10 years out: Can the hive mind still save us?

By Gina Lucarelli, Team Leader, UNDP Accelerator Labs

UNDP Accelerator Labs
7 min readNov 26, 2020
Copyright: Photo by Hans M on Unsplash

Many of us in the sustainable development trenches know that to reach the Global Goals set by governments of the world we need to tap into collective action. Even under steady conditions — which is pretty far from where we are — the Sustainable Development Goals call for wholesale transformation of the behavior of almost 8 billion people on the planet.

Whether or not these goals will be a success story by 2030 depends on how all of us make our living, grow food, heat and cool our homes, and move around in the world…how we store digital data, charge our phones, structure our economies. We’re looking at multitudes of individual variables that will determine whether future generations will be able to meet their welfare needs. This blog is a reflection on the state of efforts to tap into the hive mind among the global population to get the world on a more sustainable, equitable path.

Born from Collective Intelligence: the Sustainable Development Goals

When the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, they were born out of collective intelligence. The world’s largest crowdsourcing of development needs fed into inter-governmental commitments to rebalance a focus on economic growth towards social inclusion and environmental protection. By September 2015 when the gavel fell among 193 UN Member States, 1 out of every 1000 people on the planet had weighed in with their priorities for the future. And when government representatives made the final call, the input of people around the world mattered. Many of these aspirations took the form of goals and time-bound targets.

Looking back, the World We Want crowdsourcing campaign was a fitting design tactic for sustainable development. As a distributed problem, it needs billions of distributed micro-solutions. Development cannot be sustainable unless we get smarter together: people, data and machines. To get an accurate understanding of the world in real-time, we need to glean insights from digital exhaust as proxies for understanding situations. To process and visualize data that humans can use to make decisions on complex problems, we need the power of machines. To trigger new forms of accountability, we need new and nuanced forms of participation that allow collective decision making on a continuous basis.

Collective Intelligence: now more than ever?

Distributed solutions were needed before COVID-19, and looking forward, it’s a now-more-than-ever situation. While the full impact of the pandemic and its ripple effects on peoples’ wellbeing isn’t yet fully visible in statistics, the general consensus is that the pandemic has massively disrupted progress towards sustainable development. For the first time in decades, global poverty rates are increasing. Vaccine coverage may drop to 1990’s levels. As Bill & Melinda Gates aptly put it: “We lost 25 years in 25 weeks.” And the UN says it isn’t a given that the great pause slowed the global material footprint enough in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Straight talk: the Sustainable Development Goals are off track.

The upside? (Please let there be an upside!) Collective intelligence design is emerging as a way to hedge against uncertainty. And that’s a good thing because relentless uncertainty may be the only sure thing on the road to 2030. When the bell tolls, will the promises be delivered? Which parts of this transformation can collective intelligence help with? What can the power of crowds and machines not do? Some slow hunches:

Leaders who tap into distributed action could become the new normal.

On the subject of upsides…Did COVID response show us what authentic collaboration between people and governments looks like? In the nowtimes, smart public sector innovators are a growing group. And they are investing in their national innovation ecosystems as part of their COVID response and recovery efforts. This is a good thing. And it should become standard practice.

Back in May in their reflection on how mission-driven governments in Viet Nam, New Zealand, and other national efforts to combat Coronavirus, Giulio Quagiotto and Mariana Mazzucato called attention to the way governments were “nurturing fruitful relationships among innovators [to] tap into distributed intelligence.” Among others, they tell the story of how Viet Nam invested in R&D partnerships in order to hedge against vulnerable supply chains. The government connected innovators in the Viet Nam ecosystem and this accelerated the production and export of COVID testing kits. Could this type of state-society collab be a model for future governance?

