The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was founded in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Initially called ARPA, it was created in response to the shock of Sputnik and other early Soviet Union missile achievements that suggested the U.S. might be falling behind its Cold War rival in technological achievement and especially in the technologies of war fighting and defense.

The agency encourages, funds, and manages research carried out by the military, private industry, and academia to fulfill its mission of avoiding and creating technological surprise. Over its almost six decades of existence, it has supported and guided work that has "changed the world"—a phrase frequently heard at DARPA to ensure a focus on transformative innovation as opposed to incremental improvements in existing technologies.

Its long history of successful innovation contributes to the agency's continuing success. Internally, that track record sets a high bar of achievement and shows what is possible. Externally, that history of valuable work gives DARPA the credibility it needs to help maintain financial support and decision-making independence, even in the face of the failures and partial successes that inevitably accompany ambitious efforts to do radically new things.

Many organizations innovate in their early years and lose that inventiveness over time. DARPA is unusual and possibly unique in maintaining its pioneering spirit and achievements for so many years.

Key Accomplishments and Impact

Since its beginnings in 1958, DARPA research has created many innovations for national security and also has implications for the entire country. DARPA research has:

Launched the Information Revolution by creating an early version of the Internet. DARPA developed and furthered much of the conceptual basis for the ARPANET—the prototypical communications network launched by DARPA nearly half a century ago, which led directly to the now ubiquitous Internet. DARPA also provided many of the essential advances that made possible today's computers and communications systems, including seminal technological achievements that support the speech recognition, touch-screen displays, accelerometers, and wireless capabilities at the core of today's smartphones and tablets. DARPA has also long been a leader in the development of artificial intelligence, machine intelligence and semi-autonomous systems. DARPA's efforts in this domain have focused primarily on military operations, including command and control, but the commercial sector has adopted and expanded upon many of the agency's results to develop widespread applications in fields as diverse as manufacturing, entertainment and education.

Have shrank global positioning system (GPS) receivers dramatically. As a result, these sophisticated devices can today be carried easily by troops to provide location information or integrated into weapons to inexpensively turn "dumb" bombs into precision-guided munitions. Enhanced and miniaturized GPS has significantly improved the U.S. military's ability to attack and eliminate difficult targets, and to do so from greater distances— fundamentally and progressively changing strategy and enabling successes during the Cold War, the Gulf War, and in more recent conflicts in which the United States has had to contend with dispersed and elusive foes. Beyond military applications, GPS devices have now become ubiquitous in daily civilian life, providing enormous commercial and consumer value.

Microelectronics DARPA has repeatedly set and then achieved record-breaking goals in the field of microelectronics. The agency pioneered a number of novel digital and analog designs that are now integral to computing and communications and that point to future capabilities far beyond what is possible today. Many of these advances have had immediate applicability in military command and control operations as well as other national security domains. But they have also helped fuel the ongoing revolution in commercial electronics, stoking iterative technical improvements and enabling economies of scale that have, in turn, fed back to the military Services and other defense entities to benefit national security.

Tools and Approaches

The most important factors that define the DARPA creative culture and explain its long and continuing history of innovation are:

  • Limited tenure and the urgency it promotes
  • A sense of mission
  • Trust and autonomy
  • Risk-taking and tolerance of failure

Limited tenure and urgency

The short tenure and continual rotation of program managers and office directors and deputies are probably the single most distinctive features of DARPA's culture and the most important contributors to continuing innovation. Those people, a majority of the agency's employees, generally hold their jobs for four or five years. The end of their time at DARPA is always in view: their expiration date is printed prominently on their ID badges, a constant reminder to them and their colleagues that time to accomplish important work is limited.

According to the office directors and deputies who hire them, program managers who come to DARPA must be "fired up to do exciting things," must have "their hair on fire," determined to achieve something new and important during their short time at the agency. Information Innovation Office program manager Mike Walker notes that the sense of time ticking away is "the heart of the whole thing. It is an impetus to venture into the unknown, to get people to put something forward, to build the prototype warts and all."

