wisdom of crowds dec procLast month I laid out a suggested process, diagrammed at right, for business to use the principles in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds to make key decisions and solve key problems facing the business. Surowiecki provides compelling evidence that, in every field of human endeavour, when properly canvassed large numbers of people, even if only modestly informed, consistently produce significantly better decisions and answers than the wisest smaller groups of ‘experts’. Collective wisdom, he argues, could be a powerful surrogate for expertise, perhaps even replacing management and hierarchy in organizations, and eliminating the need for expensive consultants, professors and other self-proclaimed professionals.

The implications of this are enormous, from the possibility of truly flat, egalitarian business enterprises that would be vastly more effective and efficient than today’s hierarchical ones, to the possibility that those who cannot afford expertise from experts (such as those in countries with no access to affordable health care) might be able to get even better counsel, diagnosis and recommendations for action by simply tapping into the collective wisdom of large numbers of sympathetic, free, people.

In my earlier article I suggested four points in the decision-making process where the Wisdom of Crowds might be tapped:

  • qualifying and ranking in importance the component issues that need to be addressed in order to make an intelligent decision
  • qualifying the root causes underlying each component issue
  • qualifying and ranking in probability of success the alternative solutions or remedial actions that address each root cause, and
  • critiquing and validating the implementation proposal for the selected solutions and actions

In essence, collective wisdom reduces the role of the solution team from one of expert decision-maker or advisor, to a purely administrative role of compiling the candidate issue components, root causes, alternative solutions, and implementation plans for the ‘expert assessment’ of the ‘crowd’, and then doing what the crowd ‘decided’. So, for example, if the Problem is the ineffectiveness of the corporate intranet, the administrative solution team would assemble the candidate issues underlying this problem (e.g. inability of users to find things on it), the possible root causes of these issues (e.g. poor intranet organization, lack of awareness, lack of training, lack of time, lack of motivation), the possible solutions (e.g. more training, reorganization or rationalization of content), and the action plans to implement the best solutions (e.g. personal productivity improvement). The ‘crowd’, consisting perhaps of a broad cross-section of users and customers, would do the important work of selecting and rating the alternatives and critiquing the action plans.

As unorthodox as this is, it’s really nothing more than a rigorous approach to what the best business decision-makers do intuitively anyway: canvass users and customers before they make decisions affecting them.

There is still, of course, opportunity for the dis-empowered solution team to fuck up. This decision process relies on the solution team to actually come up with the alternatives, hopefully (but not necessarily) a complete and unbiased list. That requires the solution team to understand the problem and to have sufficient analytical (deductive) and creative (inductive) intellectual capability to create complete and logical lists of alternative issue components, root causes, and solutions. The ‘crowd’, unfortunately, cannot be counted on to identify missing alternatives and logical errors in their determination. So the Achilles’ heel of this proposal is that the solution team, perhaps annoyed by being replaced as decision-makers and relegated to an administrative role, might deliberately (or through lazy or biased thinking) sabotage the process by producing distorted or deficient lists of alternatives. Of course, the decision teams can do this now, by making their decision based on biased preconceptions or in the absence of all the facts and then reverse-engineering the facts and lists of alternatives to justify that decision and discredit or discount alternative decisions. Surowiecki outlines several notorious cases where over-confidence, ego, groupthink, haste, or personal bias of decision-makers led to catastrophic decisions.

What I’m getting to with all this is that perhaps the above model could be the modus operandi of a new ‘think-tank’ that would apply its understanding of some of the world’s most urgent and intractable problems to develop, for each problem, possible alternative issue components, root causes and solutions, and then subject those alternatives to global ‘Crowds’ who would decide which are the really critical component issues, which are the real root causes, and which are the most viable solutions, and to critique the resultant action plan to solve the problem. This is not a referendum: In a referendum the ‘crowd’ merely ratifies or rejects a solution that the ‘experts’ have come up with. In this model, the ‘crowd’ actually determines what the best solution is, eliminating in the process, through successive rounds of decision-making, solutions that stem from false understandings of the issues (“Iraq has WMD”), false understandings of the root causes (“terrorists just hate freedom”), and inferior solutions (“removing Saddam is the best way to make the world safer from terror”).

