How to mobilize group intelligence

Beth Simone Noveck:

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French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with visitors at COP21 in Paris.

French President François Hollande greets people at the 2015 world climate-change summit in Paris.Credit: Philippe Wojazer/EPA

Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World Geoff Mulgan Princeton University Press: 2017.

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 14, Dana Lewis got used to hassle: using a portable glucose monitor to measure her blood sugar levels, and then calculating with a second device whether and when to inject herself with the insulin that she also carried. She set alarms overnight lest her blood sugar drop fatally low. In 2013, dissatisfied with the lack of innovation by conventional medical-device firms, she created an artificial, do-it-yourself pancreas system that administers the right amount of insulin automatically. Later, she decided to make the technology available to all those with the illness who were willing to build their own system. The resulting Internet community now has 400 ‘DIY diabetics’ who share readings online and collaboratively improve the device over time.

This example illustrates, as Geoff Mulgan writes in Big Mind, that in the Internet era it is an anachronism to assume that “intelligence resides primarily in the space inside the human skull”. Online, large-scale group collaboration is encouraging the emergence of collective intelligence — the focus of Mulgan’s lucid and far-ranging book. After founding the think tank Demos, Mulgan served as director of the UK government’s Strategy Unit and head of policy under former prime minister Tony Blair. Today he leads the London-based innovation foundation Nesta.