In most organizations that would be considered a problem; at DARPA, it is intentional and invigorating. A short tenure means that people come to the agency to get something done, not build a career. Defense Sciences Office Director Stefanie Tompkins says, "The longer you're in one place, the more tendency you have to become risk-averse. You start to refine what you're doing as opposed to throwing out what you're doing and starting fresh."

Justin Sanchez, Director of the Biological Technologies Office, also sees a connection between limited tenure and a willingness to risk failure in pursuit of ambitious goals: "If you're in a place where you only get fired if you mess up, you do just enough not to mess up." Many organizations see the departure of talented people as a loss of important technical knowledge—the organization's memory of what it knows. At DARPA, people think more about the downside of having a long technical memory: that some of what is remembered may be wrong or outdated and stand in the way of important innovation.

Long-time employees sometimes use the fact of a past failure to prove that something can't be done, but what was once impossible may be feasible now thanks to the development of new tools and technologies, or the increased urgency of a need. Hiring people who are ignorant of past failures sometimes opens the door to breakthrough success. Here is one well-known example of a technology that was impossible until developments in related fields made it achievable.

Rapid and widespread turnover would also seem to threaten the agency's cultural memory of its aims and values and its ways of getting work done. That has not been a problem at DARPA, where employees maintain a vivid understanding of the agency's goals and approaches. One important reason is the clear criteria for hiring and the terms of hire. Bringing in people who are passionate about far-reaching innovations for only a few years attracts individuals who already value DARPA's goals and approaches and eliminates the kinds of candidates who might make the agency a more cautious and bureaucratic place. DSO program manager John Main says, "If you want a security blanket, DARPA is not for you. The blanket is ripped out of your hands four times a day." People who come to DARPA recognize their responsibility to maintain its unique culture. In the words of Justin Sanchez: "While you're here, you're the steward of the culture. Then you pass it on."

Sense of Mission

DARPA's reason for being—"to prevent and create technological surprise"—expresses its role in promoting the security of the United States and the safety and success of military personnel. This vital mission draws people to the agency. Program managers talk about the call to serve, about giving back to a country that has been good to them. DARPA's determination to "change the world" suggests the scope of its mission. The agency offers program managers a chance to "be a part of shaping the future," says one program manager. The importance and ambition of the mission help fuel the drive toward innovation. People are inspired and energized by the effort to do something that affects the well-being and even the survival of their fellow citizen (and often the citizens of the world), as opposed to the "innovations" that might make a commercial product a bit more salable.

The mission also adds to the sense of urgency, since some of the agency's work aims to counter existing or looming threats to war fighters or the general population. One program manager working to respond to what he considers an almost certain future cyber-attack, says, "If you pass up the opportunity to be part of the solution, you become part of the problem for the rest of your life."

Reflecting on both the program manager's limited tenure and his sense of being a small but vital part of an essential, larger mission, DSO Deputy Office Director William Regli says, "When you leave you know you're done, your time is up. You say, 'I'm one of the bricklayers of the cathedral.'"

Trust and Autonomy

Trust is a precondition of autonomy. You only grant people the freedom to make decisions and carry out their work as they see fit if you believe they will do it responsibly and well without someone looking over their shoulders. To be effective, trust must go in both directions: the trusted employee must also trust her employer to be faithful to the values and goals of the organization and to the terms of their working relationship.

The freedom to make decisions and take action without having to obtain the permission of managers or supervisors is critical to innovation at DARPA. Microsystems Technology Office Director Chappell puts it this way: "Get the best people, then trust them." Office directors and deputy directors describe DARPA as a "bottoms up" organization where research topics come mainly from program managers and potential program managers who are passionate about an idea.

