I came home yesterday evening just in time to hear the 10 o’clock live team making fun of Google X’s Astro Teller whose job title is ‘Captain of Moonshots’. Perhaps funnier was Jimmy Carr making jokes about Google’s tax affairs.

Anyway, I think there is something in the idea of moonshot thinking, even if the language doesn’t quite fly on this side of the Atlantic. As Astro says, it’s really all about choosing the right problems.

When they’re choosing projects for Google X, they look for three things:

  • Something that is a huge problem
  • Where technology is the answer
  • And a radical solution (at least a 10X improvement) is just at the edge of being possible.

One of the things that Astro said that I found interesting was that they’d decided solving education wasn’t a project for Google X. The reason wasn’t the scale of the problem or the need for a radical solution — it was that they didn’t believe it was a technology problem. It sounds like it wasn’t a completely straightforward decision. It led to Sebastian Thrum — one of the founders of Google X — leaving to set up Udacity, which is trying to become the tech startup that does revolutionise education.

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Having options

It’s no surprise that tax is one of the big issues at Google’s Big Tent event this year. Ed Miliband was pretty damning about their tax arrangements this morning and then Eric Schmidt was pretty transparent about how they think about it this afternoon. For what it’s worth, I think the fault is with the crazy ways that international tax works rather than any single government or company. Google is just an easy target because of ‘don’t be evil’.

There are a few things about the politics of Silicon Valley that I find a bit distasteful (the noisy but small number of Ayn Rand disciples for example), but it is a predominantly progressive place. One example is the way that tech startups give employees a stake in the businesses. As Steven Johnson says, the fruits of tech startups have been shared much more widely than almost any other type of company. They dwarf companies like John Lewis that Ed Miliband held up as a beacon in his talk this morning. It’s a strange kind of ownership (option pool shares are normally non-voting shares), but it is what has created one of the most innovative communities on the planet — people who become rich through option schemes provide the funding for wave after wave of early stage risky startups as angel investors. There’s nowhere that has quite the same combination of expertise and cash helping startups get going.

So for me the tax affairs of tech companies are a bit of a red herring — of course they should pay their fair share everywhere they operate — Â but there’s also plenty we should be learning from them in terms of progressive and responsible capitalism.

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15 years later


May 16th 1998 was a pretty important day for me. I’d been skiving off university to help out on a campaign called Jubilee 2000 and that was the day that we knew something pretty special was going on. 70,000 people showed up to an event we’d been organising to form a human chain around the G8 leaders in Birmingham calling on them to cancel the debts of some of the world’s poorest countries.

While debt is still a problem for developing countries, its effects have also become a first world problem. Back then ‘austerity’ wasn’t the word that was used, but the way that the IMF would go into developing countries and demand swinging cuts to public services — including any health care or education that existed — was exactly the same. It didn’t work then and I can’t see it working now.

Image: Eventmakers