Cognitive surplus - the untapped potential of Development 2.0

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New business models, crowdsourcing data, falling IT costs - all represent different facets of the potential for web 2.0 applications to the development sector.

In a recent seminar at the Bank, Dion Hinchcliffe pointed me to a new item to be added to the list, borrowed from Clay Shirky: namely, "cognitive surplus". Wikipedia is one example of the surplus in action:

So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

Now, what if you were to galvanise the equivalent of 100 million hours of thought for development purposes? Admittedly, this might be easier said than done. As Shirky points out, "the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first" and the "physics of participation" is complex and unpredictable. But the development sector has a comparative advantage here given its skills in tapping into volunteer resources and dealing with complexity. What is often lacking, however, is project design that deliberately aims to exploit network effects and Reed's law - hence the "scaling up" dilemma.

Below are just a couple of examples I came across recently of building "architectures of participation" to take advantage of the surplus:

  • 50,000 Estonians, recruited online, volunteered to clean up 80% of illegal dump sites in one day.
  • IBM recently announced that its World Community Grid will harness the unused and donated power from nearly one million individual PCs to support research into stronger strains of rice. The project is estimated to take less than two years as compared to over 200 years using more conventional computer systems.

So.. what else could we achieve with 100 million hours of collective thought - and action?

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