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This article was published on October 19, 2014

The problem with problems: Google[X] chief on finding the right real-world issues to fix

The problem with problems: Google[X] chief on finding the right real-world issues to fix
Paul Sawers
Story by

Paul Sawers

Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check h Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check him out on Google+.

Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world‘ isn’t the simplest job title you’ll ever see, but that’s exactly what Obi Felten at Google[X] gets to call herself.

In more comprehensible terms, Felten is a director of product management for early stage Google projects, working alongside engineers, scientists and everyone else to help turn “science fiction-like technology into real world products and businesses.”

Such projects include smart contact lens, airborne delivery systems and the much talked-about driverless car, in case you were wondering.

Felten was at Wired’s annual conference in London last week, where she was on-stage to discuss everything from drones and defibrillators , to the importance of startups finding worthwhile problems to fix.

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So, how does Google[X] decide what projects to work on – why contact lens and drone delivery systems? They seem like a random collection of ‘things’, so what connects them?

“There’s nothing really that connects these projects,” saysFelten. “The only thing that connects them is that they’re all about solving very large problems.”Yes, Google[X] is all about fixing big, real-world problems. ‘Moonshots’, as Google refers to them, using radical technology solutions.The 2-seater self-driving car Google revealed earlier this year is perhaps the most obvious example of how the internet giant is looking to disrupt all facets of the technological realm, not just your online world.

“There are many problems with road transportation, one of them is traffic,” says Felten. “But the biggest problem is safety – 1.3 million people each year die on the road. Almost all of those accidents are caused by driver error. The self-driving car is never distracted – it’s never texting, it’s never doing its makeup, it’s never getting into arguments and it’s never drunk. We will have a fully autonomous car before my children have to pass their driving tests.”

There’s little question that road safety is a worthwhile cause, but surely there are more immediate concerns that are arguably more worthy of our time, such as droughts and famine?

“Eleven percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean water, and one in nine people still go hungry,” says Felten. “And that’s particularly disgraceful because everyone agrees there is enough food in the world, but we feed it to animals, we make bio-fuels, it’s wasted or it’s ‘just in the wrong place’. Ninety percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels, so we clearly have a long way to go on climate change. And 15 million people each year have a stroke, 6 million of whom die.”

Many of these stats make for familiar reading, and you could probably throw a ton more onto this list that would, subjectively speaking, be more worthy of our immediate attention. So why is Google working on energy kites rather than looking at ways to get more food and water to people?

“Some of these problems we work on at Google, like wind energy or internet access, and some we don’t, like water or food,” says Felten. “And that’s not because we don’t think they’re important, it’s because we haven’t found a breakthrough technology that we think we can apply to the problem.”

So if Google isn’t working on these problems – and nobody is necessarily suggesting it should be – then who is? Felten reckons startups are a good bet for fixing some of the bigger issues at hand here, but their focus is oftentimes a little too narrow.

The problem with problems

“I’m a startup mentor and an angel investor, and too many times when I talk to founders in the early stages, they’re picking a problem they think they can solve, rather than a problem that’s worth solving,” says Felten. “That must be the reason we have so many messaging and photo apps – [though] I’m not saying they aren’t useful, we all use them every day.”

In reference to her father who recently suffered a stroke, she says that although technology such as Hangouts is great for communicating with loved ones remotely, what she really, really wants is a device she can put on his wrist that will tell him before he has another stroke. “Will that take longer to build than the next mobile app, yes it will, but it will be worth it,” she says.

So how can we get more people to work on problems that matter? Felten reckons there are a few hindering obstacles.

“Large problems are daunting, they’re scary, they’re hard, it’s risky and expensive,” she says. “Another issue is less obvious – we just don’t spend enough time with a problem up front, and we reward people for problem solving, rather than problem stating. The truth is most people don’t like problems. We need to spend more time understanding the problem correctly.”

Google’s Project Loon is perhaps one good example of how problem-stating (i.e. finding the right problem to solve) is imperative.

Last year, Google launched a most ambitious project when it unveiled Project Loon, designed to bring balloon-powered internet to hitherto unconnected parts of the world. Tests kicked off earlier this year near the equator.

“If you want to take the internet to a village in Africa, you need three things,” says Felten.

“You need devices that are cheap enough, while you also need electricity to power these devices,” she continues. “And then you need the connectivity. So when the Loon team looked at the problem space, thinking about which part of the problem they should solve, they picked connectivity. Because they thought it was one of the hardest problems that nobody was having a go at. Other people have brought down the costs of smartphones, and they’ve brought down he cost of solar panels. But connectivity is still disgracefully expensive.”

This all ties in with what Felten was saying about startups not paying enough attention to the initial planning stages, in terms of establishing what the exact problem is they should and could be fixing.

“They [startups] often don’t spend enough time in that early stage,” she says. “They don’t spend enough time with the people who have the problem, to understand whether they can solve it.”

Pivoting projects

Google[X], with its bags of cash and resources, has pivoted a number of projects, including its Project Wing drone delivery service which was initially intended as a means for delivering defibrillators to heart attack victims. So you call the local emergency services, and the drone turns up with a defibrillator within 90 seconds.

“We were really excited about this, because it’s saving lives and it’s also a very hard technology problem to get something to you that quickly,” says Felten. “But it turned out that it wasn’t the right problem – because when our research team started talking to doctors and so on, even if there is a bystander [to help], it takes the person several minutes to figure out how to work the damn thing. If you imagine an elderly women dropping down on the floor, she’s not going to be reading the instruction manual. So we realized it wasn’t the right problem, and gave up on the idea.”

While Project Wing remains an early-stage ‘product’, Google is hoping that the technology can be used to deliver packages and disaster relief to remote areas in the future.

“This problem-stating process can be very painful,” continues Felten. “I want you to think of it as a problem ladder. Climbing the ladder is painful and hard, but once you’ve gotten to the top you’re rewarded with this amazing view, you understand the space of your problem a lot better and then kick the ladder away.”

Indeed, as American philosopher John Dewey once said, a problem well-put, is a problem half-solved. Of course, the size of problem really does make it harder to know which facet of it to focus on, as there are often many issues interwoven across it.

“Tackling large problems require a really weird mixture of audacity, believing in the impossible, and humility – acknowledge that it’s not going to be done any time soon, and not by yourself,” says Felten.

Though the Google[X] team undoubtedly has a ton of incredibly smart folk on board, it relies heavily on partners – academic labs for research, manufacturing partners and so on.

On Project Loon, for example, they worked with people who know how to make balloons. With the smart contact lens, Google brought in healthcare leader Novartis, because it not only knows how to make contact lenses, but it knows how to bring medical devices to market.

For startups, getting the right partners on board may not be so easy – Google is Google, after all. But the underlying point is a sound one – finding the right problems to fix may not be as easy or obvious as first seems.

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