Mass-Collaborative Global Governance (MCGG): Using information technologies to address humanity’s toughest problems

Purpose: To determine how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can enable better forms of governance that address humanity’s most severe challenges.

Research questions and deliverables

The project will explore how ICTs can:

  1. increase the rate and quality of social innovation within and across levels of governance,
  2. motivate wider participation in solving global problems,
  3. help facilitate collective action to better address these problems, and
  4. thereby promote more democratic global governance.

The project will deliver:

  1. a distilled set of grand challenges facing the emerging field of mass-collaborative problem solving,
  2. a prototype ICT toolkit and decision tree for such problem solving, and
  3. specifications for several new high-impact tools to aid problem visualization, preference aggregation, and collective action.

Context of research 

For this project’s purposes, we define governance as the processes whereby social groups develop collective responses to matters that concern them, in order to achieve desired ends. According to a wide variety of sometimes-contentious metrics, governance can be effective or ineffective, humane or inhumane. In this project, we will specify our metrics. But even in the absence of stipulated metrics, humanity’s current institutions and procedures of global governance are clearly failing — and failing abysmally — to address many of the world’s most pressing problems.

ICTs could improve governance by enabling new forms of social organization — specifically, new forms of online mass-collaborative problem solving — that:

  • accurately identify critical problems,
  • rapidly access, integrate, and disseminate otherwise fragmented information about these problems,
  • explore solutions to the identified problems by creatively combining the distributed knowledge and intelligence of large numbers of people — across levels of governance from the local to the global,
  • enable collective action in support of the identified solutions by building social capital (networks of trust and reciprocity) and feelings of common community,
  • help political leaders take firm action, even when it imposes costs on key constituencies, by mobilizing coalitions to support possible solutions, and
  • break down barriers to democratic process by aiding two-way communication between people and their political representatives.

Such ideal outcomes are by no means assured. A brief visit to the web shows that ICTs can also:

  • encourage a kind of virtual anarchy, in which expert knowledge is devalued and misinformation and incivility thrive,
  • facilitate closed-mindedness rather than tolerance, because people can easily select information that fits their preferences and seek opinions that resonate with their own perspectives, and,
  • structure social networks in a way that favours accumulation of more power by already large actors.

In the simplest terms, our research project will identify ways to raise the probability of getting the good outcomes (bulleted above) while lowering the probability of getting the bad ones.

Project team

  • Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, principal investigator and Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA), is an expert in applications of complexity theory to social innovation.
  • Dr. Hassan Masum, a policy and technology strategist, is a specialist in socio-technical solution design for global health, technology, and foresight challenges.
  • Dr. Stephen Quilley, senior lecturer in environmental politics at Keele University, is an expert on energy, civilization and the historical sociology of behavioural change.
  • Dr. Robert Spekkens, a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, is an expert in algorithms for preference aggregation.
  • Ola Tjornbo, PhD candidate in global governance and Balsillie Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is an expert in social-ecological governance and virtual social networks.
  • Dr. Mark Tovey is lead researcher, simulation and visualization, at Social Innovation Generation at the University of Waterloo, and is an expert on collective intelligence.

Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation (WICI) logo.