To Tackle the World's Biggest Challenges, We Need This

We speak with Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta, on the opening of the new Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

Why It Matters

The world is about to experience a massive rewiring of the human-data-machine relationship. Collective intelligence, a new fast-growing field, can contribute to recasting knowledge access and mobilization for change.

It’s no secret the world has big, sticky, hairy, “wicked” problems. Let’s take an obvious one: clean air in urban environments — an issue that is both individual and collective in scope. Clean air is also an issue of significance as Canada. As an example, carbon pollution from heavy-duty vehicles has almost tripled since 1990.

In order to tackle issues such as clean air meaningfully, Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, UK’s Innovation Foundation, has a practical approach for action detailed in his new book Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World.

Here it is in a nutshell: Impact-focused leaders need to use a variety of ways to understand the facts around complex social or environmental challenges.

Think: data on air pollution and particulates, sensors, citizen-generated data, traffic trackers, and building emissions.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Gather the information from multiple directions and then — this is the key point of the book — organize it much like the human brain works. Link together your observation, your analysis, your memory, and your creativity into an integrated system.

Failure to do so leads to collapsing systems.

“The problem with something like air quality is that all the systems are fragmented,” Mulgan says.

“Many cities have quite good sensor systems, but they’re completely detached from traffic planning or building management or citizen behaviour and, therefore, many cities are completely failing to improve their air quality.”

In other words: wicked problems need collective intelligence to move the needle. Put another way, collective intelligence is about pluralism of thought.

Collective Intelligence and the Future of Work

Here’s another example of a collective intelligence question.

Job markets are changing and how can collective intelligence respond to this rapid shift?

Mulgan explains it thusly:

“The question is: How do you turn labour market into a system whereby anyone making decisions about their job can have access to real-time data on what’s happening with skills needs, pay levels, happiness levels, and the best analysis of potential future trends.

“It’s a matter of both — and getting the right balance of the individual and the collective is key.

“In my view, that knowledge needs to be provided as a commons—a collective good—in order to allow lots of very individual decisions about how to navigate through that world.”