“There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” The phrase, attributed to Lenin, is found at the beginning of Social Innovation (Policy Press), Geoff Mulgan’s new book that completes a sort of ideal trilogy together with The bee and the locust (Ed. Code) e Big Mind: The collective intelligence that can change the world (Code ed.); and it is a good starting point to start thinking about the world after coronavirus. Mulgan teaches Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London; he was CEO of Nesta until 2019, director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in England and consultant to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
What can collective intelligence do in the face of a pandemic?
The coronavirus reminded us of something that we already knew deep down: secrecy can be very dangerous. It all started with China attempting to suppress information and heavily threatening whistleblowers. And if we ever need a warning about how much the world needs a free flow of information, of people who warn us, of prophets of misfortune, here, unfortunately, the coronavirus has reminded us of it. The second important thing is that, if we compare the way in which the states have reacted to the emergency, we see how those who are getting the best results are the same ones who collected different types of data and information and used them in a so that we could call it “very 21st century”: in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea they made information transparent, mobilized citizens, tracked interactions and acted on a model we call intelligence design, putting numbers and information together in time real to deal with the situation. These are the governments that have achieved results in a short time, compared for example to Europe and the United States. It is perhaps the first time in history that advanced cultures such as European or American have to learn anything from those of East Asia.
Freja Beha Erichsen photographed by Ethan James Green (Vogue Italia, November 2018).
In your opinion, what role does collective intelligence play at this precise moment?
All over the world it is already working to predict, monitor and find solutions; examples are the BlueDot platform, which collects data on user health: as early as December 31st, it warned its members of a dangerous virus in Wuhan, nine days before the WHO. Or the Contagion project, started in 2018 by the BBC, which involves citizens asking them to report the movements and people met, or the calculation and forecasting platforms such as Metaculus and Good Judgment Project. In Singapore, the Covid19 SG dashboard allows residents to know in real time each new case of infection and the precise location, and in Taiwan a crowdsource map has been created with the contribution of citizens, which indicates where the masks are still available, and in what quantity. Then there are the activists of Reddit: they created a free archive, bypassing the paywalls, with over 5,312 scientific articles on the coronavirus, believing a moral imperative that research is accessible to all scientists in the world. There are still many initiatives, and there is a mobilization that I had never seen before, not with this intensity. If in the future we could apply the same energy and organization not only to a clearly visible emergency, that of the coronavirus, but to more stable and equally dangerous crises, such as climate change, we would not have wasted a lesson. Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis”, and this is an unprecedented crisis.