Back in 2012, we watched in amazement as the original Edgeryders experiment unfolded, and a global community came together to share experiences and hacks to survive and thrive as the Great Recession ravaged the world. Every day we marveled at the courage, ingenuity and generosity of peer-to-peer communities, all the more impressive as world leaders and business seemed incapable of envisioning a way forward. We were in love with these people, and with their – our – collective intelligence.
So we started a company to fund the infrastructure to keep the community together, and to grow it. It was our way to contribute. Soon, organizations with interesting problems started showing up at our door. What are the emergent trends in social innovation in country X? What do young people in country Y really want? What is going to be the next social shift? And just like that, we were in business. We had connected this massive, hackerish, anarchic, radical, “distributed think tank” with established institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and UNESCO.
As the community grew and the company developed, however, we felt the need for more sophisticated tools to harvest the wealth of ideas, perspective and intelligence. We were just scratching the surface – and, frankly, the sheer numbers of contributors and of their contributions was starting to overwhelm us. We could only do well on the market because the competition sets a low bar.
We felt a need to go deeper. In collective intelligence, new ideas and models emerge. But we individual humans are not good at perceiving emergence. We think in stories; someone makes a witty remark that triggers an “aha” moment, and that remark stays with us. Our cognitive processes zoom right in on it, tuning out the richness of alternative perspective and ideas and reducing a rich array of position to a few soundbites. To keep our own cognitive biases in check, we needed a solid methodology, that ensures reproducibility of results even with qualitative analysis.
We turned to research. Our first research project, called OpenCare, started in 2016. It allowed us to develop a method based on a combination of ethnography and network science that is, as far as we know, unique. Implementing it required building our own tools: software to implement ethnographic coding directly on the Edgeryders platform and to induce and analyze, from the platform database, what we call semantic social networks. This intellectual journey also led to forging alliances, even friendships, with other researchers, notably the network science group at Bordeaux University, led by the wonderful Guy Melançon (@melancon on the platform).
Since the experience had been so positive, in late 2017 we decided to set up a workgroup dedicated to research in Edgeryders. The idea was to systematically scout for opportunities to improve our understanding of collective intelligence, our techniques for evoking it and our tools for analyzing its outcomes. Ideally, we would do this by choosing as case studies urgent issues that the Edgeryders community at large care about.
In so doing, we reasoned, we would hit several birds with one stone. We would, of course, become better at picking the collective brain for information and insight – and this would make us better at consulting, which has so far been our main revenue stream. We would create opportunities for passionate, skillful members of our community to be paid to have a go at fixing problems they care about (improving citizen science, fighting climate change, making sense of the rise of populism in Europe…). And we would create a stream of revenue for Edgeryders as a company, with long project cycles (2-3 years per project) that allow fairly long-range planning. The rewards were large enough to merit an investment. As research director, I accepted responsibility for it. Then, we recruited Anique Yael Vered (@anique.yael on the platform), and put her in charge of implementing this strategy, and if possible to improve upon it.
One year on, the results are in, and they are encouraging. We decided to focus our effort on a campaign to bring semantic social network analysis to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research program. We positioned ourselves as a hardworking, loyal, ambitious junior partner, with undisputed leadership on a new and exciting research method, SSNA itself. In the spring of 2018, we presented nine proposals: two of them were successful, a third one passed the first stage of evaluation and is still in the race. Our success rate is 25%, almost double the average of 13%. The two successful proposals are worth a total of eight million euro; Edgeryders’s own budget runs to 1.3 million. Both projects will start in January 2019 and run to the end of 2021. They will leave Edgeryders profoundly changed – much better equipped to harness collective intelligence in the service of our community, our clients, and humanity at large. Not bad for our first year.
And it’s not just these projects, either. We have put ourselves on the map of European research; acquired confidence and a better sense of how to build proposals; acquired new partners, some of them strategic. We built up the administrative plumbing to participate in EU-funded research (legal and financial validation). And critically, we re-involved many a “brilliant misfit” from the Edgeryders community in meaningful, paid work, which is, ultimately, our mission.
So, here’s what’s going to happen. We are making the workgroup on research permanent, and scaling it up. We are calling it the Edgeryders Research Network. As every key piece of Edgeryders, we are making it a public good. Collective intelligence is not just something we use to do research “out there”: it’s how we operate at home. Openness and treating the Research Network’s assets as public goods available to everyone are our chosen path to scaling. So, if you, too, are riding the edge of change, and if you have research interests but no academic affiliation to pursue them, come talk to us. Chances are, we might be able to help, collaborate or even act as the store front for your project.