This past summer, former gang members, neo-Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, and others who've turned away from violent extremism, took part in the Google Ideas summit in Dublin, Ireland. Also participating were survivors of extremist attacks and counter-radicalization experts.
The big idea for the first-ever Google Ideas summit: Explore ways to divert would-be extremists. At the summit, Google Ideas launched Against Violent Extremism Network, a work in progress.
Google Ideas is Google Inc.'s "think/do tank," headquartered in Google's New York office. Google Ideas isn't well known, because it's relatively new. It was formed in Oct. 2010, charged with a mission to take on worldly problems. "In typical Google fashion, they like to tackle really tough problems," says Ron Josey, senior Internet analyst for equity research at ThinkEquity LLC, which has a Buy rating on Google stock.
Google is arguably best known for its search engine and its daily doodle, but it's essentially an advertising company. Google reported $9.7 billion in net income on $38 billion in revenue in 2011, almost all of it derived from advertising.
Google Ideas doesn't generate revenue, which raises the question: Why does a public company have a think tank at all, especially one that's seemingly unrelated to its other business? Furthermore, what value does Google Ideas offer shareholders?
The quick answer: None, at least not directly. Rather, Google Ideas might best be viewed as a venture that bolsters the Google brand. Coming up with solutions to big problems is part of Google's brand identity -- a sideline, if you will, for a company that adopted "Don't Be Evil" as its corporate motto.
In a 2011 interview with the Financial Times, Google's chairman and former chief executive, Eric Schmidt, noted that Google is looking "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."
To that end, some argue, Google Ideas helps. Google Ideas ventures can also create goodwill among customers and shareholders, too. More investors these days are "social investors," people who consider a company's ethics and deeds before investing.
Google Ideas can also help generate positive press, Josey notes, adding, "Good press is good for the company." It keeps Google in the public eye, all over the world. Given the increased scrutiny Google faces as it grows ever larger, Google-doing-good stories can help temper the negative stories. Google's seen a slew of those lately.
Google's been hammered by critics who say its new privacy policies means less privacy for customers, and most recently for its stock-split decision, which will keep Google founders in control of the company. There also has been a rash of stories about Google being too arrogant and too darned big.
Though Google Ideas could be viewed as philanthropy, organizationally, it doesn't fall under Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org. Google Ideas is a separate division of Google and has its own Twitter stream.
The idea tank has several staffers and is headed by Jared Cohen, who served as a policy wonk in the State Department of the Bush and Obama administrations. Cohen is an expert on counter-radicalization. He published the book, Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East. He also co-authored a book with Google's Schmidt. Their book, Empire of the Mind: The Dawn of the Techno-Political Age, is slated to be published this year.
Cohen contends that extremists come in all stripes and backgrounds, but what they have in common is youth and the vulnerability that brings. But Google Ideas doesn't focus solely on extremism. It recently co-hosted a forum with The Heritage Foundation on how to connect Cuba to the Internet. Google executives say Google was born to solve these kinds of problems, ones that also have technological solutions.
While Google Ideas has public relations value, Josey says Google executives truly have an altruistic bent. "They probably look at it as a good thing to do, a way to give back to the community. It's helping the world, which they feel is their mission."