosecution as foreign agents under the National Security Law)?

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We wanted to give our students hands-on experience on how to deeply understand a problem at the intersection of our country’s diplomacy, information, its military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement and dual-use technology. First by having them develop hypotheses about the problem; next by getting out of the classroom and talking to relevant stakeholders across government, industry, and academia to validate their assumptions; and finally by taking what they learned to propose and prototype solutions to these problems.

Team ShortCircuit

Original Problem Statement: U.S. semiconductor procurement is heavily dependent on TSMC, which creates a substantial vulnerability in the event a PRC invasion of Taiwan, or other kinetic disruptions in the Indo-Pacific.

Final Problem Statement: How should the U.S. Government augment the domestic semiconductor workforce through education and innovation initiatives to increase its semiconductor sector competitiveness?

If you can’t see the presentation click here. 

We want our students to build the reflexes and skills to deeply understand a problem by gathering first-hand information and validating that the problem they are solving is the real problem, not a symptom of something else. Then, students began rapidly building minimal viable solutions (policy, software, hardware …) as a way to test and validate their understanding of both the problem and what it would take to solve it.

Team Drone

Original Problem Statement: Drones can be used as a surprise element in an amphibious assault to overwhelm defenses. In a potential Taiwan Strait Crisis, there is a need for a low-cost and survivable counter-drone system to defend Taiwan.

Final Problem Statement: Taiwan needs a robust and survivable command and control system to effectively and quickly bring the right asset to the right place at the right time during an invasion.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

One other goal of the class was testing a teaching team hypothesis – that we could turn a lecture class into one that gave back more in output than we put in. That by tasking the students to 1) use what they learned from the lectures and 2) then test their assumptions outside the classroom, the external input they received would be a force multiplier. It would make the lecture material real, tangible and actionable. And we and they would end up with something quite valuable.

Team Apollo

Original Problem Statement: The Space Force must leverage commercial innovation and establish a trained, experienced acquisition workforce that will deliver innovation impact that the Space Force requires.

Final Problem Statement: The United States Space Force lacks the supply chain and rapid launch capabilities needed to respond to contingencies in space. The private sector possesses these capabilities, but is not being adequately leveraged or incentivized.

If you can’t see the presentation click here. 

We knew we were asking a lot from our students. We were integrating a lecture class with a heavy reading list with the best practices of hypothesis testing from Lean Launchpad/Hacking for Defense/I-Corps. But I’ve yet to bet wrong in pushing students past what they think is reasonable. Most rise way above the occasion.

Given this was the first time we taught integrated lectures and projects our student reviews ranged from the “we must have paid them to write this” to “did they take the same class as everyone else?” (Actually it was, let’s fix the valid issues they raised.)


A few student quotes:

“This is a MUST TAKE [caps theirs]. The professors and teaching team are second to none, and the guest speakers are truly amazing. This course is challenging, but you truly get out of it what you put into it, and you will learn so much crucial and interesting material.”

“THIS IS A FANTASTIC COURSE! [caps theirs]. The material was excellent, the instruction from legendary professions was top notch and the reading material was timely, interesting, and relevant. Anyone who is interested in geopolitics and technology innovation needs to take this course. Not only that, but each week features a different guest speaker that is usually from the highest levels of US government and is THE expert in the subject for that week’s course. Really amazing experience getting to listen to and have Q&A with such incredible people.”


Team Catena

Original Problem Statement: China’s cryptocurrency ban presents the U.S. with an opportunity to influence blockchain development, attract technical talent, and leverage digital asset technology.

Final Problem Statement: CCP’s economic coercion makes countries such as Australia dependent on China’s economy and vulnerable to the party’s will. The U.S. must analyze which key Australian industries are most threatened and determine viable alternative trading partners.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.


A few more student quotes:

“This is hands-down one of the best courses I’ve taken at Stanford. From the moment I walked into the door, I was stunned by both the caliber of people you’re sharing oxygen with in that room, and how welcoming and accessible they are. Despite it being the first offering of this course, everything was well-organized, and our team was always supported with a wealth of resources and access we needed to get our policy deliverables to, alongside a healthy dose of near-constant feedback and encouragement from the teaching team. Readings were engaging and insightful, and the guest list we had was simply unbelievable- Mattis, McFaul, Rice, Pottinger, among several others in the White House, Pentagon, and beyond. There’s a real feeling that everyone who worked on this course wants you to grow as a student but also teach them what you’re learning.

Beware Steve Blank- he can be harsh and aggressive but exemplifies the ‘rude but life-saving doctor’ trope. I’ve learned more from responding to a single Blank cold-question in lecture than from three entire quarters of applied math at Stanford. Be sure to get started early on your teamwork and talk to the lecturers as much as you can- this really is a ‘you get as much as you give’ course, and the highest returns are to be had by being tenacious, loud, and unabashed in your questioning.
And, for God’s sake, don’t draw cartoons on your final presentation- the JCOS might be watching.

“DO NOT TAKE THIS COURSE! This class is a complete waste of time.“

“This was the worst class I took at Stanford “

While the positive feedback accolades for the class were rewarding, several comments identified areas we can improve:

  • Letting the students know upfront the workload and unique format of the class
  • Better organization and timing
    • Readings: be much clearer on which ones are mandatory vs optional
    • Clarify details, flows and objectives for each class

    • Tie speakers to projects / student presentations

  • Make weekly office hours mandatory to ensure all students receive regular professor/student interaction, feedback and guidance from week 1

All of our students put in extraordinary amount of work. Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will go off to senior roles in State, Defense, policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies. They will be the ones to determine what the world-order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for a free and open region and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will it be an autocratic and dystopian future coerced and imposed by a neo-totalitarian regime?

This class changed the trajectory of many of our students. A number expressed newfound interest in exploring career options in the field of national security. Several will be taking advantage of opportunities provided by the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation to further pursue their contribution to national security.

Lessons Learned

  • We could turn a lecture class into one that gave back more in output than we put in.
  • Tasking the students to test their assumptions outside the classroom, the external input they received was a force multiplier
    • It made the lecture material real, tangible and actionable
  • Pushing students past what they think is reasonable results in extraordinary output. Most rise way above the occasion
  • The output of the class convinced us that the work of students like these could materially add to the safety and security of the free world
  • It is a national security imperative to create greater opportunities for our best and brightest to engage and address challenges at the nexus of technology, innovation and national security

Note: Inspired by our experience with this course, we decided to increase the focus of Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation on developing and empowering the extraordinary and largely untapped potential of students across the university and beyond.





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