Climate Collaboratorium¹

Many people believe that global climate change is the most important problem currently facing humanity. If we don't solve this problem, our other problems may not matter much, because we may not be here to have them. This problem is also unusual in the degree to which it is truly a universal problem: it affects every one of us and is affected by all of our actions. If ever there were a problem that called for harnessing the best collective intelligence our species can muster, this may be it.

And fortunately, in just the last decade or so, a new way of solving global problems has become possible. Examples like Wikipedia and Linux illustrate how it's now possible to combine the work of thousands of people in ways that would have been completely impossible only a few years ago.

Left to their own devices, scientists, journalists, politicians, businesses, and consumers will certainly do something about this problem. But the inefficiencies, delays, and distortions of traditional mass media, political decision-making, markets, and scientific publication mean that the results will almost certainly not be as good as we might hope.

We believe it is possible to do better, and the goal of this proposal is to create a global, on-line community to help do so.

At a minimum, such a community can help educate the general public about the issues involved in climate change. Bur our more ambitious hope is that it can facilitate a far more productive global conversation than would ever otherwise have occurred among scientists from different disciplines, policy makers, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens of countries around the world.

More specifically, we believe that, if properly structured, such an on-line conversation can lead to the creation, analysis, and ultimately selection of detailed plans for what we humans can do about climate change. And we hope that with thousands of people constructively involved, the plans that emerge from this process will be better than anything we would have developed otherwise.

Among other things, we believe that such a Climate Collaboratorium should include the following kinds of software capabilities:

  1. radically open computer modeling where many people can see and change models of the actions humans might take and the social, economic, and physical outcomes of these actions,
  2. on-line deliberation where people can see and modify summaries of the key issues, positions, and arguments related to climate change, and
  3. collective decision-making where people can rate the plausibility and desirability of various actions, assumptions, and outcomes.

A nascent community of researchers is now forming to tackle this challenge. Early prototypes of a system like what is proposed here have been developed at MIT.¹ A number of other researchers with expertise in human-computer interaction, cooperative work, and related disciplines are enthusiastic about tackling the challenges implicit in this endeavor. And several respected climate scientists have expressed interest in being involved.

Scientific questions

This project involves scientific questions at many levels. First, it will require involvement of experts in many scientific disciplines relevant to climate change, from upper atmosphere physics, to ocean chemistry, to the economics of carbon taxes and the psychology of consumer decision-making. The goal of this project is not to do this science, but it is, in part, to facilitate multi-disciplinary collaboration of all these different kinds of scientists.² We believe that the software capabilities listed above have the potential to do this in new and interesting ways, and there are many research questions about how this process could work.

For example, there are a host of social and computer science questions about how to design effective computer-mediated communities that include not only many different kinds of scientists but also many kinds of non-scientists. Here are just a few of the questions we believe are relevant:
  1. What kinds of social, psychological, economic, and other incentives will effectively motivate the different kinds of participants needed (scientific experts, policy makers, climate activists, businesspeople, software developers, ordinary citizens)?³
  2. Can playful motivations (like contests) be used to attract more people? Will the inclusion of media such as user-created video and fan fiction help make the site more engaging?
  3. Will the structured on-line representation of arguments about controversial issues lead group deliberation about these issues to be more constructive? And what forms of representation are most effective?
  4. What kinds of community norms and rules will lead to effective interactions?
  5. Can globally distributed "citizen scientists" collect data about global warming that is scientifically useful?
  6. What kinds of micro-level user interfaces are needed to make the systems usable (and used)?
  7. How can voting systems be designed to avoid intentional manipulation of outcomes by small numbers of highly motivated partisans?
  8. How can voting systems be designed to avoid undue influence of the results by the opinions of early voters?⁴
  9. Do the individual contributions and opinions of many people create a collective product that is, indeed, greater than the sum of its parts?

Computer science challenges

In addition to the questions just listed, there are many computer science challenges involved in developing the systems to support this kind of on-line community. For example:
  1. What tools can effectively visualize large argument maps in ways that are understandable and engaging?
  2. How can belief (or confidence ratings) be automatically propagated through argument maps in ways that people find useful and intuitive?
  3. What practical methods will work to authenticate voters so that (a) it is difficult for people to vote multiple times, and (b) votes can be credibly tallied separately for different kinds of people (e.g., scientists on scientific questions and residents of different countries on questions involving national interests)?
  4. How can "radically open modeling" work as the number, types, and locations of models increase? For instance, how can users manipulate and combine models in intuitive ways? How can large families of models be maintained in such a way that interoperation is facilitated but not required? How can acceptable response times be maintained if the models are hosted on different machines?

Next steps

We envision several near-term activities to help this project move forward. First, the researchers interested in this project will try to organize a one-day meeting as soon as possible to clarify visions, approaches, and roles. In parallel, the MIT researchers will continue work on prototype systems based on the ideas described here. Second, we will actively solicit funding from government agencies, corporations, and foundations to support the parts of this project for which it will be most difficult to engage volunteers (such as developing the core software infrastructure).

A possible--but extremely ambitious--medium-term goal is to have a robust enough system and community in place by Fall 2009 to help provide broad-based community input to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. Since they will be attending the successor to the conference at which the Kyoto Protocol was developed, the participants in this meeting are exactly the kind of policy-makers we hope could benefit from our work. The primary question in our mind is whether our system and community can be robust enough in time for this conference.

In any case, we hope the number and types of people involved in this community will grow significantly over the next few years. For instance, if the project is successful, it should involve at least hundreds of people in the coming year, thousands of people in the following year or two, and eventually, perhaps, tens of thousands more.

Of course, there are numerous potential barriers to the success of this project, including many kinds of technical, organizational, financial, and political risks. But we believe that the problem is important enough to warrant proceeding, even though success is by no means guaranteed. And even if the project does not succeed in its grandest ambitions, we believe that many scientific and educational benefits will come from even very limited successes.

If the project is successful in its grandest ambitions, however, it will lead to the creation in a few years of a societal institution that is comparable to (though perhaps somewhat smaller than) Wikipedia. It will be an on-line community used routinely by scientists, politicians, journalists, and anyone with a professional interest in climate change. It will also be a standard resource for educators, students, and any citizens who want to learn about climate change. And it will be a place where any citizens who care can either express their opinions about climate change directly, or delegate their "proxy" to others who will vote on their behalf. In short, it could become a combination of a kind of Sims Online for climate change, Wikipedia for controversial topics, and an electronic democracy on steroids.


¹ Portions of this project description are adapted from Malone, T. W. & Klein, M. Harnessing collective intelligence to address global climate change (Invited Lead Essay). Innovations: Technology | Governance | Globalization, Summer 2007, 2 (3), 15-26. See also current project description at
² Gary M. Olson, Ann Zimmerman & Nathan Bos (Eds.) Scientific Collaboration on the Internet, MIT Press, 2008.
³ Preece, Jennifer and Shneiderman, Ben (2009) "The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation," AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction (1) 1, pp. 13-32. Available at:
Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts, Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market Science 311 (5762), 854 (10 February 2006).

[More references are needed here. These are just a few of the sources that could be cited.]