Interesting. I suggested something like this years ago.
….What the USG desperately needs is a national security equivalent to DARPA that can both engage in deep thinking and have the freedom to run pilot programs to enhance America’s strategic influence that can later be expanded by our traditional power bureaucracies. This would be far more than a just a federally funded think tank – RAND, Brookings, Hoover , Heritage, AEI, CATO, CFR, Carnegie, CSIS and others all do a fine job of policy analysis. They also give statesmen a productive place to hang their hat as an alternative to whoring themselves out as corporate or ideological lobbyists. Another one of those is not what the times require.
What I’m proposing is a lot closer to a cross between a soft-power version of the Institute for Advanced Studies and a clandestine service – one with the objective of developing innovative programs to maximize the influence of American values and promote “Connectivity ” in nations mired in the endemic, isolated, misery of the “Gap”. This is not what the USG normally does. The bias of State and Defense, State in particular, when dealing with foreign policy questions tend to be orientated toward day to day, tactical, crisis management….
Google appears to be trodding down that very path:
Jared Cohen joined Google last week as the director of its newly created Google Ideas “think/do tank”-an entity whose objective is to dream up and try out ideas that address the challenges of counterterrorism, counterradicalism, and nonproliferation, as well as innovations for development and citizen empowerment. He has also landed a side gig as an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on innovation, technology, and statecraft.
Google has now hired Cohen to set up Google Ideas, which will look for innovative approaches to some of the stickiest international issues of the day. Out of his New York office, Cohen will, he told Foreign Policy, seek to “[build] teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges.” As for why he decided to give this a shot in the private sector, rather than in the public sphere, to which these issues have traditionally belonged, Cohen says there are “things the private sector can do that the U.S. government can’t do.”
The big thing is the resources and the capabilities. There are not a couple hundred [computer] engineers in the State Department that can build things; that’s just not what government does. You don’t necessarily have some of the financial resources to put behind these things. It’s really hard to bring talented young people in; there are not a lot mechanisms to do it. [And] on some topics, it’s very sensitive for government to be the one doing this.
During the Cold War, DARPA was a great success, as government bureaucracies go, partly because secrecy freed it from the normal political and bean counting constraints. The other reason was that DARPA’s focus was primarily upon engineering types of problems. Technically difficult, innovative and exploratory problems to be certain, but generally not the sort of socially constructed or influenced “wicked problems“. Or “intractable ones” ( DARPA delved into technical problems that were, due to the technological level of that earlier era, also intractable, but that is still a different kettle of fish from socioeconomic, perceptually intractable, problems). It would seem that Google Ideas will be tackling the harder set of problems to solve.
Google Ideas is an entity to watch but all the observation will be detrimental to the accomplishment of it’s mission, as the nature of social wicked problems carry with them vested interests determined to defend the dysfunctional status quo from which they derive benefits. In some scenarios, with extreme violence. In others, with political pressure. There’s a reason these problems in the human realm go unsolved – sweet reason and pilot program rational incentives might not appeal to leaders of La Familia or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Google might also need a formidible Google PMC.
Hat tip to Larry Dunbar.