Google Ideas: The company's latest venture into the world of philanthropy.

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July 9 2011 7:54 AM

Google Ideas

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

Article from Financial Times

Eric Schmidt
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.

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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.

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