Google Ideas

The company’s latest venture into the world of philanthropy.

Eric Schmidt

Rudy Corpuz still looks the part of the California gangster he once was. His hair falls on to his shoulders in tight braids and he has the heavy chest, bulging shoulders and slow rolling lope of a man who knows how to do harm. He joined a gang at the age of 12. By the time he was 18, he was making $1,000 a day selling crack to his neighbors. He has never killed a man, but he has shot people “who had it coming” and is largely unapologetic about that. “I did what I had to do to keep my reputation,” is how he puts it. Rudy Corpuz is, at first glance, the sort of person that a Google engineer would not want to run into late at night if they had made the 35.9-mile, 42-minute Google Maps-plotted drive up US-101 from the tech giant’s “Googleplex” and ended up lost on the streets of South of Market, the San Francisco neighborhood where he once ruled.

Yet on a recent Monday morning in Ireland, Corpuz, who left his gangster life in the early 1990s and founded a group that works to keep kids out of gangs in South of Market, was bending the ear of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, suggesting the company hire kids from his neighborhood to create computer games.

 “I love that idea,” Schmidt answered before turning to the audience at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (Save) in the Dublin Convention Centre to extol the virtues of games as a parenting tool: “If your child or teenager is at home playing games, they are not going to get in anywhere near as much trouble as they are if they are out on their own.”

Later Corpuz made it clear that he had also spied a business opportunity. “I’m a businessman too, you know what I mean,” he told me. Schmidt was clearly a “kingpin” and “a combination like me and him would be like Batman and Robin.”

This unlikely marriage of minds came during the coming out party for Google’s latest venture into the world of philanthropy: Google Ideas. Described as a “think/do-tank”, it either amounts to a bold attempt to stretch the boundaries of corporate social responsibility, perhaps even to rewire the entire role of business in today’s world—or, with its brief to find solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems, the ultimate expression of new tech bubble bravado.

As part of its “don’t be evil” mission, Google has long had a charitable arm. Founded in 2006, Google.org doles out grants (more than $100m last year, the bulk of the $184m that the company gave to non-profits and charities). It also deploys the company’s engineers to address on-the-ground problems, such as how to locate lost relatives in the wake of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The company is helping to monitor the health of the world’s forests via Google Earth, to track the spread of flu globally, and even come up with “utility scale” renewable energy projects.

But last year Schmidt, who has been Google’s chairman since 2007 and until earlier this year also served as its CEO, approached Jared Cohen, a 28-year-old wunderkind at the US state department’s policy planning unit, to take the company’s approach a step further. Cohen is best known for convincing Twitter not to shut down for maintenance at a crucial moment during the protests that followed Iran’s 2009 elections, and had built a reputation as an advocate of deploying digital tools for diplomacy. At Google he is getting arguably freer rein to put some of those concepts into action.

Google Ideas, created last October, has quickly set out to build a reputation for doing things most corporate units would strive to avoid. It sits within Google’s business operations and strategy division rather than under its philanthropic arm, and its six staff are based in the company’s New York office.

For the Save summit in Dublin, Google paid for more than 80 former jihadists, neo-Nazi skinheads, one-time Irish extremists and US gang members, all of whom now work to prevent radicalization, to fly in from around the world. There, they huddled with Google employees, survivors of terrorist attacks and kidnappings, academics and other experts to try to come up with solutions to fight extremism.

But with the Dublin summit, Google Ideas was also deploying a model it wants to use on other issues. From exploring how to make so-called fragile states like Somalia function better, to addressing the lack of access to judicial resources faced by many in the developing world, Cohen argues, there are plenty of problems to which Google can help find a solution. Google Ideas “is built on this assumption that technology is part of every challenge in the world and also part of every solution in the world. It empowers people both for good and for ill,” he says. “If our goal is to maximize the positive-use cases, where does that leave us as a technology company? Where it leaves us is recognizing that technology is now relevant to every single challenge in the world in some way, shape, or form.”

