The Wisdom of Crowds and The Open Source Way

What do high-speed rail, ash tree dieback, and changing world demographics have in common?

These are just three projects that are actively harnessing what James Surowiecki refers to as, The Wisdom of Crowds.

Open Source Design

Let’s start with Elon Musk’s Hyperloop proposal for high-speed public transportation. Musk has taken an incubator approach, with Telsa and SpaceX staff involved in getting it this far, and how he is now passing it on for others to evolve. As a Bloomberg Businessweek article sums up:

The critics of California’s high-speed rail may be dismayed to learn that Musk does not plan to commercialize the Hyperloop technology for the time being. He’s posting the plans and asking for feedback and contemplating building a prototype. “I’m just putting this out there as an open source design,” he says. “There are sure to be suggestions out there for making this better, correcting any mistakes, and refining the design.”

Giving Evolution a Helping Hand

For a complete contrast in the UK there is a new Facebook game, Fraxinus, which aims to harness the power of social media to analyze genetic data on the disease threatening the UK’s 80 million ash trees. Losses in continental Europe have been dramatic.

Apparently, humans are better at analyzing this type of data than computers!

“The aim was to harness "people power" to get cumulative information… By getting people in, by matching patterns, we might be able to identify what the diversity is of the different individual fungi that are causing this disease," Prof Allan Downie, also of the John Innes Centre.

For this project there is an immediate time pressure – to give evolution a helping hand before the majority of trees are lost:

“We can get a fast start on evolution rather than leaving these trees out there to find a way to fight the pathogen over decades or even centuries,” Dr Joan Webber, Forest Research.

Learning, Discovering & Problem Solving

And finally, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School has recently developed an online community that powers the school’s Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford initiative (GOTO). Launched in 2013, the community connects students and alumni with faculty and their research to discuss and drive business ideas that address global issues.

In 2013, GOTO is focusing on the implications of an aging population and changing demographics on the world.

“GOTO is a completely new online learning environment. GOTO creates and enables an online community that supports learning, discovery and problem solving,” Professor Peter Tufano, Peter Moores Dean, Saïd Business School.

As someone committed to the open source way, where the collaborative and crowd-sourced approach to both problem solving and developing software solutions is a natural reflex, these projects are inspirational and indicative of a growing international trend in both commercial and non-commercial environments.