collective problem solving

Overview of Collective Problem Solving

The increasing pervasiveness and complexity of OnlineCommunities and SocialSoftware, and their power to produce emergent value suggests we may have new tools at our disposal for getting stuff done. Imagine, for example, that we could arrange all the aspects of an online environment in just the right way to stimulate the production of focused results similar to how, say, a traditional company is arranged to maximize profit.

Elements of these participatory environments invite user contribution from one direction and aggregate value from another, but few environments are designed to move this participation towards meaningful, intelligent ends where everyone benefits; ones for example that solve shared civic problems. One challenge to creating such an environment is that it involves designing emergent (bottom-up) systems to produce specific results. Something we humans are only beginning to understand how to do.

Elements of Collective Problem Solving

To crack the problem of how to effectively solve problems using participatory environments, we must understand what building blocks we have to work with. These can be categorized roughly into technology, social convention, and media literacy.

Technology can include both HardTechnology and SoftTechnology to build TechnologySolutions.

Within this context, social convention describes a set of explicit and implied rules and behaviors aimed at providing CommunitySolutions.

Participatory Media Literacy (coined by author HowardRheingold) is the idea that people lack a “literacy” for using social software tools. These tools allow people to do things they previously could not do, and although a new generation can quickly learn how to create a blog post or myspace page, they still may not realize the full power and underlying concepts of some of this technology. They may be associating their use of many to many social media technologies with older one way broadcast media paradigms. And, they may not realize the full scope and impact of issues like things CopyRight and NetNeutrality?. So, creating literacies about these things appears essential. More about media literacy in this informative interview with Howard on the topic. Yet, people generally gain these literacies by using the technologies in real world applications to solve real problems, and seeing the results.

Necessary Skills

Working effectively with these building blocks requires using design to leverage a keen understanding of what drives human social behavior.

The crucial point about SocialSoftware is the feedback between the technology and the social. If a feature of the software makes something easy to do, many people will do that - and this will become a social custom - and people will use this custom as part of their understanding how the software works. That is why SoftTechnology will not work alone - you can create social rules of how to use some piece of software, but people will not obey them if they will conflict with their understanding.

How technology it is implemented is the real key to success. It is clear that tweaking the nuances of social software implementation is critical - and (more generally) the differences in problem space and audience will drive drastically different characteristics in the implementation of emergent, participatory systems.


How might an assemblage of building blocks, designed to encourage solution emergence, act to solve problems? It is critical that such a solution concentrate first on empowering and engaging the participants, rather than focusing solely on how to extract value from their collective action.

Engagement suggests a certain level of relationship and commitment that is formed between the participant and the environment (or technology, or object, or product, etc.). For example, when people begin to tinker with something, they usually develop a relationship with it. It permeates their attitude and behavior. They often begin to care about it, what can be done with it, where it’s going, etc. This is engagement. Reading web pages does not engage. Editing a wiki does. Engagement is very powerful. If you want to do something important with other people, you need to engage them. That means we need to learn how to better engage people.

Participants must also be empowered within the environment to move things towards a resolution. If you want someone to change something, you might empower them to do it. Generally, telling them to change is a pretty poor empowerment technique. However, giving them the tools and showcasing the potential impact of using the tools can be a great method. Understanding good ways to empower people is not only good for them, but potentially everyone else. One method as described in WikiFromScratch is to use a supportive network: put each newbie to the environment at the center of a circle of 4 - 8 veterans, which concentrate to him, till he is ready to concentrate to the next newbie. Another method discussed in MailingListThenWiki approaches the problem by starting people out with tools they are familiar with, then migrating them to tools (like wiki) that they are less familiar with. (MailingListThenWiki-type “migrations” might actually be more successful with the network support of early-adopters helping newbies, as discussed in WikiFromScratch above).

Polling and/or surveys (paper and/or online) might help gather data about who initially know how to use what, and who has what knowledge and experience. Surveys and polling can also become another ongoing tool/technology to gain feedback and data from the community.

Potential Applications

Since there are so many different types of problems to be solved, we can imagine there could be radically disparate environments to solving them. Examples include:

See Also

Visit the Collective Problem Solving Wiki for a place dedicated towards answering the question:

 How can we best apply a combination of technology, design, 
 and literacy to help individuals solve problems together?


Keith, wow, hats off to you for pushing this so far forward in such a small amount of time. I added a few things here or there. Of course, feel free to refactor/reword anything I’ve put in as you see fit.

Also, I don’t know where to put this yet, so I’ll add it here: SocialNetworkAnalysis can inform CollectiveProblemSolving based upon surveying and collecting data about who knows whom, who works with whom, and who has access to whom, and who is connected to what organizations and people outside of the existing problem solving network.

SocialNetworkAnalysis sounds exactly like the kind of thing I need to learn about. When you’ve written it ;-), one of us should stick it on CPSWiki.

I’m working on a SocialNetworkAnalysis project right now, and I’ll write that page tomorrow. It is also related to EcosystemOfNetworks.

This page could really benefit from some further refactoring. Needs that multiple voice thing.

“..starting people out with tools they are familiar with”: i think, many people are more familiar with a Calendar than with RecentChages . so, why not give them Calendar instead? i just made an experiment with Blog .

literacy & structure: if everyone writes in the first line of a new page the name of a parent page, we have a clear structure (tree) and can make a r(ecent)c(hanges)-tree . it functions like folders (look at CommunityWikiBank) . so we perhaps don’t need the category thing .

refactoring: would like to test a new structure too . the article above goes to a proper page and the discussion is staying here, because this is the emergent (bottom-up) system to produce specific results. do you see the difference? .


Define external redirect: PeerInvest NetNeutrality OpenValueNetwork

EditNearLinks: OnlineCommunities CommunitySolution OpenKnowledge TechnologySolutions HowardRheingold BarCampBank CopyRight