NECC 2008, Opening Keynote, James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki spoke in front of a packed house last night. Here are my, somewhat incomplete, notes from his speech, as I was fighting with my wireless connection during the presentation:

James Surowiecki keynote. Author of The wisdom of crowds

Under the right conditions, groups of people can be very intelligent collectively. Collective intelligence improves a group’s ability to make decisions, predict the future, etc. ….


  • Jellybean experiment: group guess of beans in the jar. Average of group as a whole will be close, and most likely better than any individual guess, no matter how large the group. No one person is smarter than the group. Idea of collective intelligence.
  • Who wants to be a millionaire: poll the audience (get the answer right 91 percent of the time). Phone a friend, only 2/3 of the time.
  • Racetrack as prediction machine (odds on horses). Crowd prediction of future that has lots of unpredictable variables.

If you get a smart enough crowd under the right conditions you can do amazing things.

You can use the same principles to make groups in organizations/schools stronger.

The trick: it only works under certain conditions. (groups are volatile and tend to fall to the level of the lowest common denominator).

  1. need a way to aggregate group wisdom (technology can really help here), a tool that allows many different opinions to become one opinion (Google, Wikipedia)
  2. diversity, diverse groups do better, i.e. cognitive diversity (people who look at problems from different perspectives, people who rely on different kinds of tools). Also helps groups get around peer pressure (imitation works a lot of the time).
  3. individuality is good, esp. independent thinking; let people speak up in reverse order of seniority, position, etc. Talkative people tend to influence groups, because people tend to talk back to very talkative people.

Technology allows us to cast our net more widely more quickly and effectively, and allows us to collect more varied opinions.

Surowiecki finished with the story of USS Scorpion which vanished in 1968, and how collective intelligence was used to find the wreckage.

Image Credits:

NECC logo, NECC 2008 website:

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