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Innovation at Work

How the MIT Climate CoLab harnesses collective intelligence to combat climate change

Thomas W. Malone speaks at the 2013 Climate CoLabThomas W. Malone speaks at the 2013 Climate CoLab

By Thomas W. Malone
Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management;
Professor of Information Technology;
Director, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence

There’s a strong consensus among scientists that our climate is changing, that human activities are part of the cause, and that, no matter what else we do, we’ll need to adapt to things like ever-rising sea levels, more frequent droughts, and more intense storms. Of course, no one knows for sure exactly when and how all these things will happen, but many people would say that figuring out what to do about these risks is one of the most important problems facing humanity today.

Unfortunately, this is a very complicated problem! Solving it will require combining knowledge across all disciplines—from the economics of technological change to the psychology of consumer decision-making to the politics of countries around the world.

And, also unfortunately, the largely topdown approaches we’ve tried so far—such as international treaties and national legislation— haven’t worked very well. These are all reasons for pessimism.

But there is at least one reason for optimism: We now have a new way of solving big, hard, complicated problems. As examples like Wikipedia, open source software, and citizen science show, it’s now possible to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people all over the world, at a scale and with a degree of collaboration that was never before possible.

At the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, my colleagues and I are now applying this crowdsourcing approach to the problem of what to do about global climate change. Five years ago, we developed the Climate CoLab, a global Internet-based community that pools people’s intelligence through a portfolio of competitions that seek promising solutions to this intractable problem. Our goal is to draw people in and motivate them. In return, they get recognition and visibility for their ideas, as well as a chance to make a difference. In some cases, the winners also receive monetary prizes.

Activity on Climate CoLab is arranged around a series of contests. Currently, there are 20 active contests on the site ranging from “How could a national price on carbon be implemented in the U.S.?” to “How can greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector be minimized?” to “How can we empower the public and communities to build awareness and demand for green buildings?” Members of the community enter contests by proposing new actions to address climate change. These ideas can span anything from a new technology, a marketing initiative, or a new business to a community program or even a new law. Other members of the community are invited to offer their support for and comment on the ideas.

In each contest, everyone—no matter who they are or where they come from—is allowed to enter and submit an idea. The rationale being that, the solution to climate change is one in which all of us, experts and citizens alike, need to be involved, because we never know where breakthrough ideas will originate.

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