Why do we need Collective Intelligence (CI) for solid waste management?

This blog post is the first part of a two-blog series that shares the Lao PDR Accelerator Lab journey in applying Collective Intelligence to help Sikhottabong district understand its problem on open burning.

August 24, 2020

Photo by: UNDP Lao PDR

Collective Intelligence: What is it?

First, what is Collective Intelligence (CI)? To put it simply, it is intelligence shared by a group of people. This knowledge emerged from collaboration, collective efforts, and contributions from various individuals.

CI aims to distill ideas and concepts gathered from the public to make better and smarter decisions for the challenges they faced. According to Malone (2018), Collective Intelligence connects people, data, and technology, and it occurs when groups of individuals collaborate in a way that seems perceptive.

Openstreetmap.org is an excellent example of CI. This platform allows people from all around the world to create more concise and up-to-date street maps. Users from anywhere can log in and contribute their thoughts and knowledge to identify buildings, landmarks, and national parks in their area. This platform has helped public and private agencies to access accurate information and to design proper interventions for several different challenges.

What are the critical insights from Collective Intelligence?

We found CI to be a useful tool to tackle complex questions. It helped us gather collective thoughts from various stakeholders and direct beneficiaries. Unlike Behavioral Insights (BI), which has its core focus on prompting people to decide based on expected results or outcomes, CI is a bottom-up approach emphasizing community and individual empowerment. It encourages beneficiaries to feed in their thoughts and knowledge to improve decision-making processes. The issue of solid waste management needs collective actions and involvement from all sectors.

CI could help tackle challenges through 4 components: to understand problems; to seek solutions; to decide and act; and to learn and adapt. This process has helped Accelerator Labs to raise awareness of, and confidence in using CI tools, processes, and principles.

The method also encouraged the teams to explore and experiment with novel ways of working with people, data, and technology. And, it aimed to ensure reflection on the learning of the Accelerator labs and to make progress on current projects.

Our Challenges on Open Burning

Vientiane, home to nearly a million people, is facing challenges from air pollution, similar to major industrial cities. Data from AQI of 4 major spots around the town (UNDP AQI report May 2020), revelaed that from October 2019 to May 2020, the air quality in Vientiane was unhealthy to extremely unhealthy.

From the pre-workshop assignment, we have discovered new aspects about the issues. Here is our initial hypothesis, combined with results from our observation before joining the workshop:

Hypothesis 1  “people burn their trash because they do not have access to waste collection services or could not afford to pay the service fees.”

At the CI workshop during the first quarter of 2020, we mainly explored the primary components of CI, as to the extent we could use CI to understand problems. According to a group discussion, most country offices still showed some struggles in defining a real problem on waste management; therefore, the context of the workshop has been circumvented around the concept of exploring and identifying problems.

From that exercise, we have found new insights from other countries that have helped us rethink and make a bold move towards solid waste management in Vientiane, particularly regarding open burning.

Figure 1. Waste collection map of a sample village in Sikhottabong district.