Actuate’s Mission: Solutions R&D for Society’s Challenges

By Arati Prabhakar

Three hundred and thirty million personal variants of the American dream rest on the notion that the future can be both safe and filled with promise. Between us and that future are some sobering challenges: mitigating climate change, establishing good health across our population, making data and information trustworthy, and opening access to opportunity for every person.

Our new nonprofit organization, Actuate, is setting out to address these four challenges with a new model that can generate fresh, practical, potent solutions. Today, I want to share why we started and where we’re going — and invite you to join us.

In 2017, I wrapped up my term as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It was a moment to reflect on more than 30 years of work at a venture capital firm, a couple of companies, and three different government organizations. I had found it immensely satisfying to address hard and important problems as part of the bustling public and private innovation ecosystem that grew in the wake of World War II. But a different set of problems kept tugging at me.

I couldn’t stop thinking about our unsolved challenges for the decades ahead: dangerous changes in climate, appallingly poor population health, the corrosive dark side of the Information Revolution, the overwhelming barriers to opportunity for many Americans. These crises seem to be pounding the table for new kinds of answers, a new kind of innovation. Researchers and practitioners are pursuing many good ideas, but their progress isn’t yet creating a radically better future widely enough or fast enough. Innovation can’t solve these problems by itself; it will not be sufficient. But it does seem to be necessary.

These reflections led to starting Actuate last year with my former DARPA colleague Wade Shen, a data science and machine learning expert with extensive experience designing and running bold R&D programs that deliver results. We share a vision of a future in which a full and vibrant innovation ecosystem addresses today’s vexing societal problems — a generational advance that expands beyond today’s innovation capacity with new insights, new methods, and new actors.

At Actuate, we’re setting out to accelerate this advance using “solutions R&D”. This is the sort of applied R&D that develops and convincingly demonstrates practical new solutions. Because it connects many elements of innovation, from foundational research to full implementation, it can help ratchet up the entire innovation system. Our work at Actuate will be to run solutions R&D programs for our society’s great challenges with two aims: to prototype specific breakthrough solutions, and to prototype powerful new innovation models.

Actuate’s work can be a starting point. If we’re successful, governments and markets can implement the new solutions we demonstrate, boost the research that feeds further advances, conduct more solutions R&D programs, and ultimately fully scale a new innovation ecology suited for the must-solve problems of our times. At Actuate, we think in terms of hypotheses that allow us to experiment, learn, adapt, and solve. We observe that the innovation process is slow to start for societal challenges that aren’t aligned to tangible market opportunities or to the missions of established government R&D organizations. Therefore, our hypothesis for Actuate — and the reason we have launched as a nonprofit in the social sector — is that philanthropy can play a seminal, catalytic role in this transformation by taking on the early risk of trying new methods for R&D and developing effective approaches that other sectors can adopt and scale.

These are Actuate’s immense aspirations. Today, we’re at a seed stage, developing our first solutions R&D programs and building partnerships for the work ahead. We have a lot to share with you: why we chose these four societal challenges, what we mean by “solutions R&D”, how we’ll adapt what we learned at DARPA, the complex systems revolution that can be brought to bear on our chosen challenges, and the specific programs that we’re developing. Watch this space for our coming posts on these topics.

We’re building a community to change what’s possible. Join us, and let’s do it together.

Breakthroughs for society’s challenges