The city as collective intelligence

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Third up: Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta in the UK. 

We all roughly know how our brains work. But what would a city look like that could truly think and act?  What if it could be fully aware of all of its citizens experiences; able to remember and create; and then to act and learn?

This might once have been a fantasy. But it is coming closer. Cities can see in new ways – with citizen generated data on everything from the prevalence of floods to the quality of food in restaurants. Cities can create in new ways, through open challenges that mobilise public creativity. And they can decide in new ways, as cities like Madrid and Barcelona have done with online platforms that let citizens propose policies and then deliberate. Some of this is helped by technology. Our mobile phones collect data on a vast scale, and that’s now matched by sensors and the smart chips in our cars, buildings and trains. But the best examples combine machine intelligence with human intelligence: this is the promise of collective intelligence, and it has obvious relevance to a city like Seoul with millions of smart citizens, fantastic infrastructures and very capable institutions, from government to universities, NGOs to business.

Over the last few years, many experiments have shown how thousands of people can collaborate online analysing data or solving problems, and there’s been an explosion of new technologies to sense, analyse and predict. We can see some of the results in things like Wikipedia; the spread of citizen science in which millions of people help to spot new stars in the galaxy. There are new business models like Duolingo which mobilises volunteers to improve its service providing language teaching, and collective intelligence examples in health, where patients band together to design new technologies or share data. 

I’m interested in how we can use these new kinds of collective intelligence to solve problems like climate change or disease, and am convinced that every organisation and every city can work more successfully if it taps into a bigger mind – mobilising more brains and computers to help it.  

Doing that requires careful design, curation and orchestration. It’s not enough just to mobilise the crowd. Crowds are all too capable of being foolish, prejudiced and malign. Nor it is enough just to hope that brilliant ideas will emerge naturally. Thought requires work – to observe, analyse, create, remember and judge and to avoid the many pitfalls of delusion and deliberate misinformation.

But the emerging field of collective intelligence now offers many ways for cities to organise themselves in new ways.

Take air quality as an example. A city using collective intelligence methods will bring together many different kinds of data to understand what’s happening to air, and the often complex patterns of particulates.  Some of this will come from its own sensors, and some data can be generated by citizens. Artificial intelligence tools can then be trained to predict how it may change, for example because of a shift in the weather. The next stage then is to mobilise citizens and experts to investigate the options to improve air quality looking in detail at which roads have the worst levels or which buildings are emitting the most, and what changes would have most impact. And finally cities can open up the process of learning, seeing what’s working and what’s not.

In this way the city becomes more like a living brain – observing itself, and mobilising its own creativity to solve its problems. Labour markets are another example. We now have a chance to gather far more data than ever before on what jobs are available in a city and what skills they need; we can make predictions about which jobs are likely to grow and which will shrink; and we can use that data to create tools to help teenagers, job-seekers or adults make choices about their future skills and careers. Again, the city becomes more like a brain in this way, able to think and act more smartly.

So how is this different from artificial intelligence? Artificial intelligence is going through another boom, embedded in everyday things like mobile phones and achieving remarkable breakthroughs in medicine or games. But for most things that really matter we need human intelligence as well as AI, and an over reliance on algorithms alone can have horrible effects, whether in financial markets or in politics. 

Although there’s huge investment in artificial intelligence there’s been much less investment in collective intelligence. That is one reason why we have also seen little progress in how intelligently our most important systems work – democracy and politics, business and the economy. You can see this in the most everyday aspect of collective intelligence – how we organise meetings, which ignores almost everything that’s known about how to make meetings effective and how they can make the most of the collective intelligence of the people in the room. You can see it in many political systems too, where leaderships are a lot less smart than the societies they claim to lead. Martin Luther King spoke of ‘guided missiles but misguided men’ and we are surrounded by institutions packed with individual intelligence that nevertheless often display collective stupidity.

Not all of this is new. Many of the examples of successful collective intelligence are quite old – like the emergence of an international community of scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary which mobilised tens of thousands of volunteers in the 19th century, or NASA’s Apollo programme, which at its height employed over half a million people in more than 20,000 organisations.  But the tools at our disposal now are radically different – and more powerful than ever before. 

It’s easy to be depressed by the many examples of collective stupidity around us. But I believe we should be optimistic that we’ll figure out how to make the smart machines we’ve created serve us well and that we could be on the cusp of a dramatic enhancement of our shared intelligence. That’s a pretty exciting prospect with fundamental implications for almost everything governments do and it’s likely to be in cities like Seoul that the most important advances will come.

Geoff Mulgan is Chief Executive of Nesta, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. He was previously head of the UK government Strategy Unit, director of the Young Foundation and the founder director of think-tank Demos. He is a senior visiting scholar at Harvard and his most recent book is ‘Big Mind: how collective intelligence can change our world’.