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September 20, 2013

What can the aid business learn from Google v Death?

September 20, 2013
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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?


  1. I’d suggest there is something there about scaling up our ambition. After all, ‘Goliath’ Google didn’t exist 20 years ago, and now makes a massive difference to all sorts of sectors (not least peoples daily lives) whereas Oxfam’s been trolling along as a ‘big’ NGO for 70 years and many might argue that for all our improved learning and conceptual/strategic thinking we have little more impact now than we did in the early 1970s when our hard-hitting advocacy and response had a huge impact on the course of Bangladesh’s war of Independence.

  2. By the way, I chuckled at the struck-out ‘bonkers’ – given that the driverless cars already work and have clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles driving themselves, and that some of the fundamental cell biology underlying aging is being cracked at a scarily rapid rate. just look up gerontology on… er, Google.

  3. Hmm, this article seems more a hotch-potch of different ideas, making it difficult to follow your line of thinking.

    First of all, if the aid business would be as unfocused as Google, then we’d all be in trouble.
    There is not a single donor who would support any aid organisation to start up/try out and then drop so many large scale projects, because we can not cover the loss from other “high profit projects”.

    Lastly, I think you are confusing aid and development. The market of an aid organisation is easy to define, projects are easy to identify, satisfying an immediate and tangible need. There is no need for a longer term plan in the aid world. There is a need, we come, we solve the problem and we hand over.
    The development world is more longer term.
    Most aid organisations try (often for funding reasons than for the actual need) to diversify their portfolio towards development. Obscuring their real goals along the way.

    So what is Oxfam? An aid organisation or a development outfit?

    PS: so, if aid organisations are to learn from Google, we should also go for market monopoly, pushing off and buying out competitors, dropping smaller projects like hot potatoes, snoop in people’s private life and sell out information to the CIA?

    Secondly, good luck if you try to find a donor who wants to support a project with a 10-20 year lifespan.

  4. I remember the legendary longterm Dutch minister for development, Jan Pronk, once telling an OECD-DAC ministerial that he had given instructions to his people to go out and not be afraid of making mistakes. If you were afraid, in the end you would not act at all. But if you do make mistakes, recognize them quickly and change your approach. So, there were donors who were willing to risk their money, and I am certain that there are still some out there

  5. I like the ‘learn from mistakes’ and ‘steal good ideas’ theme, but I’m not sure it isn’t already happening, at least partially. When I worked with WVI, projects that went wrong, didn’t work, etc. were called ‘challenges’ and ‘lessons for the future’. God [pun intended] forbid we should say we’d made a mistake, either in planning, design or implementation! Yet, when I tried to introduce budget items that reflected past mistakes –such as failing to recognize the high likelihood of essential project equipment being stolen, and thereby budgeting for replacement parts– I was castigated with “No donor will fund us if we did that”. And so entire projects stalled for months when key equipment went walkabout, and our monthly KPIs went unmet. So the ‘learning from mistakes’ concept probably needs to be clarified: what type of mistakes? Re: your point of ‘stealing’ good ideas or practices, this too is already happening. In my experience, project planning and design stages involved looking around for things that worked elsewhere, and copying or adapting them for the local context. It’s not usually called ‘stealing’ though. Usually it is couched in terms of ‘following best-practices’.

  6. What about adopting/adapting reverse engineering practices for development purposes? This would put emphasis on systematic borrowing of ideas from the outside combined with careful and critical adaptation to local circumstances (as opposed to isomorphic mimicry and passive adoption of “best practices”)

  7. Very timely, with regards to this blog here and Giulio’s statement above, innovation for development solutions has been discussed this week at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York:

    The forum brought together panelists from the Rockefeller Foundation, Facebook, as well as Bill Gates in person to discuss concrete examples and prerequisites of scaling up successful innovations for development. The emphasis was on the “how” – bringing together examples from partnerships across the spectrum of the MDGs and the SG’s multi-stakeholder initiatives and movements.

    I have captured a few key messages here:
    – The Rockefeller Foundation spoke to the potential of scaling up development solutions through innovative techniques such as crowdsourcing which allow young people, marginalized people and others to identify a development challenge and contribute to the identification of innovative solutions to those challenges.
    – Bill Gates spoke to the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. According to him, the Millennium Development Goals are much about equity and have been central to prioritization – both in terms of fundamental “freedoms” of each country’s population, and in terms of the donor’s focus on funding priorities.Innovation can lead the key to accelerating the achievement of health related goals (e.g. in the field of health, such as vaccines, delivery of health care systems or prevention of child mortality).
    – Facebook spoke to the power of social media in giving every individual the power of having their own voice heard to the world – even in the most remote, rural areas. Connectivity was highlighted as a critical enabler for innovation and achieving sustainable results.

    Have a look at the discussion – it is worth listening in, when speaking about innovation!

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