In order to be wise, a decision has to include the stakeholders in its outcome, combine expertise with local knowledge and be a synthesis of the inputs. This is really hard to swallow. Trial by combat is as embedded in human cultures and institutions as the struggle between our super-ego and id are embedded in our psyches. In a tense situation, seriously entertaining the other guy’s point of view, much less incorporating it, just doesn’t feel safe.Fortunately we can break through the Not Invented Here barrier with a combination of process and technology.
After the election of Barack Obama, the organization Change.Org decided to identify the ten most important actions that the Obama administration should pursue during its first term.
To accomplish this, they invited people to visit their web site, contribute suggestions and then vote up or down on all the submissions. Over half a million people participated. Predictably, this lowest common denominator process concluded that the most important action for Obama to pursue as President was the legalization of marijuana. Up and down voting more often promotes institutionalized stupidity than genuine synthesis.
Had the Change.Org innocents done nothing more than replace the up-down vote with a simple ranking for each suggestion, they would have promoted some synthesis. Here is how this works.
Imagine that you are a town manager. A tornado alert is sounded followed by a massive storm. You need to know how to respond. All of the town’s employees have GPS enabled phones and you have the infrastructure to poll all phones simultaneously. You send out a message, “Is there storm damage in your immediate vicinity, yes or no.” The answers from the phones are displayed on a map on your laptop as red (yes) or green (no) dots representing the situation at the location of each phone. What you see in response to your question is red dots all over the map. This tells you what you already anticipated. There was a big storm and there is widespread damage.
Change this scenario a little. This time your message reads, “Look around you and rank the severity of damage that you see in your immediate vicinity from 1 to 5.” Now your computer screen fills with color coded dots ranging from blue, green, yellow, orange to red. You see a corridor of red dots crossing the north side of town. In a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds, you have assessed the situation and are able to triage and direct emergency services to where they are needed.
This is an example of collective intelligence. The observers understood their immediate situations. You did not painstakingly collect raw data person by person and analyze it. Data was evaluated at the source and self organized more or less instantly on your computer screen.
In the Change.Org situation, even if legalizing marijuana made the top ten, it would almost certainly not have been ranked number one. As embarrassed as they were, to their credit, Change.Org did not try to bury the result. Instead they listed the ten winners, “in no particular order.”
The most disheartening aspect of the Change.Org case is that this author among others, sent scores of emails warning Change.Org about what was likely to happen. Then, a few months later, the Obama administration undertook an almost identical exercise called The Citizen’s Briefing Book via the www.whitehouse.gov web site. The same mob decision approach, the one so passionately despised by Franklin, Madison and Jefferson when they argued for making the United States a republic rather than a direct democracy, was used with the same predictable results.
This illustrates how easy it is to make poor decisions when there is little or no understanding of the architectures of participation. There is nothing inherently obvious in the process of promoting collective intelligence, other than that thorough communication and trust are essential precursors. Neither the mob approach nor the parochial elite approach work. The elite approach fails because its exclusivity creates “wicked” fairies. The mob approach fails because there is no qualitative appraisal of information.
If the global environmental crisis is as serious as most of us believe, our objective must be to produce highest common denominator decisions that do not end up creating more problems than they solve. In the history of our species, we have never more desperately needed the synthesis of originality, agility and sustainability.
In spite of this, I seriously doubt that any of us entertain any illusions that fundamental change will start from inside our formal institutions. The real work of creating a sustainable future will have to be done in a different venue. Fortunately, the most powerful mechanism for positive change on the planet is wide open and that is where this transformation has already begun.
I first experienced the Web in its infancy in the late 1970s. As far as I knew then, it was just people using computer terminals to communicate cross country. But when you set your telephone handset into a thingy with two rubber suction cups, you instantly had access to relevant information within a trust-base social system called the worldwide scientific community. As such win-win systems tend to, it grew at an astronomical rate.
From its beginning, people used it to promote change; not just garden variety innovation, but real structural transformation. There is nothing new about encyclopedias or socializing, but social networking sites and the Wikipedia are dramatically more powerful structures for disseminating usable information and promoting social cohesion than the structures that preceded them.
