When Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast started talking about the Dayton Region at this year’s Fly‐In, it was hard to believe he had never been stationed at Wright‐Patterson Air Force Base. His vision for Dayton’s future combines the community’s past and present in an inspiring blueprint for the region’s success.
“You have a culture of knowledge, guarded in a patriot’s heart, that is like no other community in America,” Kwast said.
He challenged the leaders gathered for the Fly‐In to boldly plan for the region’s future, and find new ways to leverage the community’s love of innovation, ability to connect stakeholders, and drive to create new technologies.
“Dayton can innovate beyond any place else in the world,” he said.
The region’s history can guide its future, Kwast said. From the innovation of the Wright brothers to the city’s place in the history of manufacturing, the building blocks of success remain in the region’s DNA.
“There’s a reason why they created a manufacturing mecca in Dayton,” Kwast said.
Dayton, Kwast said, is sitting on a “goldmine.” The region has the unique ability to bring together a vast network of influencers from academia, industry, laboratories like the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), thinkers, strategists and makers.
“When you connect, you innovate. When you innovate you create growth. When you create growth, you are unstoppable,” Kwast said. “If you have a collective vision for growth and innovation, you sit on a goldmine. No other community can do what you can do.”
The key to those connections, Kwast said, is digital fiber and cyber capabilities. He suspects the Dayton Region has those capabilities far beyond what anyone realizes.
Great cities, he said, have always thrived based on how easily they could connect. Rivers served as the initial connections, then railroads and highways.
“In our generation, the rivers are the digital cyber‐connected environments,” he said.
Dayton, he said, has the fiber. “Connections are the ‘magic sauce.’ You have it. You will be unstoppable.”
So what does that mean for our community’s leaders? Kwast said they need a cohesive plan to leverage the region’s competitive advantage.
“I have a vision for what Dayton could do,” he said. “What are you going to do to perpetuate greatness?”
Ideas such as AFRL’s collaborative space downtown, recent efforts by the Dayton Development Coalition’s Accelerant Venture Fund to encourage angel investing in start‐ups, and redevelopment of the Arcade into an innovation hub could all play a role in his vision. Each one creates connections and encourages collaboration.
“Competitive advantage is at the heart of the art of war,” Kwast said. “How are we competing? If you don’t fight for competitive advantage and growth, you will wither and die. If you don’t compete, you will be left behind.”
Government needs to give businesses the flexibility to innovate and connect the “makers and doers” so they can create, Kwast said. “You can connect thinkers and makers in a way no one else can.”
Government also needs to accept more risk—there will be failures that lead to better things. Kwast said Dayton embraces the mantra of “fail, tinker and try,” in a way few communities do. With time, he hopes the federal government will share that view. It is possible, he said, to be both aggressive and prudent.
One way Dayton could move forward, Kwast said, is by landing a Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, office. The designation fits well with Dayton because it “understands human nature and has a model to perpetually innovate.”
Kwast described a “suffocation of innovation” occurring now in the federal government, and encouraged seeking a new model.
Connections, expanded by the region’s fiber and cyber capabilities, will drive those developments.
“The key to innovation is to get people who are interested to join the conversation,” Kwast said. “You have to connect innovators. The more people you connect, the more innovation there will be.”
Who you connect matters, Kwast said. Pointing to the DP&L Civic Scholars attending the Fly‐In, he said the next generation must be involved in those conversations.
“For a culture to perpetually innovate, make sure someone in the room is below the age of 30,” Kwast said. He talked about how much of his childhood was spent in Cameroon where his parents served as missionaries. The chief made a point of listening to the youth of the tribe.
“Look to the young. They see life creatively. They don’t have the same biases,” Kwast said. “They’ll give you 100 ideas, and 98 of them will get you killed, but two are game‐changers.”
Kwast was clear, telling senior leaders in the audience to give young innovators a voice. He said, “the job of the young is to have the ideas. The job of the old is to listen.”
Speaking directly to Muhammad Ndao, a senior at the Dayton Early College Academy and one of the DP&L Civic Scholars, he said, “Your job is to be bold. Our jobs is to be humble enough to not shut you down. We have to find the two game‐changers and invest in them. Show how it’s possible. It’s important to not just listen to an idea, but to get it out, get it evaluated, and test it.”