Photos: Spencer Murphy

Mobi­li­sing milli­ons of brains

According to Geoff Mulgan, a professor at University College London, collective intelligence is the key to finding solutions to problems such as climate change. Philanthropy could play an important role in this process. But it doesn’t yet.

Our society needs to change if we’re going to have any chance of tack­ling chal­lenges such as global warm­ing and the unequal distri­bu­tion of wealth. What’s stop­ping that from happening?

Geoff Mulgan: We don’t have a coll­ec­tive vision of a brigh­ter future right now. Lots of people can envi­sage an envi­ron­men­tal disas­ter or tech­no­lo­gi­cal advance­ment but they can’t picture what a better society, demo­cracy or welfare might look like 40 years from now. We’re lack­ing the power of imgi­na­tion as a society. Phil­an­thropy has an important part to play in helping us rectify this situation.

Why phil­an­thropy?

Much of the invest­ment being made in posi­tive visi­ons of the future at the moment is coming from tech compa­nies. Univer­si­ties have distanced them­sel­ves from their respon­si­bi­lity to get invol­ved – and so have poli­ti­cal parties and social move­ments. That’s why we need to call on phil­an­thropy. In the UK, for exam­ple, the biggest phil­an­thro­pic spon­sor has laun­ched a programme called Emer­ging Futures. Local commu­ni­ties are working on projects to deve­lop a shared vision of their future. 

How important are these posi­tive visi­ons of the future in helping us find solutions?

We need to be able to get things imple­men­ted effi­ci­ently, but we also need a shared vision as a matter of prio­rity if we’re ever going to be able to solve problems. Without the power of imagi­na­tion, we’re lack­ing the direc­tion we need to iden­tify solu­ti­ons. Unfort­u­na­tely, that’s exactly where we often find oursel­ves at the moment.

And yet you still believe that our society can change for the better?

Who could take respon­si­bi­lity here? 

Phil­an­thropy could play an important role here, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Why not?

The short answer is that nobody is step­ping up. 

What about the long answer?

Net zero has been part of my work for 30 years. Twenty years ago, I was working on the UK’s carbon reduc­tion stra­tegy, which ended up helping cut emis­si­ons in half. What’s so fasci­na­ting about climate change is that the world has good coll­ec­tive diagno­stic tools – such as the Inter­go­vern­men­tal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was crea­ted back in 1988. Thou­sands of scien­tists were invol­ved in that. And yet there’s not the same level of orga­ni­sa­tion when it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing solu­ti­ons. Sure, govern­ments and univer­si­ties are show­ing some level of commit­ment. But it’s under­whel­ming, leaving a huge gap here over­all. It’s the same story for other major chal­lenges facing our society, such as the unequal distri­bu­tion of wealth and mental health problems. The know­ledge and data are out there in the world. But we’re not apply­ing it to find a solu­tion. That data and know­ledge isn’t being organised. 

‘Phil­an­thropy has been waiting a long time for the tools to be made available for these methods. Well, now they’re ready and waiting.’

Geoff Mulgan,
Univer­sity College London

And you think phil­an­thropy has a part to play here?

Yes. I want to encou­rage foun­da­ti­ons to do some­thing about closing these gaps. You see, the areas where we don’t even have a basic level of orga­ni­sa­tion for our intel­li­gence also happen to be the areas in which phil­an­thropy is invol­ved. That’s why phil­an­thropy is nowhere near as effi­ci­ent as it could be. This leads to a huge waste of resour­ces and work ends up being duplicated.

Why doesn’t phil­an­thropy step up?

We’re talking about ground­work that’s not all that exci­ting. It’s not a case of one insti­tu­tion doing ever­y­thing on its own or start­ing from scratch. Many of the foun­da­ti­ons have alre­ady been laid. Know­ledge cura­tion is just as important as creation.

That’s all a bit abstract. How can we orga­nise coll­ec­tive intelligence? 

This usually happens in three ways. Firstly, people are brought on board in an obser­va­tory role. They might be asked to count birds or keep track of symptoms during a pande­mic. Secondly, they can get invol­ved in finding a solu­tion and put forward sugges­ti­ons of their own. The space agency NASA alre­ady relies heavily on this as a stra­tegy. Thirdly, you can involve the public in actually rolling out measu­res. In all three of these scena­rios, it’s helpful when lots of people share their obser­va­tions and findings. The more the merrier when it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing solutions.

What make this approach so superior? 

