William Eichler 14 February 2022

How councils can harness the power of 'collective intelligence'

How councils can harness the power of collective intelligence image
Image: HuHu / Shutterstock.com

In this age of collective outrage and fake news it might be tempting to scoff at the idea of the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Ten minutes on social media can easily lead one to conclude that ‘collective intelligence’ is an oxymoron.

But cynicism is easy. The hive mind is in fact remarkably productive and researchers working with the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID) at the innovation foundation Nesta have been building up a body of evidence to demonstrate exactly how useful it can be for local authorities.

Kathy Peach, co-director of CCID, explains the centre’s mission. ‘When people think about collective behavior at the moment, it tends to be almost a negative because the first thing you think of tends to be collective stupidity,’ she tells LocalGov. ‘What we’re trying to do is flip it on its head and say actually what we really need to do is work with institutions, work with communities and use technology to enable those positive collective behaviors.’

This is important in a whole host of areas. For example, local authorities across the UK have declared a climate emergency and are encouraging residents to reduce their carbon emissions. This is easier said than done. In order for a particular council policy to be effective, local leaders need to harness and guide – ‘nudge’ as it was once called – collective behavior to ensure that policy translates into effective action. And technological innovations make this possible.

Usman Haque, founder and creative director at the urban technology designers Umbrellium, provided LocalGov with a concrete example of how this works. A CCID grantee, Umbrellium started with a simple hypothesis. ‘If you design an air quality project so that people work together,’ Mr Haque told LocalGov, ‘then they would accomplish more and what changes they made in their behavior and lifestyles would be stickier, would last longer.’ This is in contrast to a lot of council initiatives, which can often be top-down and involve isolated residents being told to do something without much follow up to ensure long-term success.

Mr Haque and his colleagues sought to demonstrate the hypothesis. They took forty-six people living in East London, divided them into six groups, and provided a ‘menu’ of possible actions they could take that are known to improve air quality, e.g. switching the lights off, eating a vegan diet and taking public transport. The experimental groups were allowed to communicate via digital channels and collaborate within their groups, while the control group could not. They were just given the ‘menu’ and left to their own devices.

The results were conclusive. While the experimental groups required more time and money from the research team, the carbon impact achieved was more than double per unit cost of the control group – 2.22kg offset per pound spent to 1.08kg offset per pound spent. In other words, Umbrellium found that particular measures – going vegan for a day, say – were more likely to gain traction in the group where people worked together and could support one another than they were in the group where people were left to work through the ‘menu’ alone. Always in close contact with one another, the experimental group both collaborated and competed among themselves to great effect.

‘This experiment is the latest in a series of similar projects on air quality we’ve done over the last five or six years, called Pollution Explorers Collective Action (PECA),’ explains Mr Haque. ‘It’s about getting people involved in proactively doing stuff to improve air quality. Not just being informed, but feeling a sense of agency – because when something feels huge and systemic, we can’t get out of that mental loop. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems with air quality – it’s invisible, and anything we do tends to be invisible. The whole point of PECA is to find ways to counteract that discouraging aspect.’

Ms Peach argues that the work of Umbrellium and the other organisations that have benefitted from CCID grants will lead to a body of evidence which can help local authorities see the benefits of mobilising collective intelligence.

‘We’ve seen so many local councils run their own citizens’ assemblies so clearly there’s a recognition that we need new and better ways of engaging residents and there’s an appetite in local councils to try things,’ she says. ‘There’s a real need to start innovating the public engagement mechanisms and finding ways for digital tools to enable us to do so at a much greater scale.’

The findings of Umbrellium and other CCID grantees will go a long way towards supporting such innovation.

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