This is not the way think-tanks (more prosaically known as Institutes for Public Policy Research) operate today. There are hundreds of think-tanks in the world, most of them being:

  • funded by, and beholden to, wealthy private (usually undisclosed corporate) ‘members’, or by governments averse to radical solutions and harsh criticism, or by universities with a particular self-serving academic agenda
  • directed and overseen by partisan Boards, almost all of whom are PhD’s, who select other, like-minded, PhD’s to do the think-tank’s research
  • preoccupied with the production of research papers that advance the think-tank members’ political or professional agenda, often using selective choice of sources (mostly other research papers written by other PhDs) to achieve the pre-determined slant

In Canada, for example, there are about a dozen think-tanks, the best known of which are the right-wing CD Howe Institute and the arch-right-wing Fraser Institute, both of which are beholden to their corporate members and both of which are really nothing more more than corporatist lobby groups masquerading under a thin veneer of academic respectability. (At least in the US lobby groups are required to register and admit what they are). The largest Canadian think-tank is a captive of the Government of Canada, and really acts as one of the government’s research arms. It is usually apolitical to a fault, though it occasionally tips its hand, as it is doing in its meeting today, which features disgraced anti-environmental wingnut Bjorn Lomberg as its guest of honour. Lomberg, by the way, is now in the employ of the largest global think-tank, the arch-right-wing corporatist World Economic Forum that holds the exclusive Davos meetings annually, its selected members sequestered behind barbed wire to protect them from the Wisdom of Crowds demonstrating in the streets.

Most of Canada’s other think-tanks are creatures of Canadian universities, and I’m challenged to tell you whether they have a bias or not, because most of their research reports are so esoteric and obscure I’m not even sure what they’re about. A refreshing exception is the tiny IISD, a think-tank for sustainable development based in Winnipeg, which appears to be unbiased and committed to producing helpful, actionable research. It, too, however, is dominated by PhD’s, and doesn’t use the Wisdom of Crowds.

So my proposal is to set up a global think-tank based on the Wisdom of Crowds. Whoever funds it would have to have faith in that wisdom, because the above process won’t tolerate bad research or bias, and the decisions of the ‘crowd’ are final, not subject to override by experts with or without PhDs. I believe for that reason that such a think-tank would have enormous credibility with governments and political leaders and innovators and thought leaders and the media, where today’s mostly-biased think-tanks have very little. It would not be terribly expensive to run or staff — after all, its staff would be knowledgeable, intelligent ‘average’ people, with no expertise required. It would have to do some work to flesh out its modus operandi, since Surowiecki, beyond identifying the enormous promise of such decision-making groups, doesn’t elaborate on precisely how an organization that was built around The Wisdom of Crowds would operate. But I’m sure, if we have some challenges figuring out these details, we can always tap into the Wisdom of Crowds to help us decide.

Anyone have a contact with George Soros? I’ve got a proposal for him.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    He’s got a blog, with an email address on it. Why not do what all the rest of us do … leave the appropriately polite comment on his blog, in response to his most appropos-your-proposal post with a link to this or your proposal, or just send him an email.And oh btw, I’d like to send this link to Ken Jordan, editor of Planetwork Journal … OK ?

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    And I’ll pass it along to the Simultaneous Policy folks, as possibly a good approach to formulating the Policy to be adopted Simultaneously.

  3. Don Dwiggins says:

    Going back to your original post on TWOC, a comment on the first couple of bullets under ” things I particularly care about”:Margaret Mead’s quote wasn’t about solving problems, but changing the world. In effect, the “few caring people” introduce and promote disruptive ideas (in the sense now becoming popular in the business world). It’s the collective wisdom that filters these ideas, selecting the ones that are best suited to the situation. (Remind you of the way evolution works?) I think this also applies to innovation — in finding ideas, perhaps the best use of the crowd to provide a lot of small groups of caring people.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Jon. I didn’t realize he had a blog. I’ll send him a note. Don: You’re right, I didn’t mean to suggest that the Wisdom of Crowds reduces the need for or importance of individual effort. The ‘administrative effort’ of identifying alternative solutions does require a great deal of creativity. I’m idealistic enough to believe that creativity can be learned, and that we are all capable of blockbuster ideas if we focus our minds on real problems.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Says right at the top of his blog … Send him a message

  6. Derek says:

    Like most disruptive ideas, I think this one could be tried out on a smaller scale, say as a replacement for a county bored of supervisors or the like. Then as it gains credibility, the idea could be planted at higher and higher places of government.I’m a strong believer in trying things out on a small scale, before turning things loose at a higher level.

