How U.S. Space Command is approaching design education
This is in conjunction with design education now occurring through the National Security Space Institute (NSSI) where the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command (and other services, agencies, programs) get space specific education and development. The USSPACECOM Strategic Innovation Group (SIG) generated the design theories, methods, models, and techniques for the basic 5-day course “Space Design & Innovation” that had the pilot execute from 05 to 09 December 2022 at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado. Below is a section of the new Space Design student guide that explains the particular design methodology offered in this program. The design methodology is a military one, inspired from Systemic Operational Design or SOD developed by Dr. Shimon Naveh and the OTRI Institute in Israel in the mid-1990s, and exported into multiple militaries in various adaptations (and bastardizations). Design is design- there are many, many paths to take to get from not designing to designing. This is one way- underpinned by complexity theory, systems thinking, multiple futures, social paradigm theory, postmodern philosophy, and military sociology. This Medium post exists as my own informal, academic opinion for educational outreach and promotion/awareness of this course- and does not reflect any official stance or position of the US government, U.S. Space Command, or the Department of Defense.
Interested in whether you qualify to attend at the NSSI? The school is open to military, government, and select professionals/international students based on the course and NSSI current enrollment rules. Be sure to check their website and ask course directors if you have questions. Right now, priority fill for this course is USSPACECOM, U.S. Space Force, DoD wide and agencies involved in space defense, and other select areas/skills/populations. The course directors, NSSI and USSPACECOM make all final decisions on who gets into a course- this is just the outreach and info message. The NSSI website is at:
NSSI Public Center
FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY (FOUO) information which must be protected under the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552)…
The USSPACECOM Systemic Design Methodology:
We provide a different space themed metaphoric device to introduce the USSPACECOM design methodology. Often, designers will tailor the design methodology using metaphoric devices toward their target audience, client, or field. In this case, a space theme is most applicable. As depicted below, designers will imagine the journey of a spaceship taking off from a planet (such as Earth) and visiting the moon, and then successfully returning to ‘splash down’. I have had the chance to design multiple design programs including methodologies over the years, and blend various design techniques in a multi-disciplinary approach. For law enforcement, a “stairwell” metaphor might be best received, while for cyber design students, a “code, app, software” metaphoric device is better suited… and for special operations forces, a series of curving arrows and flowing sequences appeared helpful. Ultimately, any basic design education starts with some common or institutionally recognized metaphors and moves from there. Once designers master how to go about designing, they can treat the metaphoric devices and methodologies more like guidelines, or training wheels. The best designers intuitively flow, reflectively practicing, often generating whatever design methodology they need as they explore and experiment. Here is how we approached design for a space defense audience:
Design, as something involving both scientific rationalization, processes, skills and experience as well as artistry is not understood by following a checklist or following some recipe. Unlike planning where a military operator seeks to gain greater compliance and efficiency with a known, sequential and established process that moves incrementally toward a predetermined goal- designers are innovating toward the unknown, the unrealized, and the never-before-imagined.
This means that while some aspects of the design methodology will appear to be sequential, occurring in discrete steps along a formal process, much of how the design is done contextually and ‘in the moment’ may seem nonlinear, moving in a flow that may drift well outside intended process boundaries. What was the original goal might be quickly abandoned, with entirely new stepping stones discovered that, if explored creatively by the curious designers, might lead to entirely different destinations. Here, only the cunning designers might envision entirely dissimilar futures where such novel ideas might provide radically new advantages that will frustrate and confound adversaries. The graphic below can be interpreted both in linear and nonlinear iterations of design activity.
In the above graphic that depicts a lunar orbit metaphor, the design team normally begins by departing the planet and considering the ‘legacy system frame’. This indeed is where all new and inexperienced designers should start, and then follow the entire methodology through the iteration as depicted below. However, for experienced designers that are able to gain deeper and deeper design self-awareness and wisdom, such a model becomes constraining. These designers can shift away from how things are described below, and indeed are encouraged to modify, transform and even generate entirely new ways of exploring and reflecting upon the design challenges they face. For basic course designers, they are advised to follow the sequence below, if only to gain a design foundation from which further exploration can be done to deviate from these basic activities.
