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A DARPA for Economic Development

DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is known as the frontier research arm of the Department of Defense. Formed in response to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the Sputnik satellite, it is responsible for modern technological bread and butter such as the internet, passive radar and unmanned aerial vehicles. DARPA has kept itself at the forefront of defense research which in turn has helped keep the United States military technologically peerless. And without question, the technologies it has pioneered have had massive commercial and social spinoff implications – the internet being only the most recognizable example.

DARPA’s contributions to defense related research have been undoubtedly positive for the continued preeminence of the United States militarily and, arguably, economically. But its model – as an independent, hierarchically flat, nimble agency – is a success story in its own right, bypassing much of the bureaucratic channels that might otherwise slow down its progress.

Given today’s economy, perhaps it’s time that we look into reinventing this country’s economic development model to create a more sustainable future using tools like the model provided by DARPA. Just as during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the United States faces the challenges of its economic predominance under threat and global leadership in decline. To get to work creating the future economic engine of this country, to explore the frontier of promising technologies, it is essential that the United States make a similar investment in identifying and cultivating tomorrow’s economy, today. In essence, the United States needs a DARPA for economic growth.
For many reasons, Virginia would be the ideal location for this project. And to ensure that the most promising research and practices are pioneered here in Virginia, a consortium of private, public and foundation sources can be pooled to fund and manage a similar program. Most importantly, it would almost ensure that the future engine of economic growth happens here in Virginia, already an innovative, business-friendly state, instead of elsewhere. The issue isn’t just merely one of funding, however, but about gearing that funding process towards specific ends and leveraging greater private investment and stimulating research with exciting commercial applications, even if on the frontier.
This Virginia Advanced Economic Growth Agency (VADEGA, if you will) will build upon the successful model wrought by DARPA and, with similarly modest levels of funding (DARPA is budgeted only about $3 billion a year for nation-wide investment), invest in frontier research projects with the goal of transitioning great ideas into tangible economic goods to put Virginia on the cutting edge of technological innovation.
At present, such research is woefully disaggregated between a myriad of commercial laboratories, federal laboratories and universities. While this has been sufficient thus far to maintain American economic leadership, the growing economic clout emerging from countries like China, India, Brazil and a host of other rising powers makes the future look less certain. What VADEGA would do would not supplant existing research mechanisms, but would instead rationalize the process. Acting as an independent agency, VADEDA could serve as a clearinghouse for the very best, most inspiring ideas for America’s new economy and help them along to fruition right here in Virginia. Instead of mining for projects, plans and ideas to equip our troops with the best war-fighting capabilities, ADEGA would serve this role to equip Virginia for unparalleled economic strength and lay the groundwork for long-term, sustainable prosperity.
Piecing together the parts for America’s future economic engine, particularly one that proves more resilient and game-changing than what we’ve seen in the past generation, will take extra creativity, risk, and science fiction-esque ideas. But it’s a goal worth pursuing. The highly competitive nature of the global economy means that not only the United States, but Virginia needs to be able to compete against the best that Brazil and China have to offer and come out on top. To do this, we need to be ready to divorce ourselves from the business-as-usual economic development paradigm and take a more aggressive, proactive and technocratic approach. If we can do this, then there’s no question that Virginia can establish itself as the world’s incubator for tomorrow’s next big idea.

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