Codifying collective intelligence with UNDP

After nearly eight months of prototyping and testing with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) staff from more than 72 countries, we’ve now launched the beta version of our Playbook for Collective Intelligence Design. This blog explains why and what is in it.

More than the sum of the parts

Collective intelligence is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas and insights to address a social challenge.

As an idea, this isn’t new. It’s based on the theory that groups of diverse people are collectively smarter than any single individual on their own. But since the start of the digital age, collective intelligence has really evolved.

Becoming Smarter together.JPG

Technologies such as the internet are helping us to pool ideas and connect more people in entirely new ways. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help enhance our own human intelligence - for example, analysing large volumes of data to make better predictions. And new sources of data, from satellites to mobile phones are enabling us to create new intelligence about our world.

Why do we need collective intelligence for the Sustainable Development Goals?

The most critical challenges facing us today are complex challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an example of this type of challenge: interconnected, distributed, transboundary and requiring change at multiple levels from policies to institutions and individual behaviour.

This complexity is one of the reasons that progress is lagging. Current areas of focus include unemployment, urbanisation, civic participation and waste management, among others.

As part of our two year partnership with UNDP, we are helping the organisation’s new Accelerator Lab Network to innovate better by using collective intelligence to address the gap between the SDG goals and the current trajectory.

In practice, this means using new sources of data to rapidly understand the dynamics of what is happening; harnessing collective brainpower to generate multiple solutions much more quickly; facilitating space to think, reflect and decide collectively on a new course of action; as well as building capacity to harness data for real-time adjustments and orchestrating knowledge that enables others to act too.

Our shared ambition is to help the UNDP Accelerator Lab network to become skilled in mobilising intelligence of all kinds - data, information, insights and ideas. In the 21st century, we believe this will matter as much as mobilising money or power. It’s one of the reasons why the Accelerator Labs will work together across the network on shared issues… with the aim of becoming smarter together to tackle problems more effectively.

The Collective Intelligence Design Playbook


Since Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design was set up 18 months ago, we have studied hundreds of examples of collective intelligence projects. Although we’ve found lots of promising practice and a growing academic field, a major gap was the lack of design tools and guides to help UNDP or any other organisations consider how they might harness collective intelligence to solve their challenge. Through our partnership with UNDP, we have made a first attempt to address this.

In October, we launched the beta version of our Collective Intelligence Design Playbook. It is our initial effort at codifying collective intelligence design as an innovation method for complex challenges.

We define collective intelligence design as the art and science of bringing together diverse groups of people, data (including information or ideas) and technology to solve complex challenges.

Our Playbook contains over 30 activities, and 69 prompt cards to help teams do this.

Around 370 UNDP staff from 72 countries have so far helped to test and iterate many of the tools and activities in the Playbook. We have now published them under creative commons for others to use and adapt themselves.

People pointing at cards and canvas

Prototype version of the Collective Intelligence Design Playbook Prompt Cards and Canvas being used by UNDP Accelerator Lab teams

The collective intelligence design process

A diagram showing the four purposes of collective intelligence

The four purposes of collective intelligence

At the heart of the playbook are four purposes for using collective intelligence design: to understand problems; seek solutions; decide and act; and learn and adapt. Having clarity on purpose, informed by the issue being addressed, is the starting point of the design process.

The design process is broken down into five key stages - each of which is described briefly on page 43 of the Playbook, and relates to a corresponding section of the Collective Intelligence Project Design Canvas. Each design stage has a number of key design questions that teams work through. These are complemented by activities that can be used in a mix-and-match approach to deepen thinking or help if the group has become stuck. In the same way, the prompt cards contain a variety of popular collective intelligence methods and tactics to help stretch thinking about which combination might deliver the optimal results.

What next?

Over the next year we’ll continue working with UNDP’s Accelerator Lab network to design and deliver collective intelligence projects that address critical sustainable development issues. We’ll be learning together about the tools and methods that work well, and how we can improve them. This will feed into a revised an updated version of the Collective Intelligence Design Playbook sometime in early 2021.

In the meantime, we’ve also made it open for others to use, hack and feedback on. All comments and ideas are welcome.

You can download the Playbook from the Nesta website. Read how the Accelerator Labs are applying the collective intelligence design principles.


Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

The Centre for Collective Intelligence Design explores how human and machine intelligence can be combined to develop innovative solutions to social challenges

View profile