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Can Collective Intelligence Provide Answers to Climate Change Questions?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Few science policy issues today are as complex or divisive as climate change. For that very reason a team of researchers is using the topic as part of a project that seeks to better understand and solve challenging society-level problems by leveraging the collective intelligence of Internet users worldwide.

The Climate CoLab project, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (M.I.T.) Collective Intelligence Lab, uses an online forum to encourage institutional and citizen scientists alike to develop proposals for addressing climate change and then improve those proposals based on Web community feedback. The proposals—broken down into “global” and “local” categories—are then judged as part of a multi-phase global competition where the winners are invited to present their ideas to public officials.

This year’s competition asks the question: “How should the global economy evolve through 2100, given the risks of climate change?” The competition is in its second phase, during which teams and individuals writing proposals seek to improve upon their original ideas with help from the more than 2,100 members of Colab’s online community. After the second phase wraps up on October 31 a team of judges will choose the most practical proposals to move on to the third and final round.

For more citizen science projects visit Scientific American‘s Citizen Science projects page.

Grassroots projects such as Wikipedia and open-source software serve as an inspiration for the Climate Colab, which was launched in 2009, says Thomas Malone, director of M.I.T.’s Center for Collective Intelligence and the Colab’s principal investigator. At the Colab site, people can create proposals using text, images, links or other material that convey the message of what the proposal’s creator thinks needs to be done, he says, adding, “That could be changes in economic treaties, political changes or even social changes.”

The idea is to come up with workable plans. “In order to keep these proposals grounded in the physical and economic realities that we actually face, each proposal at the global level must also include a quantitative scenario about what that proposal would imply,” Malone says. For example, each proposal must include projections quantifying its potential to reduce green house gas and carbon emissions. Proposal writers have access to computer modeling software on the Colab’s site to help them come up with the necessary calculations.

One proposal in this year’s global category posits that climate policy is too limited and that global problems can be solved as a whole, for example, with a “circular economy,” where all used resources are regenerated by nature or industry into new resources. James Greyson, founder of a U.K.-based think tank called BlindSpot and the proposal’s creator, has been trading comments with community members since June en route to becoming a finalist in this year’s competition. Forty-eight community members have signed on as “supporters” of Greyson’s proposal. Another popular global finalist—with 45 supporters—proposes to “mitigate climate change by going meatless.”

The most popular proposal in the national category—although it has only eight supporters—suggests installing connected “personal rapid transit” grids over the urban and suburban areas with the densest 50 percent of the U.S. population.

Beginning next week judges and citizen scientists who’ve signed up as part of the Climate Colab community will vote for their favorite finalists and on November 15 will announce Judge’s Choice and People’s Choice winners in each category. “We want people to check out the existing proposals, make suggestions and then vote,” Malone says.

Last year’s winners presented their proposals to the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Change Support Team in New York City and to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Liam Gumley, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. timbo555 10:14 pm 10/28/2011

    I think all collectivists everywhere should collect all of their own money and invest it in space exploration, so they can travel to some other planet and start their own collectivist society.

    Mercury would be a good place for them.

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  2. 2. Sparverius 9:24 am 10/29/2011

    @timbo555-perhaps the people on this planet unwilling to compromise for the greater good should go to another planet. That makes more sense, since the collectivists are in fact trying to conserve what we have on Earth.

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  3. 3. timbo555 3:48 pm 10/29/2011


    Yes, thank God for those people who think they know what’s best for all seven billion of the rest of us poor ignorant bastards.

    You write with the conviction of a man who would gladly force me at gun point to put a solar panel on my roof, and make me plant a subsistence garden next to the septic tank out back. I can envision you riding out of my neighborhood, standing proudly in your armored troop carrier. I can almost smell the acrid black smoke of the thousand burning SUV’s you leave in your wake.

    Let’s see; the last time “collectivists” knew what was good for us, fully half the world’s population was enslaved in grinding poverty in cruel allegiance to the collective ideology. Seventy to one hundred million inconvenient lives were crushed under foot for being “unwilling to compromise for the greater good”, or more often than not, for no reason at all.

    Who wields the power to remake the world, Sparvius? I can imagine two or three billion people on the planet who are unwilling to “compromise for the greater good.” They simply prefer not to be a part of your “collective”. Are they all to be murdered? Do you have Gulags enough?

