Harnessing collective intelligence to address climate change: MIT’s Climate CoLab
Robert Laubacher and Thomas W. Malone
How the Climate CoLab works
Climate change is a problem of vast scope and complexity. The past decade, however, has seen the
emergence of new forms of Internet-enabled collaboration in which large numbers of people, from all
around the world, can work together to tackle big problems. Notable examples include Wikipedia and open
source software. Inspired by these systems, the Climate
CoLab, a project of the MIT Center for Collective
Intelligence, applies this approach to develop proposals for what to do about climate change.
The Climate CoLab is an online platform where people can create, analyze, and select detailed proposals for
what humanity can do to address global climate change. Anyone who is interested can join the Climate CoLab
community. Activity on the site is structured through online contests.
In these contests, community members are invited to submit proposals that address key aspects of climate
change. In 2010, for example, the contest focused on international climate diplomacy; last year’s
contests addressed the transition to a green economy.
Proposals may be developed by individual community members or by teams. Each proposal describes a set of
actions to address climate change: what actions should be taken, how they can be achieved, why they would
represent a desirable path forward. Proposal authors have access to computerized simulation models that can
project the environmental and economic outcomes of their proposed actions.
Once proposals are submitted, other members of the community can support or comment on them. After an initial
phase of proposal creation, a panel of judges then selects the most promising entries. Many of the judges are
members of the Climate CoLab’s Expert Council, a group of
distinguished climate scientists, economists, and policy experts.
After initial winnowing, authors have an opportunity to refine their proposals. Then the community is invited
to vote for the final proposals they like best, with the top vote getters receiving Popular Choice Awards.
The judges also name Judges’ Choice Awards, and all the winning proposals are presented to policy
What we’ve done so far
The Climate Colab was launched in 2009. Since then, nearly 40,000 people from 167 countries have visited the
web site. More than 3,600 of those visitors have registered as members of the community.
The Climate CoLab’s 2010 contest posed the question, What international climate agreements should the
world community make? The contest attracted 29 proposals from North America, Europe, and Asia. Three winners
were selected: one focused on a North/South approach for negotiating agreements on emission reductions;
another advocated less stringent mitigation targets, at least initially; and a third called for technologies
and policies that not only reduced emissions but also removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In
December 2010, the winning teams presented their proposals to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Change
Support Team and to staff members of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming of the
U.S. House of Representatives.
Inspired by the green economy, one of the key themes of the Rio+20 conference, the 2011 contest addressed the
topic: How should the 21st century economy evolve bearing in mind the risks of climate change? More than 60
proposals were received from every inhabited continent except South America. Six winning proposals were
chosen in global and national categories. Members of the winning teams hailed from the United States,
Australia, India, and Nigeria.
The winning global proposal in 2011 combined the top ideas from the 2010 contest, as described above. The
global runner up called for reduced meat consumption to lower emissions of methane and carbon black in the
short term and transform land now used for grazing into forest over the long term.
In the national category, the proposal with the most votes called for rapid deployment of next generation
nuclear power technology by the United States. The runner up outlined a plan for reducing India’s
future emissions and using computer technology to monitor compliance. The national category also had two
Judge’s Choice awards. One called for university students to help subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan
Africa to adapt their agricultural practices to changing climatic conditions. The other called for
construction of personal rapid transit systems, powered by magnetic levitation, in United States
Last January, winners of the 2011 contest presented their ideas in a series of briefings with policy makers,
including Daniele Violetti and other members of the UNFCCC staff; UN Undersecretaries General Brice Lalonde
and Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinators for Rio+20; and Edward Markey, the ranking Democratic member
of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee.
Plans for the future
In 2012, the Climate CoLab will break down the large, complex problem of climate change into a series of
sub-problems. These sub-problems will be defined by three key dimensions:
- What actions will be taken to address climate change?
- Where will these actions be taken?
- Who will take the actions?
The What dimension describes the kinds of interventions that can occur, for example, physical actions like
mitigation and adaptation or actions in the human realm like adopting new policies. The Where dimension takes
into account that proposed actions can be focused at different geographic locations and levels:
international, national, state/provincial, city/metro region, neighborhood, even household. The Who dimension
describes the primary social group or person expected to undertake the proposed action; it encompasses
government, business, and civil society organizations,as well as individual citizens. Based on input from
members of the Expert Council, a preliminary taxonomy
of the What, Where, and Who dimensions has been developed and is now being discussed by the Climate CoLab
Sub-problems will be defined for 2012 by describing combinations of What, Where, and Who. Sample sub-problems
include: How can homeowners increase building efficiency in developed countries? How can utilities, working
in tandem with government and business, decarbonize the electric power sector in the US, China, EU, and
India? How can city governments in Japan prepare for the risk of sea level rise? How can universities,
churches, and NGOs in Brazil change cultural norms about energy efficiency?
Starting in the spring of 2012, the CoLab will invite community members to submit proposals that address a
broad range of such sub-problems. After the community has developed focused solutions in these areas, there
will be a subsequent round of activity, starting next fall, to assemble combinations of point solutions into
broad, integrated proposals. The plan for 2012
activities is now posted on the site, and community members are invited to comment.
Long term aspirations
At the very least, we believe the Climate CoLab can help to educate citizens around the world about global
climate change. But if the project achieves our highest aspirations, it will also engage a broad range of
scientists, policy makers, business people, and concerned citizens, in helping to generate—and gain
support for—proposals to address climate change that are better than any that would have been developed
otherwise. We invite you to join our community at http://climatecolab.org.
About the Authors