Could crowd-driven think tanks be weapons of mass instruction?

March 14th, 2012 by

microtask_think_thanksWhat comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘think tank’? A passionately engaged team of experts, using their knowledge to shape the social discourse? A bunch of overeducated technocrats with no experience of the real world, dictating our futures? A telepathically-operated war machine?

Whatever your opinion, think tanks – or policy research units – are everywhere, clustering around democracy like barnacles on a ship’s hull. The traditional think tank model, which sees a group of experts working to solve economic, social or military problems, sounds like a great idea on paper, but it is open to abuse. Private interests can set up their own think tanks in order to pursue their own agendas, as with the sorry tale of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which was set up by tobacco firm Philip Morris in the 1990s to dispute medical research on the negative consequences of smoking.

But thanks to some new initiatives, the traditional think tank model may soon be turned on its head. The new UK think tank newthinktank (most imaginative name ever) aims to bust open the walls of the Ivory Tower by inviting the crowd to contribute to its research efforts. Newthinktank aims to create an online forum where public service employees and users can come together to share their experiences, orchestrate research and generate policy ideas. The project is still in its infancy, but could be a fascinating experiment into the possibility of crowdsourced policymaking.

Shooting for the moon

Google has also introduced its high-profile Solve For X project, which aims to use imagination, discussion, emergent technology and cult author Neal Stephenson’s inspirational beard to address some of the world’s most persistent problems. Its panel of experts are encouraged to think big and aim for what Google’s Director of New Projects Astro Teller calls ‘moonshots,’ or ideas which “live in the grey area between audacious projects and pure science fiction.”

These ‘moonshots’ are then turned over to the crowd for discussion, debate and refinement. Right now, the Solve for X site is brimming with optimistic, exciting and unrealistic ideas from Teller and his panel of experts, but the crowd-based discussion and development element appears underdeveloped. Like Newthinktank, the project is still in the early stages though, and it would be unfair to judge it too harshly at this point.

Why can’t we all just get along?

But while Google CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founder Sergey Brin are busily plotting the future benefits of stretchable electronics, Google has another project which may serve as a vital template for crowdsourced policymaking and genuine problem solving. It’s called Google Ideas and despite its very un-Google-like online bashfulness (the initiative doesn’t even have a website), its first project, Against Violent Extremism, has been a huge success. In addition to creating a ‘marketplace’ where users can offer or request resources for anti-extremist projects, Google recently flew 80 former neo-Nazis, Jihadists, gang members and terrorists to a summit in Dublin where they met with survivors of terrorist attacks, kidnappings and other forms of violence, as well as politicians, academics and members of the public.

This unique crowd is able to look at the problem of violence from all angles, and judging by the number of projects fighting for space on the site’s marketplace, their debates are incredibly productive, creating policy ideas as well as ideas for new crowdsourced projects. There is no central organizer, and as one of the first truly crowd-run projects, it offers a valuable example of how crowds can not only complete tasks but also identify and organize them.

We’ve written before about the hype surrounding crowd-based revolution, but this kind of crowdsourced policymaking may offer a glimpse of some exciting new forms of government. Google’s idea of bringing such disparate viewpoints together to work towards a common goal in some ways is at the heart of the crowdsourcing movement. Hopefully this model will inspire similar ventures around the world.