Why does sustainable development need collective intelligence?

By all counts, with just 10 years to go, progress towards the Global Goals has not shown the speed or scale of ambition necessary to achieve them. In this section, we set out the main challenges and why collective intelligence holds the key to success.

Converging crises and increasing uncertainty

Today, the world faces converging crises and rising uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves around the world, precipitating an economic crisis and potentially the worst global recession in eight decades. Meanwhile, risks posed by the looming climate and environmental emergency continue to grow.

Progress is too slow, and being reversed

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, global progress towards the SDGs had stalled and, in some cases, reversed. The most recent High-level Political Forum put it bluntly saying ‘acceleration is needed in many areas’. The UN now estimates that the pandemic will turn back the clock on decades of progress, pushing 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020.

Growing complexity of challenges

The impact of automation and rapid urbanization are just some of the complex issues development policy makers are grappling with for which no ‘best practice’ solutions exist and views are divided.

Persistent data gaps

Development policy makers still struggle to access useful data to inform decision making. A 2018 UN survey, for example, found that in Africa and Asia, on average, data for only 20 per cent of SDG indicators was available. This gap is likely to widen as a result of COVID-19, with 97 per cent of national statistics offices in sub-Saharan Africa struggling to fulfil international reporting requirements during the pandemic. Traditional data collection methods also often fail to keep up with change – for example, not capturing recent aspects of urban poverty. And the continued lack of data disaggregated by gender means that many of the issues women face go uncounted, undermining the promise to ‘leave no one behind’.

Recognition of the need for new approaches to development

This combination of increasing complexity and lagging progress means that the approaches that have characterized much development practice (i.e. top-down and rigidly focused on narrowly-defined goals) may be particularly unsuitable. The OECD also suggests that rather than following a singular paradigm or pathway, development strategies need to be more context-specific, and more participatory, place-based, multisectoral and multilateral –with more focus on experimentation and mutual learning. It also calls for a rethinking of international cooperation beyond financial aid to foster more effective exchanges of social and human capital.

Collective intelligence can help

The starting point for collective intelligence for the SDGs is simple: what are the resources of intelligence that can be brought together and shared? These resources will range from localized insights and inventions from people on the ground, to data of all kinds (whether gathered by satellites or mobile phone companies), to scientific knowledge and evidence.

Collective intelligence approaches can help us tap into new sources of data and insight to fill SDG data gaps and understand emerging problems more quickly. Being able to mobilize granular data rapidly (from sensors to citizen-generated data) can help generate more comprehensive and up-to-date insights. Bringing together different types of insight can also help reveal new dynamics in complex systems. This is the starting point for developing more effective responses. And by involving marginalized communities in generating, analyzing and using data, collective intelligence offers opportunities to stop replicating existing prejudices and inequalities.

Collective intelligence can accelerate progress by tapping into the collective brainpower of citizens, drawing on a wider network of innovators, or seeking and sharing tested solutions from elsewhere. By opening up timely and relevant information for citizens to use, collective intelligence approaches can also increase people’s ability to make decisions and power to act – enabling citizens to participate in tackling social problems.

Collective intelligence approaches can help in complex or uncertain situations where there is disagreement about how to proceed, where the way forward is unclear, or when the nature of the problem is contested. Collective intelligence methods can bring together many diverse views and perspectives, not just those of the vocal minority or the usual experts who may be too narrowly focused. They can help stakeholders, experts and affected communities come to greater agreement on priorities for action and make more inclusive decisions.