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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

A roundup of a year with the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network for Opening Governance works to develop the blueprints for more effective and legitimate democratic institutions to the end of improving people’s lives. Nesta is among a core group of 12 members focused on assessing existing innovations in governing and experimenting with new practices and, eventually new norms, for how our institutions make decisions at the local, national, and international level. The goal of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance is to build an empirical foundation and fundamental understanding of how the redesign of democratic institutions influences effectiveness and legitimacy in governance, to the end of improving people’s lives. Within the remit of the Network, Nesta's Collective Intelligence Group has been exploring how "knowledge commons" are being developed by patient organisations striving to collect the expertise of their members.

The Collective Intelligence Group was established in September 2014 to initiate a systematic investigation of the emerging forms of digitally enabled collaboration between large collectives of individuals. These networked publics are producing a new generation of knowledge commons, and are transforming the format of public deliberation, problem solving and decision making. There are various ways in which Collective Intelligence can be harnessed for social impact : by contributing to the construction of shared knowledge through the collection and dissemination of a wide range of information, expertise and data, by associating citizens in the complex tasks of running modern democracies and public services.

Our research in this fields is partially supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance.  The goal of the Research Network  is to build an empirical foundation and fundamental understanding of how the redesign of democratic institutions influences effectiveness and legitimacy in governance, to the end of improving people’s lives.

Within the remit of network we have initiated an analysis of the "knowledge commons" being developed by patient organisations, which currently constitute some of the most significant efforts to bring together experiential, clinical and scientific knowledge to serve a widening audience. We also conducted a more foundational reflection on the mechanisms and tools that enable collective intelligence to emerge in collaboration with the School of Advanced Studies of the University of London and the Ecoles des Mines in Paris. We strive to uncover some of the social and cognitive triggers of successful online collaboration.

Our research

Our research on patient organisations provides a framework to reflect on what tools should be developed to support collectives of patients, carers and health professionals in exchanging experiences and clinical findings. Complementing the main trend in e-health which focuses on individual self monitoring, collective e-health for patient organisations has the potential of transforming how charities link together patients to help each other and organise the collection of biomedical data. We have analysed the current state of knowledge sharing in a range of UK Patient Groups, carried out an ethnography of a small group of Lupus sufferers in London and are producing a report on the different available digital platforms for collective intelligence.

Patient organisations are important examples of collective intelligence practiced in challenging conditions with the aim of tackling complex problems. With more long term conditions and multimorbidities, more data, more available options in diagnostics, treatments, and care, knowledge is becoming one of the most critical assets of patients seeking optimal care. Patient organisations, working as collectives, are in an excellent position to support the work of translating, assembling and analysing the information involved in healthcare. Innovative patient organisations are already supporting the development of peer relationships, driving ambitious research programmes, sharing skills and unlocking the energy and expertise of patients. But they need support from better tools to extend this critical work.

Our research has shown that patient organisations are primary loci for opening governance of data, knowledge and exchange and offer a huge opportunity to health services to include collectives of citizens in their process of care. The NHS and other healthcare networks have committed to engage and empower patients and support them in developing expertise, enabling them to take a more active role in their own care. But knowledge tools and systems that engage only with individuals tend to exacerbate existing health care divides. Health knowledge work is hard, and requires time and resources and is best carried out in an open and collective system.

Some of our publications this year

Our publications reflect the main strands of research that currently characterise the Collective Intelligence theme.

Within the strand Collective Intelligence as Knowledge Commons we have published:

We have also contributed to a volume on the Future of Work by the IPPR with a chapter on Collective Intelligence and Work.

The Collective Intelligence in Knowledge Commons has organised a series of events to bring together some communities that are operating in this area with potential stakeholders in public services.

Some developments during the year

In April 2015 two further strands of research were associated to Collective Intelligence: Alternative Finance and Collaborative Economy. Both were ongoing projects that in the last 18 months have produced extremely impactful research and reports. Both themes are related to Collective Intelligence as they are expressions of the same phenomena. Where Knowledge Commons is focusing on the process of knowledge creation by diverse and dispersed groups, Alternative Finance is examining how crowdfunding platforms are the processes by which individuals and collectives intervene in the financial sector. Similarly Collaborative Economy is exploring the new forms of exchange and consumption that are enabled by digital platforms and online social mechanisms of co-operation. We are therefore extending our understanding of the phenomena and have been elaborating a more structured framework to support the deployment of collaborative platforms for different objectives.

During 2015 Nesta therefore developed four main strands of research in Collective Intelligence:

  1. Collective Intelligence as Knowledge Commons - building tools and platforms for the construction and exchange of knowledge by networked publics. Research is focusing on Patient Organisations
  2. Collective Intelligence as Decision Making and Deliberation - engaging citizens in public consultations and reflecting on digital democracy. Also examining how face to face deliberation can be improved
  3. Collective Intelligence and Crowdfunding. Alternative Finance is emerging as an alternative to traditional banking this is a phenomena that relies on social as much as economic transformations
  4. Collective Intelligence and new models of consumption and exchange

The Collective Intelligence Research Group in Policy and Research is in constant dialogue with some other ongoing strands of research on collective decision making in meetings, on collective decision making and deliberation in political decisions and citizen participation in public life. This work is carried out in other Nesta's programmes such as the D-Cent EU project for the creation of digital tools for direct democracy or Geoff Mulgan’s ongoing discussion of decision making processes in government and international institutions.

What have we learned this year?

According to our analysis, the objectives for which collective intelligence can be most effectively mobilised include:

- extending citizen participation in consultations and deliberations

- including wider groups in decision making

- extending knowledge harnessing and distribution

- distributing and opening the processes of data collection and distribution

- innovating in the processes of distribution of cognitive and digital labour

- supporting and experimenting in new models of collaborative economies

Each of these objectives entails a different set of technical tools, different governance models and potentially different financial mechanisms. For instance the process of engaging citizens in deliberating on development priorities requires platforms for discussion and synthesis that are significantly different from the platforms that can support the construction of open knowledge systems. Similarly the governance models to be deployed for systems to distribute the collection of data will be different from those that regulate new forms of exchange of services and goods.

This requires defining at the minimum the following elements:

1. a set of technologies enabling the social transactions that need to be deployed (e.g. platforms for deliberation or knowledge exchange)

2. a model of governance that includes explicit regulation on data ownership, access, authority

3. a model of the social and organisational relations being supported ( e.g. co-operatives, expert groups, civic groups)

4. appropriate financial and economic tools that can be leveraged by the collectives (e.g. P2P lending or community shares)

The major unexpected challenge for effective systems of collective intelligence is difficulty to identify appropriate platforms and software tools to support organisations in their process of widening participation and harnessing expertise.


Stefana Broadbent

Stefana Broadbent

Stefana Broadbent

Head of Collective Intelligence

Stefana led Nesta’s research work on Collective Intelligence, exploring the new forms of knowledge and problem solving that are emerging from the collaboration of networked publics, in…

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