    No, YOU go away, Sparvius. Your urgent concern about ecological Armageddon is transparent and moribund. What would truly do the planet in is another century of your kind of help. I’ll leave you with this from C.S. Lewis:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

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  4. 4. crdcalusa 2:52 am 10/30/2011

    It’s about time that we use our collective intelligence to solve problems. Earlier I read about scientists participating in the Occupy movement and the problem has become unemployed scientists along with the fact that science has become politicized. Gathering ideas from citizen scientists is a step in the right direction. The answer is out there and we shouldn’t have to wait for money or politicians to unearth it. We are after all sharing the planet together and are part of a network of individuals whose choices affect each other daily, therefore we need to contribute to the solution.

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  5. 5. MrDrT 8:54 pm 10/30/2011

    It started off as a good idea and then slipped into the Chicken Little world of “each proposal must include projections quantifying its potential to reduce green house gas and carbon emissions” thereby eliminating any possibility of a rational solution. It’s not a politicized discussion about climate; it’s a discussion about central government control of the economy vs free markets. Its a discussion about ignoring real science to advance a socialist, anti capitalist agenda. Google “Vostok Survey” images and notice that there is a heating cycle of ~150k years preceeded by thousands of years of increased dust in the atmosphere. Stop ignoring the pre-politicized science to advance your cause. You are discrediting what was once a respected science publication.

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  6. 6. dantevialetto 6:43 pm 10/31/2011

    I am happy that somebody is trying to save the world, but it will not be so easy and I think that is too difficult and to late. To know it, it is enough to read a few comments. All the religions that are following the Bible are against contraceptives; there is written about Onan which does something that God doesn’t like, and then religions say that to use condoms is against the will of God. The Evil is not what a God could dislike, the Evil is to make damage directly or indirectly to other people.
    The human kind is the species more invasive than any other one. For the economic interest this is very good, because more people means more commerce and so more money, but making money greedily is a strong drug that can’t be stopped and is blocking the brain to think about all the consequences, like every other drug does. It could be only a very capillary teaching of science, for example psychology instead of religion, that could change – but very slowly – this kind of wrong thinking, but it is only religions that are taught everywhere in very large capillarity. And even cultured people are confusing Psychology with Psychoanalysis, thinking that it is all rubbish. And religions do nothing against the growing of the World population, thinking that it is a God’s will, and not noticing that in the far past this problem was inconsistent because in our epoch are men which broke the laws of Nature (or for religions broke God’ laws, but they are not noticing!), making life becoming longer. So now the Nature’s laws must also be broken on the other side, using condoms and contraceptives.
    So religions, economy this kind of imperfect economy of today, and egoistic people like a few commentators,are bringing happily our Planet to Death, without any possibility to stop them.

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  7. 7. Joseph2009 7:50 pm 11/5/2011

    It’s hard for me to believe that the scientific community still includes individuals whose comments sound so similar to those coming from the big mouths of media right wingers like Limbaugh and Hannity.

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  8. 8. Melkholy 6:18 pm 06/4/2012

    Can Provide Answers to Climate Change Questions?
    Yes; Elkholy’s Unified Physics Theory can provide perfect answers to climate change.
    In the light of his discovery that Oxygen Is the Antimatter in the earth; it became clear that shortage of oxygen in the atmosphere is the only reason of Global Warming, Ozone Hole, Environmental Problems and Water Pollution.
    It is well known that earth climate was steady during thousands of years as a result of balance between matter and antimatter (When the consumption of fuel was limited and the main effort of humans went to agricultural activities, then the trees and plants were able to release enough quantities of oxygen equals the consumed quantity of it).
    While during the last two hundred years, the huge consumption of oxygen (from the air mainly) accompanied with huge consumption of burnt fuel (for lot facilities of our modern life) while trees and plants are unable to release sufficient amounts of oxygen to the air (Since agricultural activity took the second or last place of humans activities, millions hectares of forests are removed, millions of hectares of agricultural areas are used for building and industrial projects and the majority of desert areas still uncultivated).
    The shortage of oxygen caused the Ozone Hole. As well as; the upset balance between matter & antimatter led to uneven balance between heat & light in the atmosphere.
    While the increasing of heat caused the Global Warming, the decreasing of light caused some Environment Problems and the decreasing of light under sea led to the decreasing of Plankton & Sea Life (fish –animals – microorganism).
    Since Oxygen is the antimatter, it is the sole chemically active factor for all elements, and then the shortage of Oxygen let in the atmosphere lot quantities of carbon dioxide & industrial pollution gases (Chlorofluorocarbon & halogens) while scientists believed that these materials is reason of global warming!
    Finally; the only solution of Global Warming, Ozone Hole and Environmental Problems will realized by cultivating 10% at least of the desert areas worldwide.

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