Can collective intelligence save the planet?

“I don’t think there’s anything else that could,” says Thomas Malone, who leads MIT’s Climate CoLab, and who thinks that the kinds of collective intelligence the world has used so far to deal with climate change—like scientific conferences and international treaty negotiations—aren’t enough.

“We now have a new way of solving huge problems that wasn’t possible even 20 years ago,” Malone says. “Think about Google and Wikipedia, which demonstrate that we can attack tough problems at a global scale and with a degree of collaboration never before possible. Our goal in the Climate CoLab is to apply this crowdsourcing approach to the problem of global climate change.”

The Climate CoLab is a fast-growing global community of more than 36,000 people who are passionate about addressing this issue. The community includes some of the world’s leading experts on the science and policy of climate change, as well as business people, scientists, policymakers, students, and many others. Anyone can submit their own ideas or offer feedback on others’ ideas on the CoLab site.

“There’s a broad consensus within the scientific community that human activities are contributing to changes in the climate that will result in things like rising sea levels, frequent droughts, and more severe storms,” says Malone. “But there is not yet any consensus on what to do about this.”

The answers will come, he believes, only by pooling knowledge from many disciplines and many people. “It’s a big, hard, complicated problem and needs all kinds of expertise—from the physics of the upper atmosphere, to the engineering of new technologies; from the economics of technological change, to the politics of government regulations, and the psychology of human behavior. Good solutions also require detailed local knowledge of, say, how farmers in India pump water and how homeowners in Canada insulate their houses.”

An eight-year-old project of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, the Climate CoLab includes online tools to help people collaborate on developing proposals for what to do; computer simulations to predict end results; and online contests in which expert judges and community voters identify the most promising ideas. Malone believes that this approach could also apply to other big problems, from terrorism to unemployment to the availability of clean water.

In advance of the international climate talks in Paris this winter, the Climate CoLab has seven contests now open that invite ideas for regional and global climate action plans. Winners will present their plans at MIT’s Solve conference this fall and share a $10,000 prize. Last year’s winners, from 17 countries, offered such ideas as a US carbon tax that uses the revenue to benefit poor households, reduce corporate income taxes, and shrink the federal deficit.

Malone emphasizes that the CoLab wouldn’t exist without the work of project managers Rob Laubacher and Laur Fisher, as well as a group of over 100 volunteers who serve as expert judges, advisors, and fellows.

“Arguably, there’s no institution on the planet better than MIT to help the world figure out what to do about climate change,” says Malone. “We’re still a long way from having solved the problem, but I think MIT can make a real difference.”