23 October 2023

Collective Intelligence: exploring ‘wicked problems’ in National Security

Oxford Insights took part in a project with the UK national security community to pilot an approach to collaborative research called ‘Collective Intelligence’. Three ‘wicked problems’, on UK Quantum Enablement, Global Economic Security, and UK Energy Security/Net Zero, were put before multi-organisational teams that included researchers, data scientists, academics, small/medium enterprise consultancies, user researchers and AI specialists. We had around 12 weeks to both show the merit of the Collective Intelligence approach, and also research the topics and thereby contribute to UK security and development in the three areas.

Five months down the line, we’ve learnt a lot about this innovative approach to tackling some of the most pressing problems of our times. As the projects have begun reaching their conclusions, OI’s Rob Heath sat down to interview the director of Collective Intelligence to explore the whole idea…


Rob Heath: Tell me in your words, what is Collective Intelligence?

Director: In a phrase, Collective Intelligence brings minds and technologies together around complex problems, and so hopes to achieve outcomes that go a bit further than anyone else has managed. The research model was pioneered at MIT in the early part of the century, and it’s really about accepting that each person comes with a bias, whether conscious or unconscious — even those who are leaders in their field. Even experts still see a problem through a particular lens, so you bring multiple experts together in a field like, say, quantum technology, and ask them together to tackle a ‘wicked’ problem related to their field of expertise. The hypothesis is that they would inevitably come up with far better, richer, more powerful insights and directions than they could individually. And what we want to do for the UK government is to take advantage of those really rich and diverse sets of experts around some of the biggest and most intractable problems of our age.

RH: Has this kind of thing been tried before?

D: Lots of different bits of government have tried doing it before and we’re definitely another organisation on that journey. You’ve got Nesta in the UK who have done a lot of work on this, particularly focused on the crowdsourcing element; that is, how to get the most broad set of brains around the question. There’s Professor Geoff Mulgan at UCL, who is leading his own Collective Intelligence Lab — he’s strongly influencing government to do more, especially local government, to harness insight and expertise more broadly. And of course Cosmic Bazaar and PolicyLab in the Cabinet Office. Cosmic Bazaar is taking a really interesting angle: How do you find the people who really know about a problem? Especially those people who might not know that they know! Those with the most insight to offer on a problem might not even be recognised experts.

RH: What are the goals?

D: The first goal is to bring together those truly diverse experts. We know about the recognised experts in a field — but how do you capture the disruptors, the innovators and the new generation? One of the goals is to always be capturing the most diverse group of experts we can — both known and new.  That’s one goal — finding the right people.

Then there’s also data. We have things like the National Situation Centre, which draws very heavily on external data sources. They need to give quick and accurate answers to the Cabinet or COBRA when there’s a crisis or something that’s emerging very quickly. So another goal of collective intelligence is to find and validate — or even create — novel data which could enrich the picture for an entire ecosystem.

And the third goal is to bring together the ‘customers’ for these wicked problems within Government and beyond, so that we’re helping join up thinking and action on emerging or fast-developing issues threatening our security. It’s really hard when you’re in a policy team to know which other teams are working on the same problems as you. It can be a very lonely place for a lot of the process, and then it can quickly become a very defensive place when you realise another team is working almost — but not quite — to the same outcomes as you are. We want to help Government join up quicker and better so it can become more focused on human outcomes, community outcomes, UK and allies’ outcomes for prosperity and resilience, and security and benefit across a far wider range of topics than we might have been able to in the past.

RH: How is the collective intelligence approach different to previous, more typical UK government approaches to solving problems?

D: It’s very easy to think about policymaking as an episode of Yes, Minister — where the minister says a thing and then some civil servants write to paper to justify it.

RH: Ha! [laughter]

D: But luckily modern Government isn’t really like that. You’ve had things like the Government Digital Service starting in the early 2010s, embedding concepts like citizen engagement, user research, and user centred design. That’s really come to fruition with much broader engagement and much more iterative design of services across Government, bringing policy, delivery, data, and insights teams much closer together. I think this project is building on that. We’re just another step on a journey. Collective expert intelligence is yet another facet through which we are able to think about developing policy.

I think one thing that’s exciting about what we’ve done is the way that we’re going about it. It’s not just about bringing the minds together to have a think about a problem. As Oxford Insights, AdargaNaimuri, and Made Tech have elegantly demonstrated over the last few months, there’s a lot of power in not just hearing powerful ideas from experts, but turning those ideas into prototypes of products which have resonance for teams across a wide swathe of Government.  We feel that our approach has been a really good demonstration of how powerful it is to bring the community of experts, and the community of policy teams working often in near-isolation from each other within Government, together around a mutual goal.

