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MIT Sloan professor highlights new research showing the potential of web-based contests as a tool to address the world’s most complex problems

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 1, 2017 – At a conference in Portland, Oregon yesterday, MIT Sloan Professor Thomas W. Malone presented a new research paper highlighting the potential of web-based contests to address major international issues such as those affecting the environment, health, economic inequality and education. 

In Putting the Pieces Back Together Again: Contest Webs for Large-Scale Problem Solving, Professor Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence at the Sloan School of Management, shows how web-based contests that combine ideas from many different people from diverse backgrounds can be used to help solve complex global problems. 

Malone is the founder and principal investigator of MIT’s Climate CoLab, an online community and crowdsourcing platform that allows people from all over the world to develop proposals for addressing climate change.  Climate CoLab uses integrated ‘contest webs’ to break down complex problems into solvable parts and then encourages people to collaborate on exploring different ways to put the parts together into solutions for the overall problem. 

“At a very high level, you can think of a contest web as a way of creating intellectual supply chains for complex intellectual products,” says Malone.  “For physical products like cars, there is a supply web of people making all the necessary components of the car. In a sense, what we are doing is creating something like that for global issues such as climate change.” 

More than 500,000 people from virtually every country in the world have visited the Climate CoLab site since its launch in 2009.  Over 80,000 have registered as members and over 2,000 proposals have been submitted. The 2016 activities included 17 contests on a range of topics from how to reduce emissions from electric power generation to how towns can adapt to changes brought on by climate change. That year’s Grand Prize winner was the Interactive Business Energy and Emissions Dashboard for Cities, a carbon mapping tool that connects cities and businesses working to cut carbon emissions, proposed by the company Climate Smart. The prior year's Grand Prize went to a device called SunSaluter, a rotating solar panel that uses dripping water and gravity to follow the sun across the sky while also filtering the water into clean drinking water.

Contest webs also have the ability to bring together unlikely collaborators. In one example, a self-proclaimed “biocentric stay-at-home Mom” eventually began to collaborate on a global proposal with over 25 other authors.

Addressing global problems requires a complex set of actions that contest webs can begin to sort through including: What actions will be taken, where the actions will be taken, who will take them and how they will be taken.  

“For example, even though there’s a broad consensus in the scientific community that something needs to done about climate change, figuring out what to do requires all kinds of expertise—from the engineering of new technologies to the economics of technological change; and from the politics of government regulations to the psychology of human behavior,” says Professor Malone. 

“This work suggests a new way of harnessing the collective intelligence of thousands of people around the world to combine many different ideas into integrated solutions for some of our most pressing and difficult problems,” says Malone.  

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.