In 1776, philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote about the "invisible hand," describing the phenomenon of order materializing out of chaos. Smith used it to defend free market capitalism, but spontaneous organization always seems to occur when many different people work toward a larger goal (or market).
A whole 130 years later, Sir Francis Galton visited a livestock fair where he stumbled upon a contest. Villagers were invited to guess the weight of an ox on display. Galton watched as nearly 800 people guessed the weight of the ox. Galton predicted that because most of the guessers had no experience weighing an ox, that collectively their guesses would be uniformed and inaccurate. But when he averaged all the guesses together, the mean was off by only 1 pound. While no single person guessed the weight of the ox exactly, the group as a whole was smarter than any one individual.
What Smith and Galton witnessed is now the foundation of a modern phenomenon: crowdsourcing.
In 2009, when Iceland decided to rewrite its Constitution following the Icelandic Financial Crisis, the Constitutional Council crowdsourced content and ideas from the public.
Even Google's search algorithm is an example of how everybody collectively decides what is most useful or relevant. There is no one person at Google who decides what should be the top search result for "micofinance" -- the top result is an emergent property.
In Los Angeles, the public school system is currently facing a $390 million budget deficit. Notably, the district has turned to the community for answers. It launched the My Bright Idea Challenge, an effort to crowdsource ideas for doing things more efficiently.
From constitutions to classrooms, the power of amateurs and crowds to create bold solutions seems to be taking over. Personally, we couldn't be more excited about the possibilities when you combine technology and people solving problems. What do you think?
Some interesting content to consider:
Read: Good's article about LA's My Bright Idea Challenge
Read: Popsci.com wrote about how synthetic biology is looking to amateurs for the next scientific breakthrough
Listen: Radiolab's podcast on Emergence
photos courtesy of: Hamad AL-mohannna, álvarozarzuela, cayoup