RH: So your point is that often a policy document or proposal might not actually become action or be implemented?

D: There’s often a lot of fear about taking a first step into ‘what if’ and actually doing a Discovery [a phase at the beginning of a project where the team gathers information to reduce uncertainty and to define just enough to enable delivery—ed.] — that is trialling and exploring a hypothesis, trying it out and showing the results. Then you have a whole bunch of new and exciting things to talk about that you might not have had before, which brings stakeholders and enthusiasm to the table, and maybe funding. It gets people closer to the problem and that results in better policy, better design, quicker. The classic phrase is ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’. One of the government’s design superstars, Audree Fletcher, is quoted as saying ‘no design survives first contact with the user’, which I think is lovely.

A really good example happening in the UK is the OneTeamGov effort [‘Don’t bring policy and delivery closer together: make them the same thing.’ — James Reeve] There’s already several departments where, instead of having separate policy and delivery teams, there’s a combined policy and delivery team responsible for both designing the policy, doing the research, engaging with users, prototyping, bringing in data sources, and generally trying stuff out. Arguably the process gives richer and better results and is a much more effective way of turning someone’s brilliant idea into real action that benefits lots of people.

RH: Do you think there’s any drawback or risks? Particularly in terms of transparency and accountability, if a team is moving from ideas to action.  The ‘in-group’ may understand the benefit. But what about outsiders?

D: That’s a really interesting challenge. I think Collective Intelligence potentially thrives or fails according to the diversity of the expertise that you bring around the table in the first place. So if we are going to actively go out and tackle a wicked problem that has been plaguing government, we should actively go out and seek broader views on how we might go about it. We want to bring in the experts in that field who are already getting stuck in. We want the roundest table possible.

There are some other risks also worth mentioning. Such as, are experts in it for their own personal gain? Is there a company in the room that’s got IP that it doesn’t want to share? Does some persuasive person come into the room with a great idea, three other people get behind it, and the initial excitement carries people along without enough validation that the idea is a good one? If we include government people at the beginning, does that bring a bias to how we go forward? If we don’t include government stakeholders, does that mean that we’re almost pitting ourselves against the policy teams? There’s all sorts of challenges, so holding ourselves to account throughout the entire process, ‘from soup to nuts,’ is crucial, and we try to do that by baking in diversity and openness from the very beginning.

RH: Why is there a need for Collective Intelligence?

D: You’ve worked on it. What do you think?

RH: For me it seems like the task of making decisions on behalf of the public has gotten ever more complicated. You’re now at a point where one group, even if drawn from across government, doesn’t have all the expertise necessary to make good decisions. The world is just too complex. Add emerging technology and the sheer amount of data that’s available, and that complexity is even greater. So you need an effective way of reaching out to find the people who really understand an area, and a way to get them working together effectively.

D: Yes. We often put it as ‘wicked problems are not the responsibility of any one government department alone.’ But even beyond that, Government doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge and expertise. What if we could bring rich and diverse expertise to wicked problems that multiple government departments are facing and start to solve them together?

RH: Do you see any intransigence where government departments wish to preserve their monopoly over a particular domain area?

D: That’s a really loaded question, thanks a lot! So first of all, I think it’s important that certain government departments are on the hook for certain policies. Otherwise everyone would be piling into everything. We’d never get anything done! So for example, one of the things we’re doing at the moment is on Energy Security. It’s incredibly obvious that the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero is responsible for that. But on any given day of the week they have a capacity constraint, just like we all do. Can they always look up from their immediate work, across the whole of the rest of government, and even the world, to see what’s relevant? Can they cover all the ‘unknown unknowns’?

With the Collective Intelligence approach, I think one of the useful things is that we’re convening work from outside the departmental construct — an offering which doesn’t sit in a department. So we don’t bring that baggage of another government department ‘muscling in’; we’re quite simply an extra resource. We are able to say things like, ‘We have a free team that can help you tackle that problem. Here is the problem that we think we can help with. How do you like them apples?’ And so far, nobody has turned around and said ‘Go away, this is ours, push off.’ We’ve shown that there’s quite a lot of ambition from teams across government to work together better, and get more things done quicker and faster.

RH: How would you summarise your Collective Intelligence story so far?

D: In 2017 a couple of UK analysts in National Security looked at the problem set that they had in front of them for emerging problems of grave threat to national security. Then they read the relevant policy papers. And they saw that the two things were not congruent. For example, first, the climate is on fire. Second, we’re making all this investment into Next Generation Tech and we’re really not sure about what’s going to happen to the long term security of the UK. Thirdly, you’ve got various foreign powers like Russia and China and Saudi who are potentially looking to upend the global economic and security status quo. If our security community’s role is to be at the cutting edge of insight and intelligence, then we should be looking at some of those big questions. So the question was asked, how do we bring people together, across government, industry, academia, and national security to start tackling some of these wicked problems.

