Climate Action and the Wisdom of Crowds

by Joe Brewer: environmental writer, cognitive scientist, co-founder of hivethrive blog, and agent for progressive social change

Last night I attended a panel discussion on environmental justice at the Berkeley Public Library. One of the speakers on the panel was Timothy Burroughs, Climate Action Advisor for the City of Berkeley. He has the exciting job of getting the city’s mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (to an aggressive target of 80% below its pollution levels in 2000) from vision to reality.

Listening to him talk, it became clear that he is a community entrepreneur who is working with local government to transform public transportation, city design, and (most interesting to me) civic engagement. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he understands the wisdom of open source communities and knows how to get people involved in the process.

This will, I think, be the secret behind the city’s ultimate success.

The open source community is traditionally thought of as software developers like the creators of the Linux operating system - where self-selected groups of volunteers came together and created extremely complex and useful software that out-performed proprietary products of private companies.

The famous Wikipedia encyclopedia moved beyond software and brought a new face to open source. Millions come together to create content and edit each others’ work. And, contrary to the popular belief that quality requires central control in the design process, Wikipedia’s entries have generally become better in quality as time goes on through the work of an army of site administrators who manage the sections they care most about. A key to this success is the sense of pride its most active contributors feel for accomplishments so far. They won’t sit idly by and let trash accumulate, diligently monitoring their most prized entries.

Burroughs is taking this open source creation process to the next level - the co-creation of public policy in his community. The website he set up, Berkeley Climate Action, encourages public comments and provides multiple pathways to get involved. Citizens can pledge to reduce their own carbon footprint by taking the Climate Action Pledge. The city is going to help them do it by offering a climate calculator so they can monitor their progress. Citizens can also join Low Carbon Diet Teams to work in groups as they cut down their levels of global warming pollution.

This emphasis on community empowerment and involvement is a central tenet of the open source movement. It is based on the recognition that there is wisdom in crowds, especially intentional crowds that form around a common purpose. I ardently believe that efforts like this to get the community active in the process will be essential to solving the climate crisis, as I’ve written before.

Burroughs attributes his perspective to another empowering kind of community - bee hives. He is a bee keeper, as were his father and grandfather. He learned early on that tasks can be managed quite effectively when small groups of dedicated workers focus in the area they feel the most affinity for. Now he is applying this wisdom to city government.

I think he’s onto something.

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  • Posted on May 29, 2008. Listed in:

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