Coming Together/Collective Wisdom Success Stories
— Groups of ordinary people achieving extraordinary results
Studying examples where collective wisdom has achieved extraordinary results can help us understand where collective wisdom is most fruitful and identify the conditions that foster collective wisdom and those that impede it.
Here are examples where groups of ordinary people have achieved extraordinary results.
Wikipedia is an excellent example of a collective wisdom success. It is a multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteers, through open collaboration and using a wiki-based editing system called MediaWiki. Because it is open to anyone to edit, it relies on the collective wisdom of its users to ensure accuracy and completeness. Wikipedia is the largest and most read reference work in history. As of 2022, Wikipedia was ranked the 5th most popular site in the world. It is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, an American non-profit organization funded mainly through donations. The five pillars of Wikipedia inform the policies and guidelines that foster the collective wisdom of the contributors.
Wikipedia is only one example of crowdsourcing, the process of obtaining ideas or content from a large group of people. By tapping into the collective wisdom of a crowd, organizations can access a diverse range of opinions and ideas, which can help make more informed decisions. Crowdsourcing has a long history, including the
- Longitude rewards, established in 1714, to motivate development of simple and practical determination of a ship’s longitude at sea.
- Netflix Prize offered a grand prize to any entry that bettered Netflix's own algorithm for predicting ratings by 10%. On September 21, 2009, the grand prize of $1,000,000 was given to a team which bested Netflix's own algorithm for predicting ratings by 10.06%.
- X-Prize is an innovation incentive prize using crowdsourcing mechanisms to tackle grand challenges that are considered failing as free markets.
- Foldit invites the general public to play protein folding games to discover folding strategies. Citing Foldit, MSNBC's Alan Boyle reported that "video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years," indicating that they "figure(d) out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys."
- and many more examples included in this list of crowdsourcing projects.
The Biomimicry Institute maintains a crowdsourced collection describing problems that have been solved by nature. Users can contribute to this database and search it to find solutions inspired from nature. This has resulted in many innovations including renewable plastic production, next generation solar cells, and self-growing materials. Here wisdom inherent in nature is harvested, collected, shared, transformed, and adopted by humans.
Open source software development projects engage a community of volunteer developers who collaborate to create software that is free and open to everyone. By pooling their expertise and knowledge, these developers can create software that is more reliable and secure than any single developer could create alone. Prominent examples include Linux, Git, MySQL, and others.
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, James Surowiecki discusses aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group. The opening anecdote relates statistician Francis Galton's surprise that the crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged. The book relates to diverse collections of independently deciding individuals, rather than crowd psychology as traditionally understood. Its central thesis is that a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals is likely to make certain types of decisions and predictions better than individuals or even experts.
Prediction markets are open markets where specific outcomes can be predicted using financial incentives. Essentially, they are exchange-traded markets created for the purpose of trading the outcome of events. The market prices can indicate what the crowd thinks the probability of the event is. Prediction markets are instances of crowdsourcing specially designed to aggregate information on particular topics of interest. The main purposes of prediction markets are eliciting aggregating beliefs over an unknown future outcome. Traders with different beliefs trade on contracts whose payoffs are related to the unknown future outcome and the market prices of the contracts are considered as the aggregated belief. By aggregating the opinions and knowledge of many people, prediction markets can provide more accurate forecasts than any single expert. Prediction markets are also considerably more accurate than opinion polls.
Open space technology is used to conduct many successful gatherings where participants are invited to focus on a specific, important task or purpose. Open space technology is effective in situations where a diverse group of people must deal with complex and potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways. For open space technology to work, it must focus on a real business issue that is a passionate concern of the participants.
Many open space technology success stories are reported, including this one
On 21 April 1992, a group of about 225 people gathered in Denver, Colorado, for a two-day meeting to develop cooperative arrangements for the effective expenditure of $1.5 billion designated for highway construction on tribal and public lands. Roughly one-third of these people were Native Americans, one-third were federal bureaucrats, and one-third were from state and local governments. On the face of it, the prospects for a peaceful, let alone productive, meeting seemed less than bright. The participants were all natural, if not historical, enemies. As a matter of fact, the results were rather surprising.
When the people arrived, it was clear that this was not business as usual. To begin with, there was no advance agenda. People knew only when the meeting would start, when it would end, and that somehow (as yet undefined) they would accomplish the task before them. Needless to say, there were more than a few skeptics, whose disbelief was not lessened by the physical appearance of the room in which they were to meet. What they found were two large concentric circles of chairs, with nothing in the middle and a blank space of wall behind.
Within one and one-half hours everything had changed; even the skeptics were hard at work dealing with the issues of personal concern to them. To reach that point, each person who cared to was invited to identify any issue related to the central task for which they had some real passion, write it down on a quarter sheet of newsprint, and post it on the wall. In doing so, they accepted responsibility for convening a session on their issue and making a written report of the results. When all the issues were posted, everybody went to the wall en masse and signed up for the sessions in which they cared to participate. And then it was off to work. That was it, and this was Open Space Technology (OST).
Democracy is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation or to choose governing officials to do so. By collecting the wisdom of the many participants, democracies can make better decisions that other forms of government.
Jury trials convene a sworn body of people to hear evidence and render a verdict. By convening a group of people—often 12—to consider the evidence the process may benefit from the collective wisdom of the jury and render a verdict fairer than a single judge might otherwise render. The effectiveness of juries in rendering verdicts remains unclear.
Several technology breakthroughs and developments, such as the automobile, computer, and artificial intelligence resulted from incremental developments and shared information contributed by many people over extended periods of time.
In his book The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley "makes the case for evolution, rather than design, as the force that has shaped much of culture, technology and society, and that even now is shaping our future." He argues that "Change in technology, language, mortality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous...Much of the human world is the result of human action, but not of human design; it emerges from the interactions of millions, not from the plans of a few.
These examples demonstrate the importance of several factors that harness collective wisdom and result in new and useful advances, rather than fomenting conflict, deadlock, stagnation, and even destruction. These factors include:
- A clearly stated objective,
- Guidelines for constructive engagement,
- Individuals motivated by a collective success, and
- Rapid and accurate feedback.
- The artificial intelligence program Chat GPT contributed to these ideas.
- Helpful dispute resolution policies regulate the effects of bad actors.
- See: https://asknature.org/collections/
- Owen, Harrison (April 21, 2008). Open Space Technology: A User's Guide Paperback . Berrett-Koehler Publishers. pp. 192. ISBN 978-1576754764.