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Newsletter, July 2006

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Wise Crowds: a new fashion in engagement

Part of staying ahead in the engagement game is spotting the new words and phrases that are likely to resonate for a while - or at least until a new fashion comes along.

One of these is 'Wise Crowds'. We first stumbled over the term in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, a fascinating book with heavy cover endorsements by Malcolm Gladwell (whose own book, The Tipping Point, provided another memorable and fashionable phrase in 2000).

The Wise Crowds thesis is very simple. It says that large groups of ordinary people are on the whole more reliably clever than small groups of experts, thus simultaneously challenging much conventional wisdom about the importance of leadership and insulting the legions of gurus who shape our lives.

There are, however, some conditions that make the wisdom of any group more likely:

  • the members must be independent-minded, with each person exercising his or her own judgment
  • they must be diverse and decentralised in the sense that they must bring the fruits of their special knowledge and experience from a range of lives and places
  • there must be a means for them to share and discuss their different points of view and
  • there must be some way to meld their views into a collective decision, whether that be through a free market or some sort of voting process.

If the thesis is correct, and much that has been written on this subject is powerfully persuasive (put 'Wise Crowds' into Google), the implications for engagement and consultation are potentially profound.

For a start, diversity should be a key criterion in engaging people to participate in engagement exercises. We need to find people who might be expected to have different perspectives, from different backgrounds and different locations to get the best results.

We should banish shallow tick-box surveys and questionnaires and invest a lot more in methods that get people thinking and deliberating before they are asked for an opinion. This would give people a chance to show the politicians that they can be trusted to make sensible choices if offered the opportunity to explore properly the options and the implications.

We could also pay more attention when people take to the streets. From the perspective of 2006 it looks as if the diverse crowds, who proclaimed 'not in my name' in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, may have indeed been wiser than their leaders.


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