Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Crowd Sourcing the Climate: An assessment of Climate Co-lab

A recent post by Andrew Revkin brought the existence of MIT's Climate CoLab to my attention. Here is a description of the project by its Director, Thomas Malone at MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence.


I approached the site with high expectations. Claiming inspiration from Wikipedia and Linux, obvious examples where effective use of distributed intelligence has facilitated the creation of an emergent product, the site aims to split the climate problem into manageable parts and foster productive online discourse aimed at distilling solutions. Unfortunately, it seems they have a long way to go.

First off, there aren't a lot of participants and those who are there are organized competitively rather than cooperatively. The base structure involves teams that propose plans which are then adjudicated in a two phase process -- by experts for feasibility (because earlier plans chosen by the community turned out not to be feasible) a then by a vote among the community. In other words, it is a contest. As a result there are a number of proposed plans (22 when I looked, only 8 of which had attracted any support from the community) generated by team members (i.e., you have to be a member of the team to work on the proposal). And the teams are small (3 members or fewer as near as I could tell). In other words, the site is structured to generate competing (and hopefully, insightful, ideas) rather than work collaboratively on the problem. Or, stated another way, the premise is that some genius off in cyberspace can come up with an idea the rest of us haven't thought of. But that, of course, is precisely the problem with climate change. It is massively complex and, for precisely that reason, seems to lend itself to a LARGE SCALE collaborative effort like Wikipedia or Linux. Moreover, most of the teams seem to be there to push specific ideas that have been proposed elsewhere rather than to develop new ideas of their own.

Second, the "discussion" consists of a) voting on a number of propositions that the site authors have put up (e.g., Is the earth's climate changing because of human activity? Yes or No?)and b) making comments (almost no one has). Again, this doesn't seem like a serious effort to move the debate forward.

But most troubling, from my perspective, is that these supposed experts in Collective Intelligence seem to be pretty clueless about the role of social structure in collaboration. On the one hand, they have written an interesting article (The Collective Intelligence Genome) in which they claim "Collective intelligence has already been proven to work" (I agree) and "CI systems can be designed and managed to fit specific needs (through the use of) CI building blocks, or “genes,” (that) can be recombined to create the right kind of system" (an interesting idea that recognizes the connection between structure and success).

But the "gene" they have decided to use to solve the climate problem is the one best exemplified in the success of Threadless, a model they describe as follows: "anyone who wants to can design a T-shirt, submit that design to a weekly contest and then rate their favorite designs. From the entries receiving the highest ratings, the company selects winning designs, puts them into production and gives prizes and royalties to the winning designers. In this way, the company harnesses the collective intelligence of a community of over 500,000 people to design and select T-shirts."

This is a great model (like You-Tube) for getting other people to do free labor for you in the development of a product. But anyone who thinks designing a t-shirt is a problem with anything remotely approximating the complexity of solving the climate change problem they need their head examined. The folks at ClimateCoLab would have been much better off re-reading Andrew Poe's insightful article (The Hive) about the evolution of the social rules and structure responsible for Wikipedia's success. Any serious attempt to deal with the climate problem through the collective intelligence process lies down that path and not down the one being touted by ClimateCoLab.

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