Office directors often have an idea of the kinds of projects they would like to see carried out. But the creative ideas typically come from below and projects only happen when a project manager is passionately committed to the work. Information Innovation Office Director John Launchbury says, "There are no marching orders. The marching orders are: create innovation."

This does not mean, however, that every innovative idea becomes a program. DARPA has a rigorous approval process for deciding which projects to fund; agency leadership must agree to support a program before millions or tens of millions of dollars are committed to it.

Risk-taking and tolerance of failure

DARPA is committed to cutting-edge innovation, the kind of work that will change the world. That level of ambition—trying to do things that have never been done before, working at the edge of the possible—necessarily brings with it the possibility and in fact the likelihood of failure.

Openness to new ideas, risk-taking, and tolerance of failure are essential elements of DARPA innovation. Proposals are rigorously scrutinized, but no idea is dismissed out of hand as too bold to consider. BTO Office Deputy Director Barry Pallota says, "No idea is too crazy. The reaction is never, 'That's impossible.' We say, 'How would you do that? How would you get there? Write down the steps.'" And Stefanie Tompkins says, "If you're on the fence, err on the higher-risk side." She adds, "Why study the feasibility of a project for six months if you can get further and learn more by starting the work?"

Ideas are more likely to be rejected because they are not far-reaching enough than because they are too risky and ambitious. Launchbury says, "If none of our programs fail, we're not stretching far enough." Phillip Alvelda makes a similar point: "If half the people don't respond to a publicly-announced challenge saying it's impossible, we haven't set the bar high enough." As BTO program manager Matt Hepburn says, "If it's not transformative, change it."

This does not mean, of course, that any crazy ideas will get funded. Thinking about "where to draw the crazy line," Tactical Technology Office Deputy Director Pamela Melroy considers the size of the investment in especially risky projects. A $10 million gamble is one thing, she says but "if you're spending $80 million, you'd like it to work."

The how and why of failure also matter. Tompkins says, "If you fail because you're sloppy and lazy, that's not good. And it doesn't happen much here." The right kind of failure comes from being ambitious, pushing to the edge of what is possible, and often generates valuable knowledge even though program goals are not met. As I2O Office Director John Launchbury says, "'Failure' doesn't mean the whole thing collapses. Even if the end result isn't what you were hoping for, technologies developed along the way may have great value. They feed into the ecosystem; something new is known."

BTO Office Director Justin Sanchez says, "If something doesn't work out, we feed what we learn into something else." Proposals submitted to DARPA are reviewed by government experts with advice on specific topics from subject-matter experts both within and outside the government. The Source Selection Board makes recommendations to help the agency decide whether or not to invest in a proposal. It provides advice about technical risk associated with prospective programs, working to differentiate between the barely feasible (and potentially groundbreaking) and the absurd. The board's judgment is highly informed and useful, but occasionally the experts are wrong about radical advances that defy conventional wisdom about what is possible.

Key Insights

Rely on the larger innovation ecosystem to deliver the best products

DARPA explicitly reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances. But it does not perform its engineering alchemy in isolation. It works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation's military Services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options. For decades, this vibrant, interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborators has proven to be a nurturing environment for the intense creativity that DARPA is designed to cultivate.

DARPA goes to great lengths to identify, recruit and support excellent program managers— extraordinary individuals who are at the top of their fields and are hungry for the opportunity to push the limits of their disciplines. These leaders, who are at the very heart of DARPA's history of success, come from academia, industry and government agencies for limited stints, generally three to five years. That deadline fuels the signature DARPA urgency to achieve success in less time than might be considered reasonable in a conventional setting.

Stay small and nimble–and hire new talent constantly

Work at the agency is project-based. Programs typically last for only a few years, defined and limited by explicit progress milestones and the goal of developing a new important technology or capability that can further DARPA's mission. No project gets done without a passionate project manager leading it.

