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Nesta launches report on collective intelligence

Report sets out how to combine machine and human intelligence to drive innovation that could solve social challenges

Global innovation foundation Nesta has published a report that sets out how combining human and machine intelligence can help to solve public challenges.

The report on collective intelligence said institutions have begun to release that in-house capacity and knowledge are too limited to tackle the speed, scale and complexity of many public problems.

Instead, the report said, they look to networks of people both inside and outside government to “make decisions and take action more effectively and, because those decisions involve the community, more legitimately”.

It said the internet era has decreased the cost of collaborating, regardless of physical distance, and that when groups of people work together online, they can create a wider range of ideas and insights.

“No amount of individual erudition or leadership skill substitutes for engaging with others to understand and define the problem to be solved and tapping distributed intelligence and expertise to refine the problem definition, design solutions, build partnerships and coalitions to implement those solutions, and distribute the labour of taking action and measuring what works,” the report said.

“Applying collective intelligence well and in the right circumstances can lead to public problem-solving that is both more effective and more legitimate.”

Nesta sets out several examples of projects that have used collective intelligence, including the GoodSAM project in the UK, which has created a network of volunteers first responders to “augment the capacity of formal first responders and give cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a heart attack victim in the crucial, potentially lifesaving minutes before ambulance services can arrive”.

It has also been used to join up 750,000 volunteers to provide help and care to the vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Peter Baeck, co-head of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta, said collective intelligence can play a “key role in combating the complex issues caused by Covid-19”.

He added: “Working more openly and collaboratively requires public bodies to develop new capabilities and procedures. We want to support the sector to meet this challenge.”

Another example is the Ushahidi project in Kenya, which originated as a software platform to crowdsource and map violent incidents following the country’s controversial 2007 election.

The platform was based on open source and the software developers gave it away. It has since been used for crowdmapping projects across the world.

“Today, Ushahidi’s network of users spans 160 countries,” said the Nesta report. “More than 150,000 activists have used Ushahidi for projects ranging from preventing forest fires in Italy to crowdsourcing incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt.”

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But the report added that there are many examples of collective intelligence initiatives that are short-lived and fail to achieve impact or scale up because they do not create “the mechanisms for sustained engagement between the crowd and the institution”.

“Public institutions too often relegate collective intelligence to one-off pilots or separate departments, rather than using collective intelligence to create more coherent strategies for transparency, accountability and public engagement,” it said, as Nesta set out a series of “key lessons” for sustained use of the principle of collective intelligence.

These include designing for success and planning ahead with a clear process and workflow, and ensuring the project solves a problem, is open and collaborative.

The report also cited the use of open source tools as key. “While open source software may not be any less expensive than other kinds of technology because of the need for modifications and support, communities can modify and adapt open source platforms to their needs, enabling projects to learn, evolve and be designed for a given project,” it said.

Tapping into existing passions and interests of the people involved is also seen as important, as is proper training and secure and robust funding.

Nesta also stressed the importance of the organisational culture and being transparent, both within the organisation and publicly, as well as having proper political support.

“Political support lends the collective intelligence initiative legitimacy within the institution,” it said. “Backing by a public champion makes it more likely that the public will see the initiative as important and that other bureaucrats will come to support it as well.”

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