The FIRST BURN: Moving to Frame the Legacy System and How Things Were…
In the next graphic below, designers will as a team conduct a deep inquiry into what their legacy frame is. The legacy system includes everything (including the designers, their own institution, how humans socially construct a reality upon the already complex natural reality), and in particular the legacy system explains what was working previously that does not seem to be working anymore. When a military organization wants innovation or transformation, it does not ask for such things when things are going as planned. It is when there is institutional frustration, failure, defeat and/or surprise at reality not developing along the pathways that the institution expected yesterday that designers are called to duty. Something has gone wrong, and if that something were easy to link to a known solution, the planning apparatuses of military organizations would already have corrected course. Designers frame the legacy system when we are adrift in strange currents, confused in the fog and unable to gain our original or even a new orientation that makes sense.
In this ‘first burn’ of the design methodology, the design team will seek a systemic (comprehensive, complex, socio-cultural and multi-disciplinary) framing of the past, and this might even include institutional challenges where the legacy system itself is an illusion constructed to support further institutional desires and ritualized practices. It is up to the design team to determine what, how and why the legacy system existed as it did, and how something became a significant tension so that the organization knew or discovered ‘something is wrong’ as well as ‘what went wrong cannot be fixed by our known planning knowledge and best practices.’ This creates the need for innovation in war.
The design team, after completing a legacy frame treatment and identifying core system tensions, paradoxes, and emergent challenges that are causing ‘what used to work’ to now become increasingly fragile or irrelevant- will move to the ‘second burn’ and begin to frame the institutional paradigm (our own war paradigm). This in Israeli SOD was termed the rationale of the ‘self’. USSPACECOM extends this self-reflection and institutional framing to employ concepts from complexity and systems theory as well as social paradigm theory. All of these concepts will gradually be introduced in this basic innovation course, and students may refine and transform their design constructs iteratively as they gain new understanding and increased sophistication in how they understand designing in security contexts.
Designing our own war paradigm and that of the institution helps explain how and why we think and act as we do. Designers will seek to “construct frames of understanding about emerging ecologies and complex phenomena.”Then, students should propose the conceptual and aesthetic artifacts resulting from their systemic inquiry into the security challenge. This will involve an iterative ‘pattern of self-creating’ where the design learning unfolds with: “regulated observation and observed systems in emerging strategic contexts.” This is about thinking divergently instead of seeking the reliable, increasingly efficient cognitive cycles of first and second-loop thinking (convergent, non-reflective). See Medium links below for more on first loop thinking-
Single Loop Thinking: Non-Reflective Military Cycles of ENDS and MEANS
This is a section out of a recent writing project that will appear in Medium in three parts. This first part explains…
The SECOND BURN: Considering Our Unique War Paradigm and how We KNOW what War is, and is not…
The designers will, once framing the ‘self’ and our own military institutional paradigm for what war is and how one approaches thinking and acting within it, will move beyond those limits and consider how the ‘other’ might conceptualize a war frame differently than we do. This requires a basic understanding of social paradigm theory (lesson 5) so that the designers can reflectively practice identifying their own paradigm limits and learning to negotiate beyond them into unexplored spaces. It is in these areas that other war paradigms might reinterpret the very things and activities that our own war paradigm ‘knows that this is X’ and might render an entirely different understanding. This creates paradox, as well as paradigm overlap (where ours and the other agree on some things) and paradigm interplay. Paradigm interplay can only be realized when the design team can effectively frame their own frame, the frame of adversaries or competitors, and then identify new opportunities as well as risks and consequences that a single-paradigm operator has no knowledge of. This is where paradigm interplay exists, and becomes the foundation for innovation, improvisation, experimentation and transformative design.
Below, designers move into this ‘third burn’ and frame the primary adversaries, key stakeholders and/or competitors that are highly influential in the current complex security challenge. They may come in traditional forms such as nation states, proxy forces, and militant groups. They also may come in unorthodox, unconventional or emergent forms that have little or no historical precedent (and thus are immune to existing practices of the legacy frame for warfighting). Decentralized, irregular, and what will later be explained as rhizomatic organizational forms/functions require security designers to look at adversaries such as the Islamic State, trans-regional criminal groups, geographically isolated militias, micro-cartels, and groups such as the online entity ‘Anonymous’ differently. Some groups and even entire societies view reality differently than our nation and allies/partners do, and within these differences a great deal of understanding can be lost if an organization falsely projects their own belief system and war paradigm upon the entire conflict.
