Advanced Research Initiative Launched at USDOT

Earlier this week, Eno staff attended the White House launch of a new federal agency designed to kindle advanced research and development in infrastructure. This ambitious “moonshot” initiative aims to apply the same style of advanced thinking, new-fangled practices, and venturous action in sectors such as energy, health, and defense.

The idea for a high-risk, high-reward agency itself is not new. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in 1957, it stoked fears that the United States was falling behind scientifically, especially with regard to national defense. A year later, in order to jump-start novel research that would, hopefully, lead to breakthrough technologies, the Eisenhower Administration created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later adding “defense” and becoming known as DARPA. That agency’s contributions to a range of epochal inventions including the internet, automated vehicles, and the COVID vaccine are well-known.

So it is against this backdrop that the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Infrastructure was launched. ARPA-I, as it is known, was authorized by 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and follows on the heels of similar agencies for health and energy.* The idea is for a “DARPA-like” culture focused less on incremental improvements and more on big leaps. It would aim to attract talented people from outside the federal ranks, as well as firms that would normally be loath to engage in lengthy, cumbersome procurement practices. Risk would be tolerated, and cross-disciplinary teams prioritized.

Of course, this is easier said than done. DARPA had cold war tensions providing important tailwinds to its work, and the health and energy sectors have always been cutting edge. The infrastructure sector, however, has not. In fact, McKinsey found construction productivity (including infrastructure and real estate building) remained largely flat over the past decade. In contrast, productivity in manufacturing nearly doubled. A recent report from the Federation of American Scientists found that, today, the federal government spends “orders of magnitude” less in transportation R&D than in energy, health, and defense.

In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement. At the White House event, Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the global imperative to reduce carbon as one key application. Since transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases domestically, breakthroughs that make transportation cleaner—fuels, vehicles—are needed to even the most modest goals. Other officials noted the enormous opportunities for innovation in materials such as concrete – the planet’s second-most consumed resource after water – to be made to be more resilient and withstand pressures from unpredictable weather. While automobile manufacturers have made people inside vehicles safer, ARPA-I could also help redesign outfit intersections with a host of sensors and advanced tech to make it safer for those outside the vehicle, too.

But while its tantalizing to envision futuristic technological discoveries in transportation, one of the most important impacts of ARPA-I may be in how it reinvents people and institutions. Recent Eno research shows how critical it is for public transportation agencies to recruit and train project managers to handle complex infrastructure projects to take advantage and implement new innovations and deliver projects better, faster, and cheaper. At the launch, Utah transportation secretary Carlos Braceras pointed out that state level inertia is hard to break because innovation with federal funding is not prioritized by Washington. To the extent ARPA-I allows for cities and states to take shared risks and not be penalized for what does not work, we can learn from experimentation and technological advances could flourish.

For now, plan is to gather insight and input from a range of stakeholders around the country, and through a just-released request for information. A listening tour will begin soon in the Pacific Northwest. At Eno, we will be paying close attention.

*Don’t be confused by the repeated acronyms. ARPA stands for both the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” and the “Advanced Research Projects Agency.”

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