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Crowdsourcing solutions for global problems with ClimateCoLab

Online voting open in 18 contests addressing climate change

Voting is open in the fourth annual Climate CoLab contests, a series of crowdsourced competitions addressing specific aspects of climate change. The contests rely on the power of collective intelligence, inviting and including ideas from all corners of the world to address global climate change.

Visitors to can browse proposals, comment, and vote for the most promising proposals through Sept. 30. Winners will be announced in early October and will present at the Crowds and Climate conference, Nov. 5-7 at MIT. There will be a $10,000 grand prize.

Individual contests grapple with distinct challenges, with topics ranging from U.S. policy to waste management to transportation. There are contests for developing and increasing demand for green buildings, implementing a price for carbon emissions, combating rising sea levels, and developing coastal resilience in the face of those same rising seas. There are eighteen contests in all, addressing topics suggested by climate change experts and by the online community the Climate CoLab has built over the past four years.

Climate CoLab is an initiative of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, led by founding director and MIT Sloan professor Thomas W. Malone. To Malone, crowdsourcing solutions to climate change dilemmas is an attempt to tap ideas that might not come from traditional channels. It also creates an opportunity for a wide variety of people from around the world to connect on the topic of climate change, with the hope that these connections will generate transformative ideas.

“Many people would agree that the largely top-down approaches for dealing with climate change haven’t worked very well,” said Malone of treaty negotiations, national legislation, and academic discussions. “One reason for using crowdsourcing is to harness a different kind of energy for dealing with this problem. So far, the discussions have mostly occurred in panels or conference rooms at elite international gatherings. One reason those discussions haven’t made more progress is that there aren’t more people involved in the discussions.”

“I think there are a lot of very smart, creative people in the world whose ideas are not ordinarily included in the global conversation,” Malone said. “Without something like the CoLab, they have relatively few ways to be involved.”

To many, the issue of climate change is difficult in that it is so large and complex it defies a cohesive conversation. Climate CoLab tackles it in pieces, breaking down issues of climate change into sub-challenges that can be addressed with specific solutions to the problem, including where to focus action and who could take that action.

Last year’s grand prize-winning entry was an idea aimed at reducing consumption. A team at the University of Calgary developed HEAT, a web-based service that uses aerial infrared photography to detect wasted heat escaping from buildings and to visually show this on maps of homes and communities. Originally launched in Calgary, it aims to address apathy about energy consumption by showing energy waste, providing a score, and estimating savings through increasing efficiency.

Climate CoLab contests are open to anyone with a valid email address and an idea. Panels of experts recruited by the CoLab staff judge the entries at the semi-final stage and provide feedback; submissions are then revised to incorporate the suggested changes. In each case, judges have specific expertise. George Schulz, who served as secretary of the treasury under President Richard Nixon and secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, is an advisor in one contest seeking proposals for implementing a price for carbon emissions. A contest seeking new ideas for youth engagement counts among its advisors Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway.

The Climate CoLab project has attracted a substantial audience. Visits to its website have doubled every year since its launch in 2009, and engaged users have more than tripled in the past 13 months to more than 18,000 registered participants.

More importantly, Malone said, users are connecting with each other’s ideas and energy. In one instance, climate researchers and activists from Florida, Minnesota, and Australia found each other through comments and interaction on the CoLab website, went on to form a team, and won second place in the 2011 global category with a campaign to reduce meat consumption through aggressive public education.

Originally published on September 10, 2014


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