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.
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