The THIRD BURN: Appreciating Alternative Social Paradigms on Complex Warfare Beyond Our Own Institutions…
As designers are orbiting the moon (representing divergent thinking, innovation, and transformative opportunities through systemic change), they will begin to explore outside their own institutionalized frame limits. This is where doctrine, accepted theory and practices all cease to be influential, and where alternative ideas and war frames might generate entirely paradoxical, contrary positions on the very same things, events and patterns of human conflict. This course will guide students through social paradigm theory fundamentals (lesson 5) where a framework for conducting this necessary design activity is introduced. While alternative views and war frames may not ultimately change the strategic or operationalized design that the team produces for their organization, taking the time to explore and critically reflect on these frames provides significant advantage. Consider two adversaries in a conflict. One attempts to assert their worldview upon all others, insisting that reality must be understood through what they believe is the superior or even ultimate way for all humans to explain and understand warfare. They commit all of their time and energy toward mastering the application of their single frame in combat, seeking greater and greater efficiency of that single process. The other adversary seeks this systemic approach where they deliberately consider the limits of their chosen frame and the possibilities of how their rival might see, understand and act in reality differently.
This provides only one adversary the ability to conceptualize what are the war frame overlaps (things shared or in common), war frame paradoxes (oppositional or incommensurate positions on the same things), and most significantly for designers, the war frame interplay potential. Interplay is the emergent opportunities, risks and consequences that only a designer able to consider and experiment with multiple framings within a complex, dynamic system can introduce through prototypes and design action. Another way to consider this difference is how designer and sociologist Karl Weick relays a story of three umpires: “The first says, “I calls ’em like they is!”; the second, “I calls ’em like I sees ‘em!”; and the third, “There ain’t nothing there until I calls ‘em!”  Weick is illuminating how different social paradigms shape how differently people can seek to understand reality. In this case, the first umpire is demonstrating what is called ‘technical rationalism’ which essentially means that a person believes that complex reality can be scientifically and objectively broken down into isolated, manageable chunks to conduct experiments and unlock principles and laws. Once done, they can reassemble the whole so that reality can be more ordered, stable and at times predicted. Such an umpire will, using clear and objective judgement make the calls on what pitches occur in a manner that is proven and can be scientifically measured qualitatively.
The second umpire appears to introduce their own human subjectivity into complex reality, presenting what sociologists term ‘interpretivism’ which involves both the natural ordered complex world with the socially constructed, contextually significant one of humanity. This is where the famous definition of pornography was uttered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 with: “I know it when I see it.” Such a framing of complex reality prevents the first umpire’s rendering of that same world from functioning the same way… an umpire must see within the game and thus by introducing human judgment and beliefs, a qualitative aspect of reality joins the first umpire’s sole reliance on quantitative, analytical optimization of the world. The third umpire presents a different interpretation of reality that pairs more with postmodern philosophy such as Jean Baudrillard, whose work would inspire the popular Matrix sci-fi movies. Baudrillard and other postmodernists posit that humans socially construct reality in a way that can entirely detach and morph into something unrelated to the physical ordered world- where the umpire insists that there is not even a baseball game in reality unless he believes it is so.
Regardless of which umpire you might endorse as the best way to approach reality (and complex warfare), the designer able to frame which of these might be their dominant frame, as well as which of these could be how other adversaries, competitors and key stakeholders are using is paramount for design activities. By framing differences, overlaps and where interplay exists as a potential for design innovation across multiple social frames is where the systemic advantage lies for the design team able and willing to embark upon such thinking. The graphic above depicting Weick’s metaphor shows how the systemic designer can move beyond the single-frame perspective of any one of the three umpires to look at the larger system as well as gain valuable perspectives on designing within the tensions, overlap and interplay between the different frames in a complex reality that supports all of them and more. The red text areas are all of the additional systemic perspectives available to designers that synthesize beyond a single war paradigm construct that is typical of traditional military strategy and operational planning.
The FOURTH BURN: Multiple Futures- Divergence, Innovation, Transformation through Design
While the design team should invest significant time into this ‘third burn’ of exploring what, how and why different war frames interact within a complex security context, the team will eventually move to the ‘fourth burn’ which continues to metaphorically orbit the ‘moon’ in this construct (divergence, innovation, transformation). In the fourth design burn below, the teams will move toward constructing a range of distinct, dissimilar and divergent futures where they can create a wide range of design prototypes. The multiple futures portion is addressed in lesson 4 of this course, and creates a systemic treatment of reality where multiple possible futures can unfold in an emergent and nonlinear fashion in paths that extend from today’s current security challenge. This is different to how militaries employ a linear, single-ends oriented mode of strategic and operational planning where clear, predefined goals are frozen in time so that a plan can be reverse-engineered back in a linear manner to today. Lesson 4 will explain in detail how multiple, divergent futures are far more compatible with actual complex systems, and how they disrupt and challenge the Newtonian Styled treatments that modern militaries use to oversimplify and misunderstand complexity, transformation and change in war.