It allows us to mobi­lise milli­ons of brains rather than rely­ing on a handful of univer­sity profes­sors. This is abso­lut­ely crucial when tack­ling complex problems in parti­cu­lar. There are alre­ady so many projects opera­ting in this way around the world. The United Nati­ons has alre­ady laun­ched Acce­le­ra­tor Labs in 100 count­ries. And plenty of cities and count­ries are using coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence methods to hit sustaina­bi­lity targets. I’m under the impres­sion that phil­an­thropy has been waiting a long time for the tools to be made available for these methods. Well, now they’re ready and waiting.

‘Without the power of imagi­na­tion, we’re lack­ing the direc­tion we need to iden­tify solutions.’

Geoff Mulgan,
Univer­sity College London

Why do these methods lead to better solutions? 

Because we open up the problem-solving process. This makes it more objec­tive because we can see for oursel­ves which solu­ti­ons actually have an impact. The old-school model of just brin­ging in a univer­sity profes­sor or laun­ching a govern­ment survey is no longer fit for purpose. An institution’s repu­ta­tion offers no guaran­tee that a solu­tion will work. And yet the tendency in phil­an­thropy is still to allo­cate funds to pres­ti­gious univer­si­ties such as Harvard, Cambridge or ETH. But this method is not very effi­ci­ent despite the fact that very intel­li­gent people work at these insti­tu­ti­ons. The coll­ec­tive approach is more open, more objec­tive and more inclusive.

With coll­ec­tive methods, isn’t there a risk of only the people who shout the loudest being heard?

The loudest, most extro­vert and powerful people tradi­tio­nally domi­nate the problem-solving process. We see this happe­ning all the time in meetings too. But there are inte­res­t­ing ways of struc­tu­ring meetings to maxi­mise the coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence of the group. Open Spaces and World Cafés are just two examp­les and the coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence field is inno­vat­ing in many methods that go far beyond these. 

But it’s not being fully exploited?

I ran a survey aimed at top univer­si­ties and govern­ments. They don’t use these methods, which haven’t made it into the main­stream either. Phil­an­thropy could make a real diffe­rence here by making these methods wide­spread as a way of impro­ving coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence. We still don’t really have syste­ma­tic selec­tion proces­ses that help us iden­tify the most suita­ble method in a given situa­tion. But the tech­no­logy to improve coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence in meetings does alre­ady exist. For exam­ple, the Taiwa­nese govern­ment uses a plat­form called, which is desi­gned to show clus­ters of people with simi­lar opini­ons on a topic within a large group and help them towards a consen­sus. Even though minis­ters and parlia­ment have the final say, the govern­ment invol­ves a large number of people in deba­tes. This means decis­i­ons are made on the basis of coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence within society rather than falling to a small group. Demo­cra­cies based on coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence are
a posi­tive alter­na­tive to autho­ri­ta­rian popu­lism, which puts all the power
in one person’s hands. 

The world is more focu­sed on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, or AI, than coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence right now. Does AI make coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence obsolete?

It’s actually the oppo­site. Most appli­ca­ti­ons clai­ming to find solu­ti­ons to problems in society using arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence are disap­poin­ting. But combi­ning arti­fi­cial and coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence is a more effec­tive option. AI isn’t able to deve­lop a net-zero stra­tegy for Switz­er­land. But there’s no end of ways of combi­ning CI and AI tools to make it easier to find solu­ti­ons. A year ago, some colle­agues and I produ­ced a report on coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence and AI for the UN. It conta­ins descrip­ti­ons of many prac­ti­cal projects in refu­gee support, the fight against unem­ploy­ment and waste that show how coll­ec­tive and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence can be combined. 

Will AI just be part of the solu­tion? Or is there a chance that it might become a solu­tion in its own right one day?

As it stands, AI isn’t very good at solving complex problems. It works well when it can leverage
an exten­sive data­base to answer a ques­tion. But data is part of the problem to be solved. There’s plenty of room for impro­ve­ment in the way we handle data. 

What could be better?

One issue is that our society needs to rethink the ques­tion of where data belongs. We need data inter­me­dia­ries that can protect and provide access to data, maxi­mi­sing  the social and public value of data.

Over to Google and Face­book to take action?

No. Google and Face­book want to own the data and maxi­mise private value, but not make it acces­si­ble to wider society and thus maxi­mise public value. It’s important that we don’t see data as comple­tely private. We’ve lost years to the discus­sions at both ends of this scale. It’s down to us to create the insti­tu­ti­ons we need. Those insti­tu­ti­ons then need to store data – say, on mobi­lity and health­care – and keep it secure while also making it acces­si­ble. I hope we can make that happen within this decade. Phil­an­thropy could get invol­ved here too, but it hasn’t so far. 

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