Since its launch in the early 1990s, the Internet has changed the way we communicate, share information, and work. But for the past few years, our new connectivity has done something more than increasing information exchanges across borders and continents. It has dramatically changed how we think about and find solutions to collective issues. Crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and online petition platforms such as Change.org have altered the way we support each other and stand for the causes we care about. But can the Internet – and our use of collective intelligence – truly change how we solve big worldwide problems like climate change?
This is one of the battles that the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has taken on. Sloan’s Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI) stands at the forefront of research about how collective intelligence and new technologies change the way people work together. Set up as a collaborative project between faculty from Sloan, the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, among others, the CCI conducts research on how connecting people online can make them collectively act more intelligently than they previously did, as groups or individuals.
In September 2013, the founder and current Director of the CCI, Professor Thomas Malone, was invited to the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China, to act as a discussion leader of the panel “Reinventing the Workplace”. At this session, Professor Malone spoke about how the Internet is bringing new possibilities to how we organize work.
“Among other things, new information technologies help people have more information to make decisions for themselves,” said Professor Malone. The Internet has given people access to an increasing amount of information, and this new information has allowed employees to make a larger contribution to their companies than they previously could. In this kind of work environment, says Professor Malone, employees are managed more loosely, which gives them more freedom and the incentive to work hard for the company. And, according to Professor Malone, when people have more freedom, they are often more creative and more highly motivated. This is the kind of work environment that information technologies have brought to the twenty-first century.
Hal Gregersen, Professor of Innovation and Leadership at INSEAD and facilitator for the “Reinventing the Workplace” panel, agrees with Professor Malone. In his opinion, the workplace has changed in such a way as to give more space to collaboration not only across a company’s same hierarchic level, but also across different levels. This cross-level interaction is well illustrated through team collaboration and project management websites such as Asana and Trello. Asana, for example, aims to “improve the way teams communicate and collaborate” – and is already used by thousands of teams around the world, including employees at Twitter and LinkedIn.
Through improved team collaboration and project management, the Internet has already changed how companies work, from within. But the benefits of collective intelligence go far beyond this, and now change how people, inside and outside of a community, share solutions to various problems.
The new benefits of collective intelligence are well illustrated by InnoCentive. On its website, companies can “outsource difficult research problems, or research questions [called “challenges”], to get answers from…a global pool of over 200,000 scientists and technologists around the world,” explains Professor Malone. InnoCentive also creates a “collection” of possible solutions to a company’s problems, and the company then selects one or two solutions to be rewarded, in order to obtain the intellectual property rights to use these solutions.
To date, more than 1,650 challenges have been posted on InnoCentive, leading to more than 40,000 solutions being submitted. These challenges cover a broad range of issues, from “Ways to Prevent Theft in an Open Shelf Retail Environment” to creating a “Disposable Filtration of Particulates from Cleaning Water,” to name just two. Of the challenges that companies have posted, 85 percent have found a solution that has been awarded by the company, with the winners receiving between $5,000 and $1 million, depending on the complexity and nature of the problem.
The CCI is also working on its own project using collective intelligence: The Climate CoLab is an online platform that allows people all over the world to propose solutions to fight climate change. In the last few months, the CoLab has seen a doubling of its registered users, to over 10,000 people. As Professor Malone describes it, the proposed solutions “range from how to generate electric power with fewer emissions, to what city governments can do with rises in the sea level.” Every year, the CoLab selects a winner in each of its contests, based on the feasibility of the proposal, its novelty, its potential impact on climate change, and its presentation.
This past year, the CoLab received about 400 proposals in 18 different contests ranging from “Agriculture and Forestry” to “Replacing Diesel Generation”. As finalists, the people behind the 28 winning proposals have been invited to the conference “Crowds and Climate: Mobilizing Crowds to Develop Ideas and Take Action on Climate Change,” to be held at MIT in November 2013. During the conference, the 28 finalists will not only compete for a Grand Prize of $10,000, but will also be able to present their ideas to investors, policy makers, and officials from non-profits and foundations. This is a big step not only in terms of finding solutions to climate change, but also in terms of the impact collective intelligence can have in society.
In the past few years, collective intelligence has had an essential role in fostering crowd-sourced solutions to various problems, ranging from a company’s specific workplace issues to challenges related to climate change. Because of this role, Professor Malone argues that collective intelligence will soon become increasingly common, especially in areas that can make heavy use of information technology, such as consulting, legal work, and manufacturing. With InnoCentive, hundreds of companies around the world already outsource solutions to their challenges. It is likely that other types of companies, in the legal and manufacturing spheres for example, will use collective intelligence to become more efficient and solve the issues they are facing. If this is the case, collective intelligence is set to become an essential factor in a company’s capacity to achieve long-term competitiveness – and we will see far more examples of it in the next decades.