Thomas Malone: Collective intelligence to address climate change — finalists chosen in world-wide contest

It’s been over a year since we launched the Climate CoLab and held our first world-wide contest. Our goal was to create a site to harness the ideas and knowledge of thousands of people to find real solutions to climate change. Inspired by systems like Wikipedia and Linux, we wanted to collect the best collective intelligence to come up with proposals for what can be done about this problem.

In that first contest, we proved the concept. It is possible to elicit innovative, creative proposals about climate change from a surprisingly wide range of people around the world. But that contest only scratched the surface of the good ideas out there. It will take years to build the kind of community platform and connections needed to truly help solve this problem.

In this year’s contest, we focused on the green economy, a key theme of the upcoming United Nations Rio+20 Conference. The 2011 contest question is: How should the 21st century economy evolve, bearing in mind the risks of climate change? We asked for proposals on both the global and national level and were impressed with the quality and caliber of the 64 entries we received.

They came from a mixture of concerned citizens, students, and environmental advocates. Interestingly, we also had a few proposals this year from people thinking about the problem from a technology perspective. Participants are based all over the world with Canada, India, Mexico, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. represented.

Twelve proposals made it to become finalists. In the national category, the finalists’ concepts included connecting university students with farmers in South Africa, funding education and training for green jobs in the U.S., and building a personal rapid transportation system in the U.S.  In the global category, finalists’ ideas ranged from using a new type of nuclear technology to changing diets to utilizing algae in a new way.

While the contest is clearly growing — we received a much bigger range of interesting proposals this year from a more diverse set of participants – so too is the Climate CoLab community. We now have more than 2,100 registered community members and over 20,000 unique visitors to our site from 150 countries. We’re gaining traction and encourage anyone interested in this topic to join our community and vote on the finalists’ ideas.

Voting is open from Nov. 4 until Nov. 15 when the Judges’ Choice and Popular Choice winners will be announced. One representative from each winning team will then present their concept at briefings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations in New York. The winning proposals also will be featured on TreeHugger.com.

Many people are concerned about climate change, but have not previously had a voice in the discussions on the topic. Through the Climate CoLab site and yearly contests, interested parties can share their ideas as well as learn from others in the community. We want to improve the flow of knowledge and interaction among citizens, policymakers, and scientists to find solutions to climate change.

Our hope is that, if we can harness the collective intelligence of people who are concerned about these issues all over the world, we should be able to come up with better solutions than anything the world would have developed otherwise.

Prof. Thomas Malone is director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which is leading the Climate CoLab. Research scientist Robert Laubacher is associate director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and leads the CoLab team

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