Mostly, the Net’s evolution has been stigmergic, like termites constructing a twenty foot tall insect arcology by leaving tiny mud balls at the end of scent trails laid down by anonymous siblings. While spontaneous, indirect coordination among people pursuing their individual passions has improved the usefulness of the Net, we are not likely that way to fully tap its potential as a medium for mobilizing our collective intelligence.
The public policy side of the Internet is an example of the difference between what is and what could be. Moveon.org has been one of the earliest pioneers in using the Net to influence political policy. Despite being a relatively populist organization, it uses the big media few-to-many model. It substitutes progressive political activists for capitalists while contributors fill the role of advertisers. The activists, using intuition and ideology, decide which policies to promote. To the contributors they sell productions designed to support topical political positions; typically letter campaigns or ads.
During its emergence, Moveon.org did several many-to-few experiments apparently looking for a way to engage public participation in developing its policy agenda. All of these attempts were based on a vote up or down model and produced disappointing results. The organization seems to have settled for having the contributors prioritize set piece lists of issues provided by the leadership.
Moveon.org and similar Net based proselytizers provide a welcome leavening agent in the political system, but there is little synthesis and thus little engagement of a larger collective intelligence.
While Moveon.org is representative of the typical missed opportunity to use the Net to promote collective intelligence, there are successes. Everyone is well aware of the Wikipedia. It is fashionable to complain about inaccuracies in the articles but research indicates that they are as accurate as most encyclopedias. More important, inaccuracies are typically corrected in the space of hours rather than months. Wikipedia has even been a superior source for information on breaking news as it was in the shootings at Virginia Tech. Students were updating and correcting the entry as events unfolded.
Wikis have shined in catalyzing focused stigmergic behavior in emergencies. A Wiki blossomed overnight to provide support for victims of hurricane Katrina—part of the Wiki was devoted to re-uniting dispersed families. A Wiki spontaneously emerged in advance of hurricane Ike. It helped people at risk track the storm and prepare for it.
The United States Patent Office has discovered another use for many to one process. The search for prior art is a particularly time consuming and therefore costly aspect of securing a patent. The patent office has now made it possible for interested citizens to do the searches themselves and alert the patent office to potential examples. This dramatically shortens search time and cost. Many hands make light work.
In another example of mobilizing collective intelligence on the web, researchers at the University of Washington posted an online game to help them explore protein folding. Anyone can download the game and play Foldit. Thousands of people, having fun, are actually fulfilling the function of a vast supercomputer entirely dedicated to discovering all the possible ways a protein might be folded to produce different biological effects.
As with ants, bees and termites, self organization can give rise to superior adaptive behavior. The Internet is effective in that respect; making it easier for individuals to communicate, verify, organize and engage. This reinforces positive sum behavior.
The essential next stage is to make the structure of self organization more accessible, friendly and consciously self improving. The insect equivalent would be all of the termites jointly designing their arcology in response to verified emerging conditions as they simultaneously build it.
We can add structures to the Internet that will expand the use of our collective intelligence. The actual design of such structures is not particularly difficult. Much of that has already been evolving in pockets of innovation for decades.
Almost fifteen years ago, using a wise decision model based process called the Advanced Management CatalystTM (AMCat), a diverse group of industry experts created a strategy for the United States shipbuilding industry in three days.
Through synthesizing their wide range of knowledge and experience, they also discovered a critical constraint on the future of American shipbuilding. While U.S. marine research was the best in the world, American companies were not translating that research into mainstream performance. The insights from this event traveled like wildfire throughout the industry.
The technology and infrastructure is in place to support rapid implementation of such stigmergic decision processes. We are talking about months, not years, to do this. That is good because we cannot have wise and universally compelling decisions soon enough.
With structures in place that leverage collective intelligence, the initiative of thousands, someday millions, of people can be brought to bear on creating and implementing a vision for humanity’s common future. We will be able to share a vision, act from a strategy and communicate with a clear voice. People will support what they have personally participated in creating.
Michael Thorne Kelly, Ph.D. is Chairman of the Board and Vice President for Research of Advanced Management Catalyst Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org 207.442.0658. The full article from which this is excerpted can be read at http://wiseaction.ning.com
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