So our pilot began in three complex problem spaces that were of interest to multiple government departments [UK Quantum Enablement and Advantage, Global Economic Security, and Energy Security and Net Zero]. We got the blessing of a number of the seniors across government to go out and ask a very broad group of people to get involved; we asked the Turing Institute to run a series of ‘Brains Trusts’, and to distil out of those brains some really important problem statements to serve as launchpads for us to start tackling those problem spaces. From there, we’ve commissioned six, primarily SME-led, teams to run discovery into alpha phases on each of the problem statements.

We’ve dragged bits of government, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes incredibly willingly, to the coal face [where the work is happening—ed.] to get engaged with our research teams. At last count, we had something like ten government departments participating either as customers or commissioners. We’ve had something like 15 SMEs so far involved either in steering or delivering the Discovery and Alpha work, and we’ve got four universities involved. It’s a strong beginning, but we’re looking to grow.

RH: What challenges have you faced?

D: So many challenges! Which is to be expected when trying anything new. Perhaps most obvious is how the approach has a very unclear customer at the very beginning of the process. Working with that is still a bit of an uncertain art. The approach that GDS has championed over the last 10 years is to begin by asking, ‘What is the user need?’ To do that, you have to be confident about who the user is, and exactly who the customer is, and what’s the need for this project. With Collective Intelligence, we are very explicitly saying, ‘We don’t know.’ But we’ve identified and know a lot of potential customers in government and elsewhere who we’re trying to draw in as the work progresses and the benefits begin to emerge.

RH: What are the big learnings you’ve drawn from the first cycle of projects?

D: We learned, particularly from the Quantum Enablement project, that we needed to lean in a little harder on customers so we get potential users on board before the research team hits the ground. We tested a way of doing that with the Economic Security project, our second cycle,and although we were slow to get there, HM Treasury did come to the table with gusto, which is very exciting.

Then on our third cycle, the Energy Security and Net Zero project, we have been really explicit with going to the Department for Energy Security & Net ZeroOfgem, the Energy Systems Catapult, HM Treasury, No.10, the Cabinet Office, and — turning the table on them —s aying, ‘Who of you would like to take over steering the ship for this team, because here it is, and it is free.’ All these departments and organisations have already told the world that these are really important things to work on — so, would you like to put not-your-money where your mouth is, because we’re giving you the money!

RH: What’s the biggest success so far?

D: I think the biggest success so far is that the prototype work that we’ve completed on Economic Security has shown great promise, and two different government departments are considering commissioning a beta version of one of the prototypes. So whereas both of those departments thought they were tackling the problem of economic security to the UK alone before and couldn’t see the other, they’re now in lockstep working together on the problem. Amazing!

RH: Are you able to say what’s coming next?

D: We know that one of the challenges we’ve got is to convince teams who are working on some of the existing high priority national security challenges to get on board with the idea that this [Collective Intelligence] is a good idea and important because national security is accelerated, we genuinely believe, when all sorts of different data, insights, and expertise are brought to the table, not just secret sources. So we’re on a bit of a journey at the moment with the national security community to help them explore what this might feel like in practice. They’re already excited by what they’re seeing coming out of our current pilots, but they’re grappling with how it can align with their current ways of working, which are primarily secret first.

So we’ll be running another set of wicked problems in complex spaces on issues yet to be decided, but likely around emerging science and tech opportunities in the UK.

RH: What’s the big dream for Collective Intelligence? And what do you hope it goes on to achieve?

D: There are two answers to that question. The first is that for Collective Intelligence itself, we’re really keen that it becomes a truly cross-government initiative. We know that the Policy Lab’s Collective Intelligence project, and similar projects in other parts of the policy and delivery professions, are scratching an itch in parts of the government community, which are usually quite siloed, to start working in more open and collaborative ways. There are at least six similar constructs to Collective Intelligence that we know of.  Given the headwind of what we’ve achieved with Collective Intelligence, and the excitement it’s created amongst those departments, we’re on the beginning of a really exciting journey.

The second is that we’re really really keen to find a thread between us and the Integrated Review, which are basically the stated priorities of the UK government. So they are the things that we must be focusing on. But to do that we need to work with and talk to some of our most siloed departments and organisations. We know who they are, and perhaps they think they need to operate independently. So anything we can do to open that conversation up more broadly, and to work on it more effectively together, that’s the major aim of Collective Intelligence.

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