One of the organizational background processes could be to try to figure out better ways for new types of technology to get out into the world.
Frontier tech has bespoke sales channels which means that people trying to get new technology out into the world constantly need to do some combination of shoving it into ill-fitting but established channels (“We’re going to sell this jetpack like SaaS software!”) or creating a custom channel; the latter introducing a whole new failure point and sometimes requiring as much inventiveness as creating the technology itself.
Speculatively, an ARPA-riff may be able to address new technology’s problematic dispersion-related uncertainty through institutional knowledge accumulation, creditability, and ongoing relationships.
Knowledge accumulationOver the years the startup world has built up cultural wisdom about how to sell software. Could the same thing happen for the wildly different technologies that might come out of ARPA-like programs? A general purpose telerobotic platform is incredibly different from a molecular factor and they both look nothing like a muon-catalyzed fusion prototype. Despite massive differences, I suspect^1 that an ARPA-riff could accumulate institutional pattern matching for desperate technologies if they explicitly set out to do it.
Institutional creditability. Creditability matters in technology dispersion. People are more willing to at least try something they’re dubious of if it has a name they trust behind it. Of course, it’s critical that the technology work well! But creditability can be that initial foot in the door. In the same way that individual academic labs can gain credibility from the university as a whole, individual programs and people could lean on an established organizational reputation.
Ongoing relationships. Technology dispersion inevitably depends on many other organizations - manufacturers, regulators, resellers, advertisers … the list goes on. And people like to work with people they’ve worked with before. One big reason people tend to bet on industry insiders launching new ventures is because of the assumption that their existing relationships will reduce friction and make them more likely to succeed. At the same time, new technological paradigms often come from outsiders. What might look like a nefarious plot to suppress change^2 can also be explained by outsiders not having the right relationships. It might be possible to circumvent this problem by maintaining relationships with people in a wide array of other organizations at the umbrella-organization level instead of forcing each program to develop new relationships or finding someone who has them on top of technical work. Even more speculatively, these relationships could be codified in actual contracts where external organizations (manufacturers or distributors) are part of a consortium that gets first crack at program outputs, similar to the MIT Media Lab’s Model.
This is one of those ideas that can sound good on paper but will be incredibly hard in practice. ARPA-E has an entire tech-to-market team and still has a mixed track record. It’s also important to not that all of these schemes are admittedly uncertain and long-term. Their compounding nature is another reason why an ARPA-riff should prioritize longevity and quality over scale.
^1:<sidenote>The hunch that it’s possible to build up pattern matching for how to disperse disparate technologies comes from personal experience trying to help startups get off the ground at Entrepreneur First. There were hints of similarities in how successful people approached building out sales channels from everything from hydrogen filters to grocery-store robots.
^2:Which does happen sometimes! I like J Storrs Hall’s term
The Machiavelli Effect from The Prince:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the new order of things; because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.