We too saw that pattern at UNDP in Africa and across the world. Throughout the Accelerator Lab Network — the collective crisis opened up avenues for bottom-up innovation to make serious contributions to public sector COVID prevention efforts. The range of homegrown solutions our mappers found is broad and we haven’t validated them to any full extent yet, but caveats aside, something’s happening here! We saw crowdfunding 3D printed face shields and ventilator parts for public hospitals in Tanzania, people creating bioethanol from agricultural waste in Ecuador as an alternative to ethanol which was in limited supply, and the rise of solidarity networks in Tunisia and Latin America. The Innovation Dividend podcast went deep to understand how city leaders in San Pedro Garza Garcia, [the first municipality in Mexico to get hit with COVID] tapped into volunteer networks to respond to the crisis. Moving towards second loop learning àla Geoff Mulgan, San Pedro city officials were also actively learning among a network of cities by sharing volunteer guides in order to mitigate psycho-social impacts of the quarantine.

There’s a body of practice emerging here. Could tapping into bottom-up production and peer networks become a genuine component of government strategy? And as Victor Apollo of UNDP Kenya’s Accelerator Lab asks — will the high visibility of failure and success in the pandemic open the door for longterm measures that would reinvent accountability? Here he’s thinking of open contracting platforms and transparency in procurement details for medical infrastructure. Now that we know what genuine collective intelligence looks like, are we entering a new era where governments start to see the power of the crowd as more than a PR stunt?

The crowd alone is not enough.

Maybe, but we have to acknowledge that committed networks on their own won’t get us out of this mess. By May, half of the UNDP Accelerator Labs were planning or had convened hackathons in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. While they bring new energy to problems and open the door for citizens to solve problems, a rethink on how best to use them seems due.

There is no denying the adrenaline, the talent, the hope that fills the room (or virtual space) when a social problem is put out there for all of us to solve. There’s the energy, the ideas, the connections among innovators. The constructive collaboration when hacktivists come together to combine forces for good. There’s a prize for the winner. But, then as the collaboration fades into the cold light of day, we need to ask: What changes in the long-term when we do hackathons, contests and challenge prizes?

As we saw the hackathons increasing in UNDP, we did a lab network reflection on hackathons and we have early leads on tactics to use this tool wisely. Key here is to make a better connection between innovation supply and demand in hackathons. (Great solutions which don’t meet governments where they are are unlikely to get mainstreamed.) If governments and others don’t take up the insights that are generated by groups of volunteers, what’s the point?

Thanks to @gquagiotto for fueling my optimism by calling my attention to some emerging evidence that governments do act on the results of citizen expertise. Props to West Java province in Indonesia for flattening the curve by listening to the call of the data modelling produced by the 800-person strong Kawal COVID-19 group. Tapping into this citizen talent, the provincial authorities issued an early lockdown to slow the spread of the virus in Indonesia’s highest risk area. This paves the way for longer-term collaboration.

To elevate the collective intelligence impact of hackathons, we need to build for longer- term citizen-startup-government collaboration on systemic challenges beyond the adrenaline phase.

Watch this space: what collective intelligence can (and cannot) do

One could dream of a research agenda in looking at this phenomenon globally… (Anyone up for any of these?)

  • What can and can’t hackathons do?
  • What steps can governments take to keep these networks of solutions drivers active beyond the pandemic?
  • Which parts of the sustainable development agenda should be driven by the crowds and machines co-evolving together?
  • And fundamentally, what do we know about public policy decisions that are informed by this kind of distributed intelligence?

We’re working with Kathy Peach and Aleks Berditchevskaia of Nesta’s Center for Collective Intelligence Design (after last year’s Collective Intelligence Design Playbook publication) on a reflection on the power (and edges) of collective intelligence (likely publication date early 2021). In the meantime, keep an eye out here for blogs from the Accelerator Lab team on what we’re learning from collective intelligence for pandemic response and managing waste as part of the circular economy.

The preview of this reflection: Sustainable development is a wicked problem demanding systems transformation. Tapping into collective intelligence, when done right, is a powerful way to make the invisible visible in sustainable systems. And seeing in systems is a good start for the hive mind if we are committed to the kind of change needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

If any of these learning threads intrigue you, get in touch. We’re actively putting together research partnerships to go deeper into the practice of collective intelligence to make sustainable development breakthroughs as part of a broader learning portfolio.

— — —
Get in touch.
● Gina Lucarelli
● UNDP Accelerator Labs Network



UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/