Designers that seek to create design prototypes in a single desired future (whether framed with an enemy that acts in a ‘most dangerous’ or ‘most likely’ construct) will often fall into cognitive traps where a design solution is promoted that reflects original institutional desires before any design or planning is even conducted. This is where institutional identity, the notion of one’s self frame, and the synthesis depicted above with multiple war frame overlaps, tensions and interplay provide ample additional design perspectives as well as areas of inspiration. Innovation is never a systematic (A plus B leads to C, input linked to known and proven output) process of following a recipe or check list; legacy systems are incapable of explaining and anticipating emergence in complex systems.
This is why when innovation does occur in a significant, transformative manner in life, humans in the new system must generate new language, complete with different metaphoric devices as well as new or newly repurposed mental models that often apply different theories toward a different methodology. In order to move to the next phase of design where prototyping and ideation formalize into new artifacts and concepts, designers need to consider how and why those designs might generate different system changes, or become in tension with the drift of a system toward an emergent future unlike what the designers anticipated. As the metaphoric device below shows, the design team is orbiting the moon which, unlike Earth below (convergence, efficiencies, sustainability, and order) has the aura and settings where divergent thinking, innovation and systemic transformation are in paradox with how an organization plans (Earth-centric). Designers will, as moon-centric in motion seek to design with difference, disruption and novelty through prototyping.
In the ‘fourth burn’ the design team will experiment with a wide range of prototypes. Depending on the design topic, these could be tangible mock-ups, or entirely conceptual and thus work as abstractions on white boards or other modes of design articulation. Prototypes, whether physical or conceptual are intended to be fleeting, artistically fanciful instead of intentionally practical, based on designer hunches and loosely connected thoughts that quickly flow from one form to another rapidly. Designers will need to iterate over and over through many different variations of the prototypes, improvising and diverging from some ideas to others like maneuvering on scattered stepping stones across a fog-covered lake.
The prototyping phase requires time, resources and the ability for a design team to continue design momentum (as well as awareness of systemic drift) so that a team or designer does not become ‘married to their idea’ and continue to reinterpret the same concept in multiple prototypes that lack variation or improvisation. There are countless examples of systemic drift where the original design morphs into something the designers had no intention of originally creating. The engineers at 3M created the first ‘Post-It’ notes when directed to create a superglue for airplane parts, and as they prototyped new uses for the ‘sticky but not very sticky…but surprisingly long-lasting sticky’ glue, the management at 3M continued to insist they stop wasting time and produce the airplane superglue. Only a decade later would several persistent designers move to a final prototype, in this case unintentionally due to one designer needing slips of paper to stay in place in his hymnal for his church choir practice. The path from the first to the final prototype should be a strange and wandering path, one that likely will create discomfort, apprehension, and eventually impatience from those wanting a direct solution immediately to start planning with.
The FIFTH BURN: Deliberate Design Implementation
This brings us to the ‘fifth burn’ in this design methodology where the design team uses reflective practice to consider how to implement the final design prototype. Implementation requires a deliberate effort by the design team to introduce novelty, change and innovation into the existing legacy system’s decision-making methodology (usually strategic efforts, campaign plans, operational design, operational planning, or into even some technical-tactical settings). Each of these require nuanced and deep thinking on how to stimulate change, reflective practice, and shift from previous decision-making frames into novel ones. Some transformation and design might be subtle, while other efforts could require radical actions. The greater the disruption, the more likely a design team must introduce a detailed transformation and implementation process that considers the entire organizational frame (the theories, models, methods, language, metaphoric devices and overarching belief system) in order to accomplish successful design implementation, execution and a follow-on assessment activity.
Design implementation will always require custom, tailored and contextually dependent efforts- meaning they are non-repeatable and cannot be converted into some universal application (such as doctrine). Design activities within a dynamic, complex system produce systemic change that unavoidably creates a new future system with emergent challenges, disruptions, developments and the need for further design synthesis. Complex, dynamic systems are learning- meaning that despite a successful design implementation able to gain an advantage over an adversary, that advantage is fleeting with the adversary realizing, adapting and responding to said design implementation. Further, the design team must consider and establish proposed amplification and dampening strategies to influence the implantation of the design. The more significant the disruption to the organization or system, the more robust and redundant these strategies need to be developed for possible employment.
