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Boston Globe: To address climate change, MIT lab seeks the wisdom of crowds

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By Sarah Shemkus GLOBE CORRESPONDENT  

Thomas Malone does not believe there is a solution to the problem of climate change. He thinks there are lots of solutions — and he has set out to find them.

MIT’s Thomas Malone says climate change is not a problem that one person or one organization can solve alone.  Photo credit: Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe 

Malone is founder and head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate CoLab, an online community that is attempting to use crowdsourcing to tackle one of the thorniest and most complex problems facing the planet.

“It is a problem in which we all have some sort of stake,” Malone said. “It is not a problem where one person or one organization can solve the problem alone.”

Though crowdsourcing has been around for centuries, the approach has become more prominent as the Internet makes it easy and inexpensive to tap the wisdom of the masses. It is the foundational principle behind Wikipedia and has been adopted by major corporations and the federal government as a strategy for innovation.

“The Climate CoLab… lets you gauge interest from other parties: What do they like? What message is getting across when you share this idea?” 

Climate CoLab’s crowdsourcing project approaches its daunting challenge by first breaking the issue of climate change into dozens of smaller questions: How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation? How can we shift public attitudes toward climate change? How can we increase urban energy efficiency?

Each question forms the backbone of a contest in which experts, amateurs, and even artists are invited to propose potential solutions. Currently, 17 contests are active on the project’s website. Another seven are set to open soon.