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Web 2.0 Summit: Larry Brilliant on investing in the future

In the spirit of the new era in American history, philanthropy, rather than business models or Facebook, was the first topic of discussion at the annual San Francisco confab.

SAN FRANCISCO--"We are at an inflection point where there are enormous problems to be solved and enormous opportunities."

Those weren't the words of President-elect Barack Obama. It was the Pied Piper of Web 2.0, Tim O'Reilly, making his opening remarks at the Web 2.0 Summit here Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of the change in power in Washington, D.C. (opportunities) and the economic meltdown (one of the problems), the navel-gazing tech industry lives on. Speakers at the event include VC legend John Doerr, Yahoo's Jerry Yang, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Alibaba's Jack Ma, Intel's Paul Otellini, Al Gore, and Lance Armstrong. Co-host John Battelle, who is also the CEO of ad network Federated Media, was quick to thank the sponsors who came through with the money, citing the tough climate for advertising.

But the Web 2.0 Summit inaugural session didn't start with talk about Web 2.0 business models, entrepreneurial riches, or surviving the downturn. In the spirit of the new era in American history, philanthropy and investing in a better future were the first topics of discussion.

Google.org Executive Director Larry Brilliant talked about how his organization put $100 million to work in the past year. Google invests 1 percent of Google's equity and profits (in various forms) and employee time to fund the organization.

Google.org Executive Director Larry Brilliant speaks Wednesday at Web 2.0 Summit 2008. Dan Farber

Most recently, Google.org's "Predict and Prevent" initiative gave grants of more than $14 million to support partners working in Southeast Asia and Africa to prevent the next pandemic.

Google.org isn't purely philanthropic in its approach to investing in a better future. The Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal initiative, for example, has made $50 million investments in alternative energy companies. "It's different than pick and shovel investments," Brilliant said. "It is important that we make money on these investments and for the companies to make a profit...If they don't make money, no one else will and we won't be able to take advantage of capital flows and market forces."

Google.org has invested more than $10 million in enhanced geothermal energy. "Geothermal, if it works, is better than intermittent producers of solar and wind, and it's also ubiquitous," Brilliant said, noting that he meets with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page every week to discuss Google.org.

Brilliant also touted the virtues of The WELL, which he co-founded in 1985, over the current set of online communications services, such as Twitter and instant messaging. The WELL is structured to support more coherent conversations on important issues, he said. "Coherent" is probably the key word, given the more linear and chronological nature of WELL conversations, but the use of blogs, instant messaging, wikis, and social networks, as well as more traditional forum software helped to catapult Barack Obama from relative obscurity to the White House in two years.

See also the ZDNet video below of Brilliant speaking on philanthropy at this week's Dreamforce conference, also in San Francisco: