It’s hard to imagine life without Google–not just the search engine, but Gmail, maps, calendar and cloud storage. I could give up Twitter, Facebook and (reluctantly) Amazon, but Google and Apple are embedded deeply into my life. It’s not just me, of course. Google and Apple are among the world’s most valuable companies.
To its credit, Google has decided to invest some of its vast wealth in bold, world-changing ideas that could take years to pay off. Why? That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.
Here’s how it begins:
In 2008, Google pranked everyone. It was April Fool’s Day and the tech giant uploaded a fake website claiming to be starting the first human settlement on Mars, with a little help from the airline company, Virgin.
Project Virgle had a 100-year development plan and an application for would-be Mars colonists.
Virgle does not sound quite as far-fetched now as it did then. More than any other company, Google has proven willing to support bold, costly and unorthodox projects far from its core business. But unlike the fictional Virgle, a plan to escape the Earth, many of Google’s biggest bets, including its investments of more than $1.5bn in renewable energy, aim to save it.
These efforts are spread across the company – software to track forests at Google Earth Engine, clean tech investments at Google Ventures, and Nest and its energy-saving thermostat, which Google acquired last year for $3.2bn. The most audacious, though, are found in a unit known as Google[x], where inventors, scientists and engineers seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
Google[x] is developing self-driving cars, which would make automobile travel radically more efficient, as well as energy-generating kites, self-flying vehicles to deliver goods and high-altitude balloons to provide cheap internet to people living in rural or remote areas.
We’ve come to expect this kind of thing from Google, but no other US company that I’m aware of has shown such boldness:
Imagine if General Motors invested in drought-resistant crops, or Disney decided to build small nuclear power plants, or Microsoft got into the algae business. That is the kind of boundary crashing that has become commonplace at Google.
This is about more than “doing good,” I’m sure. If even one of Google’s big, long-shot projects turns into a real business, the company will do very well for itself. Now, it’s being widely reported, Apple is at work on an electric car. This is all very encouraging.
You can read the rest of my story here.