WWGD? – The scientific solution to the world’s problems

“They are doubling down on the technocratic approach,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, who’s writing The Googleization of Everything, said in today’s NY Times responding to news that Google.org will focus its philanthropy more on its own science and technology and integrate its charitable arm more with the company. Agreed.

But then he adds in the Times: “The habits and ideology of the company will lead the philanthropy rather than the needs of the communities or the planet.” No, I think it’s actually more hubristic than that: Google believes its technology, science, methods, and intelligence are best suited to solve the needs of the planet.

On its blog, Google.org head Larry Brilliant said – as he announced that he’d be moving to corporate to become philanthrop evangelist and would hand over the foundation to long-time Googler Megan Smith:

During our review it became clear that while we have been able to support some remarkable non-profit organizations over the past three years, our greatest impact has come when we’ve attacked problems in ways that make the most of Google’s strengths in technology and information; examples of this approach include Flu Trends, RechargeIT, Clean Energy 2030, and PowerMeter. By aligning Google.org more closely with Google as a whole, Megan will ensure that we’re better able to build innovative, scalable technology and information solutions. As a first step, Google has decided to put even more engineers and technical talent to work on these issues and problems, resources which I have found to be extraordinary. In this global economic crisis, the work Google.org is doing, together with our many colleagues around the world, to help develop cheap clean energy, find and fight disease outbreaks before they sweep the globe, and build information platforms for underserved people globally, is more important than ever.

In moment such as that, we see how Google think its ways can solve big problems. And maybe they’re right. We can only hope so.

For today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet, here’s an excerpt from the chapter about Google.org’s technocratic method brought to the energy and environment: the essential scientific optimism of invention as a means of solving problems:

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Here is our one example of an industry being remade in Google’s image that is not hypothetical. Google?.org, the company’s philanthropic wing—supported with 1 percent of Google’s equity and profits—is trying to reinvent the energy industry and with it, our energy economy. It is funding companies and research looking for ways to make power that will cost less than that generated with coal. Their geeky name for the initiative: RE

Unlike Google?.org’s other projects—devoted to early warning of health crises, better management of public services, and entrepreneurial growth in the developing world—RE

At the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos in 2008, I attended a forum at which Google’s founders presented their energy vision and I came away with a sense of how they would manage other industries and even how they would run the government (more on that later). It gave me a window into the engineers’ worldview. Just before this Google?.org forum, I had attended a session with Bono and former Vice President Al Gore. They presented their core causes: extreme poverty, debt forgiveness, and disease for Bono; the planet for Gore. The two men tried to insist to the powerful in the great hall that their causes were complementary—can’t solve one without addressing the other, they agreed—but in truth, they were competing for the political and economic attention of the governments and corporations there. Gore spoke with passion, even anger, as he insisted that the way to attack global warming is carbon taxes, regulations, prohibitions, sacrifices. He delivered the environmental agenda we’ve often heard, and did so with authority and determination.

Then I went up the mountain to hear the Google team—founders Page and Brin with Google?.org executive director Larry Brilliant. The contrast was stark. To summarize if not oversimplify their vantage points: Where Gore demands taxes and regulation, the Google team proposes invention and investment. Gore and company want to raise the cost of carbon—the cost of polluting—whereas the Google team wants to lower the cost of energy. I’m a bit unfair to Gore, for he would argue that the proceeds of his taxes would fund technology development. But Google doesn’t need tax dollars. If it were a country, its $20 billion revenue would rank it about 80th in gross domestic product. It can invest in energy research on its own.

Still, we see different worldviews at work. “You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” Brilliant said. “Find a way to make electricity—not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.” More power than you ever dreamed of. Create and manage abundance rather than control scarcity—as ever, that is the Google worldview. Whereas Gore talks about what we shouldn’t do, Google talks about what we can do. There we see the contrast between the politician’s brain and the engineer’s. Google people start with a problem and look for a solution. They identify a need, find an opportunity, and then systemically, logically, and aggressively attack it with innovation.

Page explained that there is a market now for green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Some people and companies want to buy it, though it is expensive, because they want to do good or need good PR. But the true market cost of energy is still far below that. Google?.org wants to find a way to produce renewable power at three cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than coal, which not only gives them a good deal but also shuts down dirty coal plants.

If it succeeds, the foundation would change Google’s business and other entire industries, starting with autos. With energy that cheap, Google?.org envisions cars plugged into the power grid, solving the problem of pollution from burning gasoline and changing the political balance of oil power (though they point out that the power grid is in woeful need of an upgrade). Google is also supporting an electric-car initiative called RechargeIT, which is trying to accelerate the adoption of plug-in hybrid cars. As a demonstration, Google is converting its own fleet of cars to modified, plug-in Toyota Prius hybrids. Google set up web pages for every car to display data about its energy efficiency—we know how Google loves data. Those cars are plugged into solar-powered charging stations on Google’s campus, where the company was producing 1.6 megawatts in solar power by 2008. “It’s been great,” Brin said. “It produced shade. It reduced cost.” Google created a platform for electric-car devotees to make YouTube videos and place them on a Google map, demonstrating popular support and demand for the cars. Google clearly believes it can help create a market for plug-in cars—and why not? It has created new markets for technology and advertising. . . .

If Google did run a power company, what would it look like? It would give us all the power we could use at the best price possible, and then it would find ways to take advantage of that. Google could use the power grid itself to distribute the internet and that, too, would help Google, creating more advertising revenue, which could be used to subsidize the cost of our power and access. Google would give us data about our use of power—especially as more appliances become internet-connected. Imagine if every house were to have a web page detailing power usage by every device, as Google has done for its cars. That data would tell us how to conserve (if we even needed to anymore) and it would tell Google how we live (which, in aggregate, will make Google smarter). In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman proposed a similar future with connected devices that manage their own power. If we can generate our own homemade solar, wind, or geothermal power, I have no doubt Google Power & Light would create a marketplace for us to sell power to the grid or donate it to charities. Power could become not only a new market but a new currency.

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[Note: Google recently announced PowerMeter, which begins to do these things.]

  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    It’s interesting to see what happens when Google tries to run things outside their domain of expertise, where you can’t just make things free by getting advertisers to pay. The most publicized case that comes to mind was their fumble on employee day care. True to your words, they tried to “create and manage abundance rather than control scarcity”. Only they discovered that top-quality day care was actually expensive, and then they found themselves managing scarcity again.

    As everyone knows the free lunch at Google is for employees and their guests. For the rest of us, we can’t just wish ourselves bread and circuses. Juvenal may be too long dead to be Googley, but he knew a thing or two about the art of the possible. I’d love for Google’s or anyone else’s quests to solve the world’s problems to succeed. The PowerMeter project is clever. But from there to “Google Power & Light”? Go easy on that kool-aid. :-)

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