Given enough minds...: Bridging the ingenuity gap

Hassan Masum, Mark Tovey


Peak oil. Climate change. Air pollution and top soil depletion. Water shortages and intractable conflicts. Disease, poverty, hunger, terrorism, natural disasters, and anomie ... the world is full of tough problems. What would a sustainable open infrastructure dedicated to finding solutions look like?
For many of the toughest problems, it will have to lower financial, disciplinary, and bureaucratic boundaries to make more use of non–specialists — interested citizens who are willing to share their knowledge, expertise, connections, and commitment to confront common challenges. This implies that the investment required per citizen to get involved must be relatively low, whether measured in money, time, or technical expertise. Our goal in this paper is to demonstrate how to start building an effective open system to support such sharing today.
Many of the tools exist already, both technical and social. Many of the requisite technical tools exist as inexpensive or free software, e.g. for information sharing, discussions, audio conferencing, small–scale video conferencing, and simultaneous editing. Social tools are often more difficult to master than technical ones. They include filtering contributions and contributors to separate the wheat from the chaff, building a sense of community and shared goals, motivating contributors to stay involved, making the link from smaller to larger efforts, and keeping the whole process fun and productive. Different “collaboration modes” can be identified, each with characteristic interaction topologies and scale of people involved.
We look at two case studies that we have been involved with: developing strategies for dealing with peak oil scenarios, and contributing to the online magazine WorldChanging (at For us and for many others who were and are involved in such open initiatives, a big part of the motivation to spend so much time and effort solving problems is enjoyment of "productive fun". After all, nobody has to worry about making bars or coffee shops “sustainable”. Our challenge is to make a problem–solving infrastructure so much fun that it becomes a natural, widely accepted custom — a combination of widely available software, open science, and open content that leads to open participation in building our common future.

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