Navy moves to upsurge innovation challenges, hackathons

DefenseScoop was briefed on the new Navy memorandum issued to promote a fresh "structured challenges approach."
DAHLGREN, Va. - The Weapons Control and Integration Department team of interns watch the big screen as their digital convoy of World War II era U.S. Navy ships battles with enemy U-boats during the Innovation Lab’s Wargaming Hackathon in 2022. (DOD photo by Stacia Courtney)

The Navy’s chief technology officer released a memo that outlines a new plan to help the department more widely adopt and host structured challenge events, like hackathons, that can speedily advance capability deployments across the sea service.

This new Structured Challenges Approach for Innovating and Optimizing is part of a broader initiative to promote and grow existing digital transformation-enabling practices — called agile centered design concepts — that are already resulting in small-scale wins in different Navy components, the department’s acting CTO Justin Fanelli told DefenseScoop after signing the May 24 memo, which was publicly released on Thursday.

Generally, structured challenges and hackathons refer to multi-day, high-intensity events at which many people are incentivized to come together to collectively and competitively write, engineer or improve computer programs and other assets at an accelerated pace.

According to Fanelli, such engagements are already changing warfare and how the military “fights” with data and software, by expediting adaptation to weapons systems and effects through leveraging tools like prizes and social benefits, and bringing the necessary people together to build and innovate.

In the new memo, the CTO points to a Navy command that recently “held an Innovation Olympics that challenged people to show how they were using Power BI, Power Apps, or Power Automation to innovate and improve everyday.” Those software products are developed by Microsoft.


Outside the Defense Department, allies like Ukraine and adversaries associated with Russia’s Wagner Group, and separately China, are hosting hackathons and prize competitions to accelerate tech innovations to enable their agendas, Fanelli told DefenseScoop.

The new five-page memo lays out the Navy’s overarching plan to foster and implement this “structured challenges approach.”

Brandi Vincent

Written by Brandi Vincent

Brandi Vincent is DefenseScoop's Pentagon correspondent. She reports on emerging and disruptive technologies, and associated policies, impacting the Defense Department and its personnel. Prior to joining Scoop News Group, Brandi produced a long-form documentary and worked as a journalist at Nextgov, Snapchat and NBC Network. She was named a 2021 Paul Miller Washington Fellow by the National Press Foundation and was awarded SIIA’s 2020 Jesse H. Neal Award for Best News Coverage. Brandi grew up in Louisiana and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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