When design implementation is realized, a complex system changes (along with the aforementioned notion of systemic drift) in ways that designers might realize, as well as in unexpected, novel and unanticipated ways. The more complex a system, the greater likelihood that even the cleverest group of designers and leaders will be surprised and ill-prepared for what comes next. This is where ‘design consequences’ manifests, and rarely are such things a linear-causal, systematic phenomenon explained through analytic optimization such as ‘measures of performance’ or ‘measures of effectiveness’ as modern military decision-making prescribes.
Design consequences are different than design risks and opportunities, as those concepts are explored prior to the complex system undergoing change. The complexity theory lesson (lesson 2) elaborates on what ‘emergence’ is in complex systems, and ‘design consequences’ is an important aspect of how emergence occurs. One cannot predetermine, anticipate, and pre-plan what design consequences are as they have not yet occurred and are by definition unimaginable, unprecedented, and never-before-seen, except in what is termed ‘simple emergence’ that is localized to simple system settings. A design team might be able to divergently generate a range of possible design consequences, yet these may provide some illumination of what is around the next corner, or they may fall well short of what systemic change might manifest from design implementation. The more complex a system, the higher the conceptual bar for imagination and systemic framing becomes.
In the design consequences phase, the design team will advise leadership and the organization on how, why and where the emerging consequences are occurring and what multiple futures already generated might provide additional insights toward where the organization might design and act next. In many cases, the design team must reframe and generate entirely new futures based on the emergence and design consequences. Reframing is a purposeful yet creative and experimental return to the entire design methodology outlined above. However, design teams as they grow more proficient, able to reflectively practice with greater sophistication and wisdom, may depart from the design process as depicted above. Indeed, experienced designers ought to sense-make and improvise as needed, working ‘in the moment’ with ‘knowing in action’ to modify, depart from and invent new ways of designing that depart from this baseline methodology for innovation.
The SPLASH DOWN: Design Consequences, Reframing, and Sending the Designers Back on another Orbit (Iteration)
A design team might reframe in a different order, jump to key phases, iteratively move in a different series of design activities, or depart entirely so that different design activities offer greater freedom to innovate, improvise and reflectively practice. This can be most unsettling for military professionals that expect a sequenced and stable order of activities that can be encoded into doctrine, best practices or some settled methodology to seek increasingly higher performances of compliance against. This works when planning in simplistic, complicated or otherwise stable system settings of which some may manifest in routine or usual security contexts. These are increasingly rare, and adversaries are unlikely to cater to organizational preferences to fight and win in these isolated sorts of stable settings. Designers must instead consider highly complex, even chaotic security system contexts where planning differently is prioritized, but such new decision-making cannot be conceptualized without the organization investing in purposeful design to frame what, how and why to plot such a different and unrealized/unimagined path forward.
Thanks for reading- head over to the NSSI website if you are eligible for this course and register. There are courses throughout 2023 at one per quarter, with seating limited to 24 students per class. The Course Director has final approval on what students get a seat. Contact the course director listed at the NSSI course page for any questions. This post is purely informational and for PME outreach to interested space design students in the target audiences covered.
 Shimon Naveh, “The Australian SOD Expedition: A Report on Operational Learning” (Unpublished manuscript, December 2010), 6.
 Naveh, 6.
 Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 222.
 The term ‘fanciful’ could be interpreted as exotically ornamental rather than something practical and ‘useful’ for the design client. What is meant by this term in a designing context is that prototypes should have strong elements of artistry that are playful, creative, even eccentric so that some may disrupt and break past institutional barriers. Every single example of human innovation faced resistance before it become realized and accepted- that resistance in part is the organizational bias we share in desiring clear, practical solutions that are devoid of ‘fanciful’ or ‘eccentric’ qualities. This is why innovation is a dangerous and lonely enterprise for most.
 This will be explained further in the complexity theory lesson. Drifting is how a complex system changes over time in emergent, often confusing or unanticipated ways- as we fixate on desired single future ‘ends’, we find ourselves drifting in a system that makes our original best plans often irrelevant or incompatible with where we end up as the system changes around us. Designers use the drift metaphor to quickly articulate this phenomenon.