“Ideas are like rabbits,” said John Steinbeck. “You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The same could be said of ideas fora, whose population expanded again in February with the birth of Solve For X, an experimental Google-sponsored conference where entrepreneurs, innovators and scientists propose technological solutions to the world’s biggest problems, before posting videos of their talks online.
Google hopes to encourage what it calls “moonshot thinking” — the application of breakthrough technology to global challenges in radically new ways. The inaugural meeting in California saw speakers making such audacious suggestions as carbon-negative biofuels, low-energy water desalination and, appropriately enough, 20km-high launch towers for spacecraft.
The production of inspirational and educational videos like these is currently dominated by TED, a not-for-profit website and series of conferences that began in 1984 with a focus on technology, entertainment and design (thus its name). TED’s online library of 1 100 talks, now devoted more generally to “ideas worth sharing”, are viewed by over half a million people each day.
Arguably, TED’s greatest idea worth sharing has been its own concept of bite-size lectures (none are longer than 18 minutes) from the world’s most interesting people, be they scientists, artists, teachers or CEOs. Its upbeat style has been adopted by dozens of similar organisations and educational institutions, including the Khan Academy, which offers step-by-step school lessons, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is launching a free-to-all online university called MITx in March.
Google hopes to follow suit. “I’d really like to see us help propagate the meme of moonshot thinking,” says Astro Teller, co-host of Solve For X. Part of his role at Google is to set up interesting things to do. “I want a place where I can drink from the fire hose of moonshot proposals,” he explains.
Commercial organisations, however, have often fared poorly in the battle of ideas. Google’s little-seen attempt at a TED clone, Zeitgeist Minds, distinctly failed to embody the spirit of its time. And even the best ad-supported lecture website, the highbrow Fora.tv, is struggling to connect with a mass audience.
Now Google is trying again, mimicking the TED format with 50 invited speakers talking for 12 minutes on their chosen moonshot. Juan Enriquez is a life scientist and businessman who has spoken at both TED and Solve For X. “I don’t see these two as competitors,” he says. “At TED, you have to be careful not to pitch your company from the stage. Solve For X is a different animal. It doesn’t have a problem with you saying, this is my company and this is how it can change the world.”
Google is certainly proud of its own world-changing employees. A full quarter of the participants at the first Solve For X work for Google in one way or another. Moreover, two of the organisations presenting had close links to Google: Nicolas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child relies on Google’s Android operating system, while CoolPlanet (developer of the carbon-negative fuels) has received an investment from Google Ventures, the company’s venture-capital arm. Even social media links on the Solve For X website favour Google+ over Facebook.
“I don’t feel we need to apologise for there being a relationship between a few speakers and Google,” says Teller. “But one way of seeing whether our experiment is working is if it creates enough of a pipeline of new ideas that you can see more diversity and less Google affiliation in next year’s talks.”
There is nothing to say, of course, that world-changing ideas are more likely to emerge from TED’s open community rather than the commercially-minded Solve For X. In fact, three-time TED speaker Nathan Myhrvold believes the best hope for solving the world’s problems involves not sharing the biggest ideas at all. Myhrvold convenes regular ideas conferences at his company Intellectual Ventures to consider issues like climate change, global health and energy. The conferences have high-profile attendees, including Neal Stephenson, an author and Solve For X speaker, but its sessions result in neither inspirational videos nor moonshot pleas. Instead, every novel idea — and there have been thousands over the past decade — is carefully examined, recorded and filed as a patent application.
If you want a dozen rabbits, raise them yourself. But if you want to change the world, it seems, start a rabbit farm. — (c) 2012 The Economist
- Image: Robobobobo/Flickr
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