  7. Rayne says:

    Dave, I wonder if you shouldn’t consider developing a grant request for a program under one of the Open Society Institute’s initiatives? Something under the Information Program, perhaps? I think there’s a natural fit between a think-tank based on the wisdom of crowds and open source; open source works not only in software but in education, yes? In what other capacities does open source work — think-tanks for social and governmental policy? Give it a shot:

  8. Jon Husband says:

    George Dafermos in Greece (Cyprus, actually) is very knowledgeable about Open Source, and OS projects that are moving beyond IT into grassroots initiatives around the world, esp in Europe. And i think has lots and lots of contacts.Blue Oxen Associatessimilar here in North America (Eugene Kim)I’d link but I think he’s in your blogroll somewhere

  9. Jon Husband says:

    “he” being George Dafermos

  10. Dear Mr. Pollard, Thanks for your excellent writings. With respect to this proposal, you mention the possible draw back that the solution team might be biased or even sabotaging. It seems to me that this can be avoided by having competing, independent solution teams. Obviously, this increases the costs, but for big problems could be well worth it. In fact I have often wondered why wealthy corporations don’t explicitly have competing teams to produce solutions. As a software developer, I think this would be a very effective, and risk-reducing strategy.P.S. — Are “solution teams” now common parlance? To me the idea comes straight from Buckminster Fuller, but perhaps it is now commonly employed?

  11. Jon Husband says:

    This website, with a treatise titled “Peer-to-Peer: from technology topolitics to civilization”, which a friend pointed me to, might prove quite useful to you and your eventuual think tank colleagues

  12. Andrew Clark says:

    Just ran across this blog today…interesting topics mostly. Re your notion of a “Wisdom Thinktank”, you may be interested in an initiative I have going on at IBM…we call it “Innovation|Portal” or simply “I|P”. Goal of IP is to provide am open, collaborative platform for exchange of ideas, IP, code, or any “component” of innovation among companies, customers, suppliers, partners…kind of an “innovation supply chain”. Key to success in this kind of environment is a truly open IP policy: all IP submitted by members (or the commons in a Lessig sense)is “owned” by the membership to freely use in deritive works.What I see that these two thoughts have in common is the notion that the more, diverse members, ideas, contributions to the innovation process, the better, and that, generally, the more open the better. Innovation|Portal embraces this bigtime, but in an applied sense. We intend to bring this to reality on a customer, regional, and national basis. If you’d like more info, drop me an email.

  13. Tes says:

    I’d love to participate in your think tank. To facilitate the administrative effort hurdle, couldn’t you combine chat room functionality (where disruptive ideas are encouraged and nurtured among your defined crowd of intellects) with data-mining technology which seeks/finds trends (ie, issues/rootcauses/solutions/action plans) that are attracting the crowd like a school of fish?

  14. says:

    Great idea, Dave. .Although I’m a sucky administrator, or maybe because, I can understand the exertion hurdle that underlays separating idea-sheep from their shepherds. Perhaps a way to consider boosting and maintaining engagement is to go straight up Mt. Maslow. If you can’t offer guardianship to smart folk who largely indentify closeely and jealously with their creations, offer them the ultimate assurance as prize they’re often looking for anyway: Relevance and recognition. Some kind of MacArthur-like effort, perhaps without the $-levels, within the foundation’s efforts so each project’s winners are allowed to bask. True exertion necessitates true reward and, as open source SW efforts prove, intrinsic rewards are most powerful in the realm of ideas.

  15. Will says:

    Has this moved forward? I had a similar idea recently and I would love to participate in some way.

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