Writ large that means that with Google Ideas and its promise to help tackle issues most multinationals would prefer to avoid, Google proposes to rewrite what it means to be a corporate citizen in the 21st century. For years, Google has been redrafting the management rule book. But with all its power to innovate and its vast financial resources, it is now gently starting on something that goes well beyond all of that. You might call it the ultimate in business mission creep.

There is no doubting Google’s power. Not only has the company become its own verb, but, in pure economic terms, it has reached the level where comparing it to a small country is a cliché. The company reported almost $30bn in revenues in 2010, at the end of which it was sitting on a cash pile of almost $35bn or, cliché notwithstanding, more than the $31bn in foreign currency reserves sitting in the accounts of Australia’s central bank.

But it is also at a turning point in its history. Google’s hold on the search business—it controls roughly two-thirds of the market—has been coming under fire from regulators. Authorities in both Europe and the US are now conducting anti-trust investigations into how it conducts business.

Google’s growing reach has seen it confront challenges to its own perception of itself as a force for good. In the US it faces growing criticism that it is contributing to a shallowing out of the collective memory—that to Google more, is to know less. Its high-profile launch in China in 2006 saw the company criticized for acceding to government censorship demands. Its decision last year to stop co-operating with government censors and relocate its Chinese search business to Hong Kong in the wake of mysterious hacking attacks drew a tongue-lashing from Beijing. This growth has also created internal problems. Once a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up that operated out of a garage, Google now employs some 25,000 people around the world. Those employees still regularly rank it as one of the best companies to work for, thanks in part to its legendary benefits such as on-site health care and laundry rooms. But in recent years, some of its stars have left for rivals such as Facebook, in part, they said, because Google’s immense size had made the company more plodding. Announcing his departure to Facebook—which has a tenth of the employees that Google has—last year, Lars Rasmussen, the co-creator of Google Maps, complained to The Sydney Morning Herald that “it can be very challenging to be working in a company the size of Google.”

Google is fighting back. In the same week that the first Google Ideas conference took place, the company also launched its Google+ competitor to Facebook, which some have called its biggest social media effort yet. But its size means that, these days, its forays are also occasionally treated with suspicion. Paul Carrillo, a former gang member who served on the steering committee for the Save summit, says he initially ran into distrust from others. “The first question was: ‘Why is Google doing this? What is their vested interest? [Are they] trying to take advantage of us? Parade us around town so they look good? … Are they trying to get us to get all the gang members to use their products?’ ”

According to Eric Schmidt, Google’s business model remains “to come up with new ideas to make the world a better place. The point is that, as a corporation, we’re trying to do more than just serve our shareholders. We’re also literally trying to serve our citizens, our customers.”

A 56-year-old former Novell and Sun Microsystems executive, Schmidt was brought in as Google’s CEO in 2001 to add management experience and help shepherd its growth. He stepped down as CEO in January and, as executive chairman, is now responsible for what his bio calls “the external matters of Google”, including advising the senior management on “business and policy issues”.

But during the Dublin summit he occasionally appeared to be on the defensive, insisting that Google was “not trying to take a political stand” as reporters pressed him on the big question of just why the company was convening a meeting that, while interesting, seemed to have very little to do with its business.

Schmidt insists that Google is comfortable pushing boundaries. “Google doesn’t shrink from a fight based on the principles of Google,” he told me. But he also admitted that he was worried about people “using the language of us becoming political [with Google Ideas], which we are explicitly not trying to become. We’re not trying to take a political stand. We’re trying to take a pro-information and empowerment stand.”

Google Ideas remains a work in progress. Presented with even the simplest of questions about what Google Ideas’ role would be, Schmidt sometimes seemed flustered. “To make real progress you have to tackle the hard issues,” he said, when I asked him what other sorts of global problems he envisioned Google Ideas addressing. “I mean, there are lots of interesting problems that you could tackle. You could tackle the Iranian nuclear bomb problem.”

Isn’t that a political issue? “It’s also a very hard one and we don’t have an obvious idea. But if we had one, you know, we would think about it,” he said. But is [Iran’s nuclear program] really the type of issue that Google Ideas would be willing to tackle? “I was using it as a semi-facetious example. I was trying to pick it as a really hard one,” Schmidt answered, before going on to say that Google was “explicitly not setting a boundary” on the sorts of issues Google Ideas might tackle.

