Prerequisites for Collective Intelligence
Last week’s event Technologies for Collective Intelligence saw Michael Rovatsos from the Centre for Intelligent Systems and their Applications at Edinburgh University and Harry Wood from the Missing Map Project discussing different solutions for generating collective intelligence. The speakers articulated two very different approaches to the problem : Smart Society is a project which tries to engineer systems to support human-machine collectives. Missing Maps is using the Open Source mapping tools of Openstreetmap to mobilize vast numbers of remote volunteers to map vulnerable areas of the world. Both projects are engaged in finding new ways for people to collaborate to address complex societal problems.
The conference is part of series of events on Collective Intelligence and more broadly of Nesta’s research Programme on Collective Intelligence. The enthusiastic response to the series, confirms the growing interest for this topic. Since the initial use of the term a few years ago, Collective Intelligence is expanding to encompass decision making, knowledge sharing, co-creation, sensing and data analysis, citizen science, etc. etc.. Looking beyond the classic examples of Wikipedia and Open Source development, we can see a few common components emerging from the myriad of references. Most cases are based on extensive distributed networks of people, spread geographically or across a diverse range of skills and experiences. These networks operate upon or with some digital information system to produce solutions to complex problems. The key components seem therefore to be a networked public, digital platforms and the construction of joint systems of knowledge. To this short list we could add ideas of interaction, emergence and of hybridity between people and machines.
With this definition in mind, we’ve begun to develop a programme of research attempting to identify some of the requirements for collective intelligence to emerge. Experience has shown that putting a network of people around a joint platform only rarely generates new elaborate forms of knowledge.
So far, we are analysing three preconditions for collective intelligence:
- Cognitive: the ways people are capable to represent joint goals and co-ordinate around them.
- Organisational: the organisational and governance structures that enable the fair redistribution of knowledge across a network. Unfortunately, many models are extractive, siphoning value and knowledge away from the public. Other models are flat but make it difficult to assemble information in such a way to create valuable understanding. Instead, we are looking for structures which can collectivise value, whilst also making it easy for participants to contribute and benefit from the results.
- Technological: not all technological systems enable collaboration or the sedimentation of knowledge. For collective intelligence to occur, it's crucial that platforms can go beyond simply circulating knowledge but actually enable learning.
When asked how to ensure that people contribute their time and skills to joint projects such as Missing Maps, Harry Wood replied that the knowledge created by volunteers has to be open and reusable. This is a simple principle which however, has traditionally enabled the appropriation, manipulation, and circulation of cultural knowledge.