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Transcript: Putting collective intelligence to work on a global threat

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Thomas Malone, who is a senior professor at MIT.

Good afternoon, Thomas.

THOMAS MALONE – Good afternoon, Karl. I am happy to be here.

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KM – Thomas, one of the very interesting areas of research you are looking at is the use of collective intelligence to help us work on climate change. What are some of the things you are looking to accomplish with that?

TM – Many people would say that climate change is one of the most important problems that we humans are facing and it's a really big, complicated and hard problem: that's reason for pessimism. I think there is at least one reason for optimism, which is that we now have a new way of approaching really big, complicated, hard and global problems that wasn't possible even 15 years ago.

If you think of things like Wikipedia, Google or the Linux open-sourced operating system, these examples all show that it is now possible to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people all over the world to solve really big, complicated and hard problems at a scale and with a degree of collaboration that was never possible before. So our goal in this project is to use that approach applied to the problem about what to do about global climate change.

KM – That makes a lot of sense. How, specifically, can we get collective intelligence to help us with climate change?

TM – We have created a project called the Climate CoLab, which includes an online platform and a community of almost 4,000 people; so far, over 40,000 have come to the site. In this online platform and community people submit proposals, submit and increasingly develop with the help of other people in the community, about what to do.

In the phase of the project we are just now rolling out this week, we are breaking the problem down – instead of, as we have done in the last couple of years, saying "everybody solve the whole problem" – we are breaking the problem down into smaller subproblems, each of which has a different community of people working on it. Then, in a later phase of the project, we expect to integrate all those subproblem proposals into global solutions or proposals for global solutions for the whole world.

KM – So, Thomas, by the way you described it, there seems to be some kind of central intelligence – one or two great minds looking after that. Do I understand that correctly?

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TM – Our project team did exercise some intelligence, you might call it organizing intelligence, in coming up with the framework for breaking down the task based on three dimensions – what's being done, who is doing it, and where are they doing it? But within that framework we expect lots of people to be able to suggest lots of subproblems that are important and then we expect lots of different people to be able to integrate the solutions to the subproblems in different ways.

So there is some amount of what you might think of as hierarchical guidance for the overall process, but we are trying to preserve a great deal of local autonomy, decentralized creativity and problem solving in enabling lots of people to contribute to the solution of this really complicated problem.

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