SAN FRANCISCO -- Forget the frivolous. Innovate to make a difference.

That message was delivered Wednesday by Sebastopol tech guru Tim O'Reilly to hundreds of Internet royalty -- the people who design applications for Facebook, iPhones, and even the people who created those platforms.

"There are enormous problems to be solved, and enormous opportunities," O'Reilly said at the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, the influential and exclusive technology conference co-produced by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb.

He told the collection of online innovators to focus on changing the world by designing applications that will help solve food shortages, global warming or other problems plaguing Earth -- and avoid designing more sophomoric programs like ones that let people swap virtual beers on Facebook.

This year's Web 2.0 conference, which started Wednesday and ends Friday, focused on connecting Internet entrepreneurs with social activists trying to change the world. Speakers range from the founders of Facebook, MySpace and Yahoo to activists such as former Vice President Al Gore, Lance Armstrong and Larry Brilliant, who runs Google's philanthropic arm.

"It's time to use technology to make the world a better place," said Brilliant, director of Google.org.

The Internet search giant started an unconventional philanthropic arm by taking 1 percent of its equity and 1 percent of its annual profits to fund a for-profit charity. Google.org invests in companies it thinks will make a difference, and hopes its early investment will help the companies succeed. That's good news for entrepreneurs who want to design applications that can change the world.

Google.org's investment criteria are limited to alternative energy, early prevention of disease, and tools used to inform and empower the public.

But other firms are also looking to fund game-changing technology, even in this economy, said John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley's top venture capital firms.

"I do think the good ideas are going to get funded," he said.

Doerr also took an indirect question from President-elect Barack Obama. John Heilemann, a writer for New York magazine who had spent the previous three days with Obama and interviewed Doerr onstage Wednesday, said the president-elect wanted to know Doerr's thoughts on technology policy: What should Obama do to improve the entrepreneurial climate in Silicon Valley.

"He needs to kick start a huge amount of innovation in renewable energy," Doerr said.

Doerr applauded Obama for pledging to establish the first chief technology officer of the United States.

"It's a great idea and it's long overdue," Doerr said.

As part of the Internet's continued maturation, more traditional companies were at this year's conference looking for ways they could bring the collaborative ideals of Web 2.0 technology into their firms.

Joy De Vera, information technology officer for the International Monetary Fund, attended the event hoping to bring new ideas back to Washington, D.C., to make her organization more efficient. "We started adopting Web 2.0 a little over a year ago," she said.

Even in the IMF, widely viewed as conservative, employees have begun using internal wikis to collaborate on projects. Now De Vera wants to grow their use of social networking sites and find better ways to visualize data.

"People have been slow to adopt Web 2.0, but they're warming up," she said.

O'Reilly reminded attendees during his keynote that Web 2.0 is not just about social networking, it's about the Internet as a platform capable of hosting applications and bringing together data that everyone can harness.

Web 2.0 will help reinvent government, and help reinvent the power grid, O'Reilly predicted. And more than money, these potentials are what make Web 2.0 worth pursuing even in tough economic times.

"A lot of companies didn't start because they thought there was a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," O'Reilly said, "but because they thought they could do something interesting."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or nathan.halverson