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Provocations

July 26, 2022

Imagining ARPA-I

Executive Summary:

On July 26, 2022, an invited group of leaders from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and infrastructure stakeholders — industry veterans, startup founders, federal, state and local policymakers and regulators, academics and investors — gathered to envision the future of the nation’s infrastructure. Our goal was to discuss how the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Infrastructure (ARPA-I) could most effectively help create a future infrastructure that is safe, resilient, equitable and flexible.

The discussion was lively, provocative and, importantly, illustrated the overall need for an agency like ARPA-I to engage not just the innovation ecosystem of startups and academia, but the full range of stakeholders in US infrastructure development — including government agencies at the federal, state and local level, regulatory and standards bodies, corporations, and public-private capital providers – from early technical development to later-stage deployment.

This paper summarizes the ideas that emerged from the one-day workshop. While some of the recommendations below may ultimately fall outside of ARPA-I’s mandate, or may require further Congressional authorization, they emphasize the need for ARPA-I to be strategically coordinating future deployment at scale even at the earliest stages of a project. To that end, recommendations largely fell into three categories:
Deploying capital strategically:

  • Use existing or new authorities, such as consortium Other Transactions Authority, prize challenges, and public-private capital matching.

  • Create an Office of Scale-up within ARPA-I to ensure coordination across all “valleys of death” from early stage basic research to full scale deployment. Mechanisms can range from early-stage open seed topics to later-stage Scale-up and deployment loan contracting mechanisms.

Establishing development and test infrastructure:

  • The cost of infrastructure testbeds are prohibitive for most innovators. Creating government-sponsored testbeds, with participation from standards and regulatory bodies, would create pathways to prove early-stage concepts and linkages between innovators and those in charge of deployment. Existing national labs may have relevant expertise and equipment. Opening up access to these facilities through consortia, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), or other easily accessible mechanisms may also have similar effects.

Catalyzing stakeholder collaboration:

  • To help reduce later-stage friction, create a community of early-stage researchers through an Office of Strategic Engagement that would report to the ARPA-I director. This office would coordinate ARPA-I investment areas with external stakeholders, including academia, corporate partners, regulatory bodies, and, perhaps, even local community deployment advocacy.

Attending Organizations

Individuals from the following organizations participated in the workshop. Being listed does not indicate endorsement of any particular recommendation.

As authorized in the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” ARPA-I is a research funding agency, designed in the image of sister programs, DARPA (Defense), ARPA-E (energy) among others, to fund breakthrough scientific efforts with significant potential for impact. ARPAs traditionally operate in four different stages: discovery, design, execution, and transition. These steps are led by Program Managers, who identify opportunities and research areas that have potential to break through specific problems. They then fund and closely manage projects that align with these goals. Lastly, they transition through stakeholder engagement to ensure that successful projects scale and are deployed expeditiously.

The workshop consisted of two sessions. In the first working session, attendees discussed key challenges in infrastructure and possible research priority areas for ARPA-I.

In the first half of session one, participants highlighted critical challenge areas for infrastructure:

  • Rapidly shifting economic and political mechanisms for infrastructure planning and funding, including reduced gas tax revenue projected due to vehicle electrification

  • Economic and policy barriers, such as: siting, permitting, and other regulations; outdated incentives; and inadequate federal-state-local cooperation

  • Need for Interoperability of digital and autonomous interfaces with infrastructure: vehicle routing, air traffic control, safety sensing, scheduling, congestion control/pricing, vehicle-vehicle communications, sensor standardization

  • Need for sustainability and intelligence of building materials, heavy duty transportation fuels and electric power.

  • Need for seamless access to, and interactions between, different types of infrastructure (electric vehicle charging, modes of transportation, micro-mobility, etc.)

