What can the aid business learn from Google v Death?

September 20, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Grim reaperBenjamin Franklin famously said ‘nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. Google begs to differ. On both. First it becomes a byword for tax avoidance, and now it’s taking on death too, according tobeneficent-google an article on Time Magazine’s techland blog.

Time interviewed Google CEO Larry Page on the latest in a growing line of bonkers innovative activities (Google glasses, driverless cars etc).

‘Page prefers to refer to Google’s more out-there ventures as moon shots. “I’m not proposing that we spend all of our money on those kinds of speculative things,” he says during a rare interview at the Googleplex, the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. “But we should be spending a commensurate amount with what normal types of companies spend on research and development, and spend it on things that are a little more long-term and a little more ambitious than people normally would. More like moon shots.” This is why Google, in Page’s words, is not a normal type of company.’

Now, Google has founded Calico, a company dedicated to finding ways to extend human lifespan. Yep, it’s Google v Death. A kind of high tech King Canute, turning back the tides of mortality.

‘Google isn’t exactly bursting with credibility in this arena. Its personal-medical-record service, Google Health, failed to catch on. But Calico, the company says, is different. It will be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. “In some industries,” says Page, “it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

What struck me was the echo with some conversations in Australia last week, on the need for aid agencies to consider their operations as a ‘risk portfolio’. If we think that innovation is important, then who is thinking 20 years ahead? And among aid agencies, whether official donors or large NGOs and foundations, should we be more explicit in seeking a balance between safe bet activities and high risk/high return moonshots? I fear that currently we try to minimise risk on each separate activity, producing an overall portfolio skewed towards the conservative and low risk/low innovation end.

I imagine that one answer likely to come back is that tech research (CGIAR, vaccines etc) is the 20 year piece of the puzzle, but what about other crucial areas of development where we need big new ideas, such as governance, fragile states, tackling inequality, violence against women etc. Who is doing a Google there?

To give it a go, we would also need the backing of funders, of course (and it’s always easy to avoid taking risks by saying ‘the donors will never wear it’). Is anyone (implementer or funder) taking this approach in the aid business?

What else can we learn from Google? Some thoughts:

google taxesStealing/borrowing ideas from smaller, more nimble organizations:  Goliaths like Google often innovate by gobbling up promising-looking start-ups. In the development business, such acquisition is not really recognized as a legitimate activity, and may even be seen as theft. But when I worked as a policy wonk for CAFOD, one marker for success was to have my policy idea adopted by either Oxfam or the UK Treasury.

Why don’t large NGOs make this more explicit – the end of year performance review includes a question ‘what good ideas or practices have you stolen in the last year?’ And for smaller ones, ‘what extra leverage have you acquired by selling your bright idea to a larger organization?’

Google is also famous for its “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects. (Although please note, it is now being accused of dumping that commitment.) In contrast aid agency staff seem to take a perverse pleasure in showing that their existing work commitments add up to 120%. Time for HR departments to get googling?

Anything else we can learn from the Googlemonster?

September 20, 2013
Duncan Green