Collective Intelligence for Mega Problem Solving

04/13/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

The year is 2050. The oceans have risen, populations are panicking, the simmering climate changes the tropics to deserts, and key resources are nearly depleted. Major governments are calling for a concerted rescue effort whose magnitude will dwarf World War II. How will we deal with these huge problems?

With the advent of Internet forums, wikis, research groups, and blogospheres, we have embraced much broader forms of problem solving and innovation. For scientists, the internet is now a communal research group. This learning and group communication mode is becoming known as "collective intelligence" and "crowd-sourced innovation." In its most general form, it is determining the consensus of many minds to find a response to a complex challenge. For example, collective intelligence could be used to find solutions for many problems engendered by climate change.

Dealing with Climate Change

The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence has been shepherding the development of an online forum called the Climate Collaboratorium. It will be a constantly evolving computer model of the Earth's atmosphere and human systems with inputs from online scientific chat rooms. All the variables and factors that can be imagined relating to climate, the environment, interactions with human beings, and ecology are included in the evolving model.

Professor Thomas W. Malone, the center's founding director and MIT Professor of Management, compares the Collaboratorium to the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. "The difference between the Climate Collaboratorium and the Manhattan Project is that this is a problem everyone in the world needs to solve, but because of new technologies like the Internet, it's possible to enlist far more people than during World War II."

Malone's climate project has been formalized to the "Climate CoLab." As of late 2014, it has over 33,000 registered members from more than 150 countries. Their organizations include NASA, the World Bank, the Union of Concerned Scientists, leading universities, businesses, government agencies, and student organizations.

The Climate CoLab is creating a blended analysis of what people can do about climate change including engineered solutions, and social, political, and economic solutions. Currently they are working on proposals to institute a U.S. carbon tax. The revenue would be used to benefit the poor, reduce corporate income tax, and reduce the federal deficit.

Building a Better Jetliner

The creative potential of collective intelligence has been applied at Boeing for commercial jet aircraft design. This company is noted for many innovations such as the first enduring airliner, the 707; the largest aircraft in the world, the 747; and the most purchased model, the 737.

The 787, which followed the 777, moved collective intelligence design into mid-stream. "We had over a thousand of our partners' engineering personnel here to jointly define the airplane," said Mike Bair, head of the 787 program for Boeing. "That way we get the best ideas from everybody, as opposed to just ours."

The 787 Dreamliner, in commercial service since 2011, in many ways has been a visionary great leap forward. It was organized to use the 777 virtual design approach and to exploit the advantages of using composite materials for approximately 50 percent of the primary structure instead of aluminum. The composites are carbon fiber reinforced plastics. The Dreamliner has set a new standard for fuel efficiency and has a more comfortable environment for the passengers.

In order to accelerate the design at lowest cost for this innovative plane, Boeing decided to shift much of the design to its supplier partners. The Global Collaborative Environment (GCE) networks all members of the 787 design team.

Previously, Boeing designed 70 percent of the aircraft. Now its 43 top-tier suppliers and many more sub-tier contractors from 24 countries could work at 135 partner sites. Key to project progress was getting these design-partner suppliers to give up their individually favored computer aided design (CAD) systems for the common language and format of Boeing's Catia V5 system.

Once this was done, the supplier could design many of the parts or assemblies from more general specifications supplied by Boeing. The communication between the supplier and Boeing was enhanced and standardized using the same engineering design and data communication programs. As a result, specification to a supplier dropped from 2,500 pages to 20 pages. Mike Bair explained, "We've realized that it's more effective when the people who are building the parts also do the engineering. They know better than us how their factories run, and to think that we can design a part that not only serves our needs but is also the most efficient for them to produce would be pure guesswork on our part."

Online research and engineering groups, cloud storage of big data, Internet forums, and collective intelligence are the new paradigm of creative thinking. The complex and critical problems confronting civilization today are demanding solutions at a much less leisurely pace than in the past. Darwin could arrive at his theory of evolution over a lifetime with no contrary consequences of his slow, methodical progress. Today, however, problems including global warming, food and water, and the tightly coupled national economies require genius level insights in a short time. For a particular problem, if the right solution is not agreed upon and enacted in time, the world system may have crossed the tipping point beyond which the system cannot recover.