Schmidt also seemed surprised when I pointed out that some believed that Google might, in fact, have an added responsibility to address the issue of violent extremism, given the way extremists use the video site YouTube, which Google bought for $1.65bn in 2006, to disseminate messages.

“That’s a good argument. To be truthful we have not framed it that way,” Schmidt said. He conceded that “we could make that argument” but added: “Internally it’s not how we define it. We don’t see ourselves as doing bad, we see ourselves as doing good. This is about a good thing.”

There are, of course, skeptics. Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the phrase “soft power”, told The Washington Post in the lead-up to the Dublin meeting that Google’s entry into the arena “could be problematic—especially if it is perceived to be in conflict with the foreign policy of the United States”.

But there are also those who argue that there is a bigger transformation happening, of which Google is at the leading edge. The role of the multinational corporation is changing. While companies may have been able to resist getting involved in some controversial problems in the past, it is unlikely they will be able to do so for long.

 “If you look at the role that companies are playing in the world … these are corporations that have to be part of the solutions of most of the top problems that are on the [US] secretary of state and president’s list,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was Cohen’s last boss at the state department policy planning unit she headed until moving to Princeton earlier this year. “Whether that is combating violent extremism, or climate change, or development of the global economy broadly, or global pandemics, those are not issues that can be solved only by governments … because they involve changing the individual behavior on the ground. And who is on the ground? Well, foundations, [aid and advocacy groups] and corporations.”

Slaughter contends that this means that companies will need to re-examine their corporate social responsibility programs. She likens Google Ideas to a government policy unit where the goal is to assemble a group of “out of the box” thinkers to examine issues and then work with other departments to deploy solutions. And, she argues, it’s a model more companies need to consider. “This is not just about giving back,” she says. “This is about how companies can contribute to important policy problems.”

Google Ideas is part of a bigger collaboration between Cohen and Schmidt. The pair have co-authored a book that is due to be published next year. Titled Empire of the Mind, it grew out of an essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine last November that predicted technology would rewrite the relationship between states and their citizens in the 21st century, and went some way towards predicting the revolutions a few months later in Tunisia and Egypt. “Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority,” reads its second sentence.

Cohen’s model for Google Ideas calls for it to bring together the public sector, the private sector, academia and society at large to share ideas and brainstorm solutions. The Save summit, for example, was co-sponsored by a more traditional think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. For now, its greatest outcome, Cohen says, may be that it helped to create a network of former extremists, many of whom have labored alone for years. But this, Cohen argues, is just the beginning.

Violent extremism will continue as one of Google Ideas’ “focus areas,” but it has already begun work elsewhere. It has sent an MIT graduate student to Ghana to study how technology might be used to improve access to the judiciary there, and Cohen is intrigued by the notion of what does work in “fragile states” and how that might be built on. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, the technology/telecoms sector is the most functioning part of society in an otherwise broken Somalia, he points out, and that could be used as a building block. “Rather than start with what doesn’t work, we want to start with what works,” he says.

Schmidt has a slightly more restrained vision than Cohen when it comes to predicting the future for Google Ideas. The executive chairman says he is “willing to try a couple [more issues] and based on what works, and what doesn’t, use that to inform our selection” of how to proceed in the future.

The think/do-tank, Schmidt says, remains an “experiment” and the “do” raises the bar. “It’s very easy to be a think-tank. It’s very hard to do the ‘do’ part,” he told me. That adds risk for Google by increasing expectations. “By having the [Dublin] conference we’ve created a potential downside risk that nothing happens [afterwards]. But Google likes to take on these risks because, although not all of them work, there’s a potential.”

Then again, if you listen to Schmidt discuss it, you can also get a sense that Google Ideas may ultimately be another product being deployed by a company used to seeding ideas and walking away if they do not take off. “This has not been done before, it’s new and we at Google like reproducible results,” Schmidt told me. “We’re scientists. So if it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.”

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.