Harnessing collective intelligence

I was recently introduced to a method of collaborative problem-solving (or idea-generation) called World Café. The basic idea is to explore a specific question using collective knowledge, by bringing people physically together for a day or two, with the premise that the answer being sought already exists in the room.

Participants sit at small tables  in groups of ~4. During each of several time periods, groups are given a prompt to discuss. Participants move to different tables, as individuals rather than in groups, and continue the discussion with a new prompt for each time period, referring back to conclusions drawn or ideas generated in previous rounds.

The excitable part of me wants to say that this is intentionally engineered emergence! We can solve all our problems this way! Everyone should be doing this!

The World Café format has great potential, and some clear advantages over the current form of problem solving and question answering seen in academia. But, realistically speaking, it also has some limitations, and could be developed further.

In academia we rely heavily on synthesis of collective knowledge. The days of one person learning all there is to know in the world are long gone, as the amount of knowledge and information being produced increases exponentially with population numbers and technological advancement. The sheer number of individuals doing research and papers being published means that it is literally impossible to read every relevant article in one’s field. Specialisation in science means that individuals have detailed knowledge of a very small slice of a big pie.

So the big questions get split up into smaller questions and those get broken into sub-questions and each one of those can be addressed experimentally and the answer shared (eventually) with the rest of the community via published papers and conferences, where one presents results and discusses work with others.

One result of this system is that ideas spend a lot of time in relative isolation, shared widely only when they are fully-formed and publishable.* Ideas can also become part of personal identity, and as such when they are shared they must be defended. In fact, they have to be defended even at their most nascent stage, in the form of grant applications.

The collective conversation, then, becomes one between individuals who each have their own idea to defend. Any collaborations that are formed, or new ideas that are generated, must build on the existing ones, and can’t be allowed to threaten them too severely, because such threats become a personal attack.

In the World Café setup, there is the opportunity to avoid this kind of dynamic. The first step is to have participants who are willing to come with open minds. Having an interdisciplinary gathering, and combinations of practitioners and academics, for example, can be very beneficial. In addition, the idea sharing and growing happens in real time, and it is clear by the end of the session that each individual has contributed to a greater whole rather than everyone having separate ideas.

However, the initial meeting isn’t enough to really solve a problem or change how collaboration is occurring on a more systemic level. My supervisors participated in a workshop organised this way, and their main critique was that after the buzz and energy of the day, one needs to go off and work on the nitty-gritty aspects in the context of their specialty, while maintaining the input from other participants. In practice, this doesn’t happen so easily, and isn’t included in the process as a whole – rather, it’s left to each individual.

One way to address this issue could be an iterative cycle where participants meet, buzz,  disband and distill the output into their work, then meet again to incorporate the distillations. Of course, such a setup would require a long-term commitment and a lot of logistical headache. Nevertheless, I think this format is very promising, and I would love to set up a similar style workshop as part of my research.


*Of course part of this has to do with secrecy, and the desire not to be “scooped”.

Photo credit: ARRRRT / Foter.com / CC BY


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