AI and collective intelligence for social good in Scotland

Over the last 20 years, Scotland has seen major social, economic and technical advances across our society. However, as we head into a new decade, we still face many significant, longstanding and complex social challenges.

Not only does Scotland face the growing realities and consequences of our climate emergency but we continue to have the lowest life expectancy of any country in Western Europe, levels of homelessness are rising and almost one in four of our children live in poverty. Young people face a number of issues related to mental health and wellbeing, adding complexity to the challenges they already face growing up in a rapidly-changing society. There is a need to ensure we have an education system that is preparing them with the skills they will need for the future of work. More generally, our economy still faces a well documented long-term challenge around poor productivity levels. At the other end of the age spectrum, many of us are living longer with more chronic conditions than ever before and hundreds of thousands of our older population face a social epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

In full awareness of these intractable social problems and the growing gap between demand and resources for local services, COSLA has recently called for an increase in local government funding in the upcoming budget. And the Accounts Commission, the local authority audit body, is pushing for “transformational change” at a local level, over just further efficiencies and cuts.

In the face of these challenges, it is clear that when thinking about how our communities, governments, public services, employers and civil society can best respond to the challenges of our time, more of the same won't work.

We need to be smarter than just more cuts to services and salami slicing of budgets. We need to think differently about the complex and interconnected social challenges we face in Scotland today. We need better techniques for gathering insight and informing our approach to problem solving and testing new solutions. We need to pool the best of our resources - our collective knowledge and experience, and the capabilities afforded us by technology.

Enter, AI and Collective Intelligence.

Collective Intelligence can be best understood as the improved capacity and knowledge that is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas and insights. Collective Intelligence helps social problem solving by improving how we:

  • Understand Problems: by generating context relevant insights, facts and information on the dynamics of a given problem/situation.
  • Seek Solutions: in helping find novel approaches or tested solutions from elsewhere, supporting innovators to create new ways of tackling the problem.
  • Decide and Act: by making decisions with, or informed by, collaborative input from a wide range of people and/or relevant experts.
  • Learn and Adapt: by better monitoring the implementation of initiatives by involving citizens in generating data, and sharing knowledge to improve the ability of others

Our recently published Nesta Playbook for Collective Intelligence Design explores the wider opportunities in these four areas of Collective Intelligence in more detail.

Most people are more familiar with the term Artificial Intelligence (AI) but often that familiarity is plagued by misconceptions.

In recent years, there has been a lot of hype and false alarmism, about the social and economic consequences of technologies like AI and how these will shape our worlds of work and our societies. In 2020, we should build on some of the great work already done or underway in Scotland to shift towards more realism and aspiration in the discussions and considerations about how AI can be used to help tackle the pressing social issue of our time.

One such way is in harnessing the processing power of AI to new problem solving techniques like Collective Intelligence. But this is not the limit of the potential of AI to be a force for good to improve our lives in Scotland.

Our AI for Good fund is awarding £100,000 of funding to projects based in Scotland using AI to help tackle social challenges. We received more than 70 applications looking at how AI can be used on issues like environmental decline and the climate crisis, robotics and smart data in health, monitoring trends in online social interactions for early indication of mental health issues and data processing in support of smarter public service resource allocations.

All were inspiring and creative examples of how harnessing cutting edge technology can be an efficient and effective enabler of social good in Scotland.

The future doesn’t have to be doom-laden and change doesn’t always have to be negative. We can shape our own positive future by being informed, engaged and proactive in seizing our opportunities. The people of Scotland have led the world in technological innovations which benefited society - the telephone, bicycle, penicillin, even the overdraft, were all invented or discovered by people from Scotland.

If you want to find out more about how we can continue to harness the latest methods, techniques and technologies to shape a more inclusive society and help address some of the biggest social issues of our time, then register to come along to our workshop on AI and Collective Intelligence at this year’s SCVO Gathering event on Thursday the 20th of February in Glasgow.

We hope to see you there.


Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Head of Nesta Scotland

Adam led the work of Nesta in Scotland, working across missions, practices and partnerships to deliver impact against our strategic objectives in Scotland.

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Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Peter leads work that explores how combining human and machine intelligence can develop innovative solutions to social challenges.

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