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Collective Genius

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This is the best time in history to be alive. Access to education, healthcare and employment is increasing for populations the world over. If you are born poor, the chances of escaping poverty and leading a long and healthy life are significantly better than ever before. In large part this is due to the leaps in progress associated with connectivity. Development is about the evolution of ideas. The more rapidly that ideas evolve, with older concepts replaced by better ideas, the more quickly societies advance. Whether it's learning that washing one's hands or smoking less improves health outcomes or how economies should be managed to ensure sustainable employment and growth, it is the sharing of ideas with others that can accelerate progress.

Mobile phones will soon outnumber the Earth's 7 billion people. We have seen the transformative power of mobile connectivity in an increasingly wide range of applications, from health and finance to education, political mobilisation and institutional accountability. What is less widely appreciated is how the sharing of ideas can lead to the flowering of collective genius.

There is a random distribution of genius in the world, which now has exciting potential for release through population growth, rising literacy and growing connectivity. It is good news that the number of exceptionally talented people who are able to contribute to innovation and global problem-solving is growing rapidly. But it is not only the few with truly exceptional ability that can solve problems. We all have fragments of ability. Together, we can form teams which may be richer in their potential than single individuals. Diversity has been shown to foster dynamism in societies and innovation in ideas. The challenge is how to harness the extraordinary potential associated with the exponential growth in connectivity.

Positive examples abound, such as the crowd-sourcing techniques used by the Zooniverse project to address problems as wide ranging as climate change and cures for cancer. Farmers, teachers, nurses, retailers and emergency workers around the world already find their smart devices to be an indispensible aid to their activities. Simple text messaging systems have brought revolutions in access to healthcare, education, financial and agricultural information, empowering individuals to improve their bargaining positions or assess their health needs and enhance their life prospects. The power of these devices is doubling every year, for the same price. The potential for permeating every aspect of our lives is growing at a corresponding pace.

However, not all connectivity is good. Much of the potential social gain is threatened by a system which is vulnerable to spam or criminal capture. Connections can also become vectors of systemic risk, with tightly bound systems facing the prospect of being amplifiers of cascading shocks. This can be both psychological - where perceptions of a threat or event lead to herd behaviour - and real, as was evident by the distribution of derivatives around the world, which, when a collapse in value occurred in the US, triggered a global financial tsunami.

We need to be aware of the risks of connectivity. We must find ways to embed resilience and avoid fragility in these diverse systems, so that isolated incidents don't resonate into global shocks. A failure to harvest the upsides of connectivity and to protect against the downside risks will mean that citizens increasingly will see connectivity as a source of threat rather than opportunity. The result will be that societies will become more nationalist, protectionist and xenophobic. These attitudes will propel us towards a more solitary and much poorer future. We need to demonstrate that connectivity is a source of strength, and accelerate the extent to which our mobile devices are a source for good.

Professor Ian Goldin is Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He will be speaking at the Vodafone Foundation and London Business School's Mobile For Good Summit in London on December 10, 2012.