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