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New Software Fuels New Knowledge

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Wikipedia is a stunning human achievement. It brings together the work of tens of thousands of contributors, and its high-quality content is available at no cost in dozens of languages to anyone who can go online. When compared to Wikipedia, the printed Encyclopedia Britannica looks expensive, clumsy and primitive, even though it had reigned for decades as the finest compendium of human knowledge.

But soon a new genre of software called collective intelligence could make Wikipedia seem equally primitive. Collective intelligence software will enable hundreds or even thousands of people to come together online to discuss ideas and generate new thoughts and knowledge.

For example, a Montreal-based organization called Imagination for People has developed software called Assembl that makes group thinking feasible and affordable, and considerably more efficient than any online forum or Facebook group. (I have no commercial relationship with this company.)

Large-scale collective intelligence is hard to do. It is a new field, and we don't know yet the best tools and methodologies to achieve real new knowledge production in a many-to-many peer-to-peer context.

Collective intelligence is more than a series of individual "iterations" done by independent people adding their own layers of knowledge, or using Google Docs to work on a common document. The Assembl methodology uses tools to "harvest" ideas and achieve both "collective sensemaking," which is a shared understanding of concepts, and "collective ideation," which is supported by creativity-enhancing mechanisms. It also offers collective decision-making tools, such as techniques to achieve "rough consensus" or contribution-based voting mechanisms.

What lifts Assembl above typical collaboration software is the emphasis it puts on creative visualizations of an evolving debate. These views range from interactive argument maps that show the argumentative links between ideas to metamaps showing graphs of connected ideas and the people supporting them.

Software that can make sense of conversations involving thousands of people will obviously prove enormously helpful in virtually every sphere of human activity, from citizen participation to crowdsourcing of public policies, from international consultations to corporate democracy. One of the most obvious applications is within institutions of higher learning.

Universities are ideal environments for collective intelligence software because they offer a zero-risk setting and it is easy to motivate participants. Students have developed strong habits of collaborative thinking. Faculty and students are experienced users of information technology.

I've written before how we need new methods for how the content of higher education -- the subject matter, course materials, texts, written and spoken word and other media -- is created. Just like the Encyclopedia Britannica, a $150 textbook today is obsolete compared to the rich information available online.

With the arrival of the Internet, universities need to recast themselves as part of an ecosystem, not individual towers. Universities need to envision University 2.0. Using tools such as Assembl, educators from different institutions could collaborate and share ideas to co-create new teaching materials and advance the knowledge in the various fields of study.

The preamble to this is already happening, with universities posting online their teaching materials for others to use freely. MIT began this ten years ago, and today gives away the core educational materials -- including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams -- for more than 2,180 courses.

Imagination for People has partnered with Open University (UK), which is Europe's largest online university, and with France Business School. The goal is to combine the (human) crowd and the (computer) cloud to inexpensively harvest the vast amount of knowledge exchanged in social networking and online groups, and to create nodes of knowledge which can be meaningfully connected to create visual maps.

The European Commission will use Assembl to improve collective sensemaking and creative ideation for the common good in large-scale discussions for social innovation. The European project, called CATALYST, involves education partners such as MIT and the Open University along with groups experienced in running social innovation networks. One key project is to co-create the future European Constitution.

The internet offers us access not only to information but to the intelligence contained in the brains of people around the world. As I see it, we are not in an "information age." We are in the age of "networked intelligence." It is characterized by collaboration and participation, and collective intelligence software offers huge promise.

Don Tapscott's most recent book is Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. As a Fellow of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, he is conducting a multi-million dollar program on new models of global cooperation and problem solving.