  • Need for equitable, safe, and accessible interactions between humans and infrastructure: factoring in people (1) with disabilities, (2) from different socioeconomic statuses, (3) from diverse communities and locales

  • Need for security, reliability, and resiliency of digital, supply chain, and transportation infrastructure

  • Need for timely adoption of novel digital, systems, and materials innovations at large enough scales to have an impact on US infrastructure

  • Need to better understand and manage long-term impacts of infrastructure on the environment, including emissions, and energy usage


In the second half of the first session, participants were asked to come up with priority program areas that ARPA-I could focus on, which included:

  • Advanced materials, including decarbonized steel and cement, smart structural materials that are climate resilient, and prefabricated/printed structural materials

  • Digital advances: air traffic control, congestion alleviation, routing, prioritizing safety of non-vehicle entities in urban environments

  • Net-zero fuels for maritime and aviation

  • Spatial analysis of a nationwide electric vehicle (EV) charging network that takes into account current and future travel

  • Electrification: wireless charging, batteries, superconducting power lines for an upgraded grid that can support growing EV adoption

  • Novel, non-destructive underground mapping technology for pipelines, conduits etc., that could drastically reduce timelines and budgets of construction projects

During the second working session, participants considered the barriers that prevent the translation of breakthrough science and engineering into infrastructure reality, and opportunities for ARPA-I to smooth some of those frictions as an institution. The infrastructure development chain consists of a wide variety of stakeholders with competing needs and priorities. Identifying appropropriate levels of engagement with these stakeholders is a necessary first step to seeding new technologies into commercial reality.

For infrastructure technology opportunities, multiple valleys of death exist at the technology development phase, field-test phase, scale-up phase and the commercialization phase. Startups developing infrastructure technologies face a multitude of barriers to entry. These barriers present themselves in the form of state, regional and local laws, regulations and standards, each of which exists and persists for different reasons.

The existence of these multiple barriers highlights a unique and perhaps key question in ARPA-I’s creation: should the agency build engagement functions for infrastructure development stakeholders and project proponents? Participants agreed that an Office of Strategic Engagement could help the project advocates develop connective tissue with proposed end-users and other critical stakeholders. The office would be especially helpful to startups, which are unlikely to have the time or personnel to develop relationships or to have a pre-existing network. The Office could engage federal, state and local governments, industry, labor, standards development organizations, industry associations and more to create open lines of communication with practitioners, and create the most welcoming possible environment for emerging technologies.

Taking this concept one step further, participants proposed an Office of Scale-Up within ARPA-I to advise funding recipients on risk evaluation, communication & outreach, and how to traverse the multiple valleys of death. The Office of Scale-Up would offer predictive tools and/or models to support these functions.

The participants highlighted the importance of having an Open Scale-Up Program available to portfolio projects ready to demonstrate their technology at scale. First-of-a-kind technologies often struggle to grow not because their solution is not viable, but because they lack access to the financing, markets and customers which can help them realize their potential. The Open Scale-Up Program, in coordination with the Office of Scale-Up, would provide competitively awarded funding to prior ARPA-I awardees who require significant capital to create “first-of-a- kind” pilot deployments. Creative contracting that would reward matching funding from private capital was encouraged.

Participants emphasized that infrastructure is inherently a systems challenge with multiple stakeholders. ARPA-I could facilitate cooperation among stakeholders by generally giving preference to applications received from P3s and other consortia over applications from single entities. Participants suggested that an important function of ARPA-I would be to foster/facilitate/incubate consortia. Participants also emphasized ARPA-I’s role in fostering open standards, open access and open data.

There was a lot of conversation about procurement practices, and the legacy infrastructure, policy and mindsets that impede reform of procurement practices. The concept arose of ARPA-I fostering a cross-agency Procurement Test Lab to experiment with new procurement rules/procedures was explored, with specific proposals for 1) milestone award-based contracting 2) tiered milestone based grants and 3) multi-agency procurements collaboration.

Additional recommendations included the formation of a Customer Council / Industry Advisory Board to provide strategic guidance to the ARPA-I Director as well as participate in the Office of Strategic Engagement.

A well funded and flexible ARPA-I presents both the DOT and the US writ large with an immense opportunity to help technology developers create and deploy impactful innovations to improve our national infrastructure. In addition to developing the recommendations above, the Imagining ARPA-I convening illustrated the benefit of gathering diverse infrastructure stakeholders together, both now as ARPA-I is being designed but also in the future, since the infrastructure landscape, specific challenges, and solution spaces will continue to evolve. We thank all participants and recipients of this report for their continued commitment to creating a US infrastructure that will be a more efficient and equitable economic and social driver in the US.