Your location: Home


Harnessing collective intelligence to address climate change: MIT’s Climate CoLab

Robert Laubacher and Thomas W. Malone

image     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.
How the Climate CoLab works

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 makers.


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 cities. 

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 community.

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

image          image

About the Authors

 image Thomas W. Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.
 image Robert Laubacher is a Research Scientist and Associate Director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.