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A moonshot for infrastructure

The Biden administration is requesting funding for a program called ARPA-I, a ‘skunkworks’-style R&D project for infrastructure. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the goal is to design things ‘we can’t even imagine today.’

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

What if we had self-healing potholes? Or bridges that, instead of lasting just 50 years, could last 10 times longer, for 500 years?

Sounds fanciful, but these are some of the heady concepts that US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hopes will eventually become reality through the newly formed Advanced Research Project Agency for Infrastructure, also known as ARPA-I. 

Washington is no stranger to skunkworks projects — loosely formed research and development outfits that experiment around a specific idea, often taking on projects deemed too risky for private industry, with the goal of producing major innovations. How major? Ever hear of GPS tracking? Autonomous vehicles? The internet? All can trace their origins to DARPA, the Defense Department’s long-standing R&D outfit. 

Buttigieg thinks that our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is due for a similar moonshot effort. 

“Some of the sorts of innovation that might make that possible are well beyond something that is in the planning horizon for even the most forward-looking engineering company or state government,” Buttigieg said in an interview with The Verge. “So those are the kinds of things I think we’d go after if we have research taking place at this exceptionally high altitude.”

“Some of the sorts of innovation that might make that possible are well beyond something that is in the planning horizon “

ARPA-I was authorized as part of the Biden administration’s signature $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed in 2021. In essence, the goal of the new agency is to futureproof the nation’s infrastructure against climate change, massive technology disruption, energy transition, or any other imminent challenge we have yet to conceive of. 

The nascent R&D project is having a coming out party of sorts at an event in Washington Tuesday, June 13th. Policymakers, scientists, CEOs, technologists, labor leaders, and others will gather to discuss how the project can best position itself to secure major breakthroughs for infrastructure.

It’s also an explicit call for funding. The 2023 omnibus appropriations deal, in which President Biden and House Republicans agreed to lift the debt ceiling, included about $3.2 million for ARPA-I to help get the project started. But more will be needed to fund the labs and academic institutions that will form the core of the project over the years. Biden has requested $19 million for ARPA-I in 2024. 

We can only speculate on the projects that the ARPA-I researchers will ultimately take on, but based on conversations with people involved in the planning, it is likely to address a number of major themes, including climate change, road safety, clean energy, and environmental justice. New types of materials for infrastructure, such as roads or street furniture, will likely be explored — or perhaps new types of materials never before used in infrastructure will be invented through ARPA-I. 

Another phrase that came up during the course of these conversations was “spatial awareness” and “spatial management”: the idea that the movement of people and goods is due for a major paradigm shift. There could be an opportunity for ARPA-I researchers to bring new technologies, like machine learning, AI, and data collection, to better inform our “spatial intelligence” about our transportation systems. 

Of course, when you say “data collection” or start talking about sensing technology, you make yourself a target of civil liberties groups who have legitimate concerns about government surveillance. ARPA-I planners claim that they won’t be gathering data on individuals but rather on the broader movement of people, vehicles, and goods through public places. But the burden of proof will be on the developers of the technology — whatever it may be. 

For Buttigieg, a potential benefit of ARPA-I will be stretching our infrastructure dollars much further, so fixing a road or a bridge or a wastewater system also helps lengthen its lifespan. 

“If we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars every year maintaining and upgrading what we’ve got, let’s invest a little bit and figure out how to make what we have last longer,” he said. “Design things that we can’t even imagine today that might make some of today’s legacy technology unnecessary.”

“If we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars every year maintaining and upgrading what we’ve got, let’s invest a little bit and figure out how to make what we have last longer”

ARPA-I won’t be the only government “skunkworks” project in operation. In addition to DARPA, there are two other government-funded R&D agencies currently at work: ARPA-H for health innovations, which is being run out of the National Institutes of Health; and ARPA-E for energy, within the Department of Energy. 

The challenges for ARPA-I will be immense. A recent white paper by the Federation of American Scientists said the agency will need to navigate a byzantine system of state, local, and federal government, as well as quasi public and private entities. Government funding for infrastructure often lags behind other sectors, including defense, health, and energy. There is plenty of private sector investment, through automakers and aircraft manufacturers, but little funding for infrastructure. 

“We haven’t really seen productivity gains in infrastructure because we’ve been doing things the same old way for a long time,” Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, told The Verge. ARPA-I has the potential to revitalize the sector, he argued. 

“They are given the chance to try and fail,” Puentes said of the groups that will receive funding through this project. “We don’t really do that in transportation.”

Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that ARPA-I will bring together “talented individuals” as program managers whose job it is to understand the scope of the challenge. Those program managers will then be responsible for three core tasks.

“They are given the chance to try and fail”

“Number one, they set a very big bold, barely feasible goal, something that seems maybe almost impossible, but if you could make it true, it’s a big deal,” Prabhakar, who ran DARPA under President Barack Obama, said in an interview. “The second thing they do is, they don’t just throw out, like a cool idea. They build a plan that might actually be able to show that that goal is possible.”

And lastly, “they execute like mad,” she said, lining up universities, companies, labs, “whatever it takes. Go find the people to do that work.” 

Prabhakar recalled an example from her time at DARPA, in which a program manager — a geneticist who was also a medical doctor and an Air Force colonel — said a global pandemic was inevitable, and vaccine development times would need to be shortened in order to respond. They identified a small company at the time that was working on a new type of vaccine for cancer and convinced them to shift focus to a rapid response for a future pandemic. 

The company, which was Moderna, agreed, and the vaccine type was the messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccine that would go on to establish a foundation for the development of the covid-19 vaccine

“So that’s how you change the world, right?” Prabhakar said. “You’ve got to do something that seems impossible, but there’s actually a way to get there. And then you show it through a prototype; you get people to change their minds. And that’s how a different future unfolds.”