Digital artwork by Phynuch Thong with design reference to Nesta Collective Intelligence Design Playbook. Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

In the new normal of COVID-19, organizations across the globe have shifted towards remote working. To ensure continued communication and collaboration, this shift has required the introduction of new online mechanisms. In addition to online meetings, digital co-creation sessions are an important way for organizations to support continued learning, to build strategies, to generate contextualized insight, and to collaborate across units. Facilitating such sessions with diverse groups requires preparation of strategies and tools to understand how people share ideas and how to best utilize technology to support them. At UNDP, the Accelerator Labs in Cambodia have tried out two principles of Collective Intelligence to revamp how we co-create in a digital environment.

What is Collective Intelligence?

Collective Intelligence is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilize a wider range of information, ideas and insights to address a social challenge. As an idea, it isn’t new. It’s based on the theory that groups of diverse people are collectively smarter than any single individual on their own. The premise is that intelligence is distributed - different people hold different pieces of information and different perspectives that, when combined, create a more complete picture of a problem and how to solve it.

Figure 1: Collective Intelligence design process from Nesta Collective Intelligence Design Playbook

There are four principles of Collective Intelligence and in this blog post we will explain how we used the first two principles to run our co-creation sessions.

1.    Increase the diversity of the people you involve and the opinions you listen to

2.    Enable people to contribute views and ideas independently and freely

3.     Bring together different types of data to unlock fresh insights

4.     Be citizen-centered: think data empowerment, not data extraction

Putting the principle to work – The power of diversity

In common practice, we tend to work with the same group of people or experts, with the expectation we will learn something extraordinary and fresh or make complete sense of a complex challenge we are dealing with. By doing so, we increasingly lose focus on empowering diversity in the views and ideas we listen to.

In our quest to address air pollution in Cambodia, for instance, we recognized that the first step would be to gain strong, contextualized insight into how people perceive overall air quality in Cambodia and what resources or technology we currently have to address air pollution. We started a co-creation session online, thanks to COVID-19, designed to accommodate diverse groups coming from universities, start-ups, the private sector, development organization, non-profit organizations, and entrepreneurship association. This pool of knowledge providers is a representation of senior professionals, lecturer, engineer, entrepreneurs, youth advocates, skilled workers and students with a mixture of direct, indirect, or no experience working on air pollution.

The power of diversity here was a game changer. It evoked an exploration of different and new ideas. One participant shared the unprecedented idea of using air-purifying devices that we already have and cycling these around to different locations. As wild as this idea may sound, and although we do not know whether such an approach would be possible, it expanded our knowledge territory and introduced new ways of viewing, and consequently approaching, the problem of air pollution. Most breakthroughs and innovations in human history usually come from someone seeing a problem differently. Having diverse opinions and ideas offers not only a more complete picture of a problem, but also enables innovation to thrive.

Volume down to hear more

How do we knock down the wall and increase the level of comfort for everyone to express ideas independently and freely? We have all experienced cases where one individual in the group floods the discussion with input, and a few or more remain silent in fear of sharing their ideas. One of the approaches to address this in co-creation sessions is to embrace “silence and anonymity”.

In the Harvard Business Review article “The Case for More Silence in Meetings”, Steven Rogelberg and Liana Kreamer illustrate an experiment in which two groups of participants are assigned to generate solutions to a common problem. A group of people sit around a table discussing and devising solutions while a group of others are at work on the same task while sitting in silence filling their ideas on a capture card. The result? The group engaged in vocal discussion during the brainstorming session produced fewer ideas that were lower in quality and creativity. The duo explains that “members in the silent group did not fear social humiliation or negative peer evaluation. As their ideas were written down as opposed to spoken out loud to the collective, they were able to brainstorm without the pressure of creating socially acceptable ideas. These positive effects are magnified when meeting attendees do this anonymously.”

We witnessed a similar result in our air pollution brainstorming session, where we asked 11 participants to brainstorm ideas anonymously on a digital whiteboard using a stick-it note feature on the digital tool Mural. We saw an increase in active participation, flow of ideas with high creative quality, and contribution from every single attendee in the virtual room. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, through a number of face-to-face workshops and co-creation sessions, we learnt that most participants seemed hesitant and rarely spoke up when higher-ranked and more senior attendees were present. We also witnessed here the case made by Rogelberg and Kreamer for more silence in meetings. We will not make the cut if we hear less. The path forward for us is thus to hear from a diverse range of voices instead of hearing from a few and accounting those for the rest.

Figure 2: (GIF) Participants were navigating and generating ideas anonymously using virtual animal names.

Phynuch Thong in green arrow was the organizer and moderator.

Technology such as digital whiteboards and virtual meeting rooms are impressively advanced, and they give us flexibility to accommodate different needs. More than ever before, it is important for organizations to harness this technology to work collaboratively and produce relevant insight and data. The principles of Collective Intelligence (CI) offer a mostly low tech, simple and proven way to work with people, technology, and data in this way. Where your work evolves around ideation, brainstorming, and data-driven evidence, CI may be just what you are looking for.

In the Accelerator Labs network, our teams have applied the principles and tools from the CI playbook to different portfolios and problems including solid waste management, youth employment, and migration. This has allowed us to continue to improve the way we work in midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and to make advances together even when we remain separated by a computer screen.  

Learn more about the Nesta Collective Intelligence Design Playbook

Learn more about UNDP Accelerator Labs

Learn more about Nesta

Inquiries for the author and about our work in Cambodia can be sent to innovation.kh@undp.org or visit UNDP Accelerator Labs in Cambodia

Written by: Phynuch Thong, Head of Solutions Mapping

UNDP Accelerator Labs, Cambodia

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