Given the importance of program management and the constant turnover, office directors and deputies are constantly looking for new people to fill that role. Hiring new talent is an essential and time-consuming part of their work. Program managers must be brilliant people with brilliant ideas they are passionate to develop. Good DARPA program managers are people with intellectual self-confidence who are willing to participate in discourse and don't consider ideas their personal property.

Create a sense of passion and urgency

Program managers at DARPA is the heart and lifeblood of the organization. Program managers are hand selected per project and have the freedom and resources to do important and even transformational work is a powerful attraction. Many program managers come to DARPA to work on ideas that they have thought about and championed for many years without ever having had the resources of time and money to work on them.

Most of the program managers that they bring into DARPA are on a three- to five-year contract, so that there's a sense of urgency to quickly get on board, create a prototype and iterate to a better product. The brevity of the DARPA assignment eliminates people who are looking for a safe and stable career. They're looking to make their mark and they perceive it as an honor to be selected to work at DARPA.

Evaluate contracts based on program milestones and stay agnostic of vendors

DARPA's contracts are evaluated based on the milestones programs are expected to reach at various points during their lifecycles. The emphasis on milestones makes it possible to evaluate genuine progress and identify valuable results as well as to judge whether continued funding is justified. DARPA program managers establish these milestones up front, crafting them to reflect the nature of the overarching objectives of their individual programs—be it insights from basic research or a technology prototype for a new military system. In many organizations, projects take on a life of their own, continuing to absorb resources despite their failure to achieve results.

DARPA's sense of urgency, its emphasis on programs of limited duration, and its willingness to end unproductive work all guard against that tendency. So does the rotation of program managers. Coming in with fresh eyes and no established loyalty to program ideas or performers, new program managers help identify non-productive program elements in existing programs and feel free to change or cut them.

Next Steps

A big part of DARPA's mission is to envision the future and make the impossible possible. In October 2015 as "Back to the Future" day approached, DARPA turned to social media and asked the world to predict: What technologies might actually surround us 30 years from now? We pointed people to presentations from DARPA's Future Technologies Forum, held in September 2015 in St. Louis, for inspiration and a reality check before submitting their predictions.

Below are some highlights from the responses, in roughly descending order by number of mentions for each class of futuristic capability:

  • Space: Interplanetary and interstellar travel, including faster-than-light travel; missions and permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt; space elevators
  • Transportation & Energy: Self-driving and electric vehicles; improved mass transit systems and intercontinental travel; flying cars and hoverboards; high-efficiency solar and other sustainable energy sources
  • Medicine & Health: Neurological devices for memory augmentation, storage and transfer, and perhaps to read people's thoughts; life extension, including virtual immortality via uploading brains into computers; artificial cells and organs; "Star Trek"-style tricorder for home diagnostics and treatment; wearable technology, such as exoskeletons and augmented-reality glasses and contact lenses
  • Materials & Robotics: Ubiquitous nanotechnology, 3-D printing and robotics; invisibility and cloaking devices; energy shields; anti-gravity devices
  • Cyber & Big Data: Improved artificial intelligence; optical and quantum computing; faster, more secure Internet; better use of data analytics to improve use of resources

Additionally, the Outreach team asked three DARPA researchers from various fields to share their visions of 2045, and why getting there will require a group effort with players not only from academia and industry but from forward-looking government laboratories and agencies:

  • Pam Melroy, an aerospace engineer, former astronaut and current deputy director of DARPA's Tactical Technologies Office (TTO), foresees technologies that would enable machines to collaborate with humans as partners on tasks far more complex than those we can tackle today:
  • Justin Sanchez, a neuroscientist and program manager in DARPA's Biological Technologies Office (BTO), imagines a world where neurotechnologies could enable users to interact with their environment and other people by thought alone:
  • Stefanie Tompkins, a geologist and director of DARPA's Defense Sciences Office (DSO), envisions building substances from the atomic or molecular level up to create "impossible" materials with previously unattainable capabilities:

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