Are we as smart as the SDGs?

BY Gina Lucarelli | January 18, 2016|Comments 5

While many of us in the UN see 2015 as a triumphant year for multilateralism, there are those who hold lingering doubts about the agreement on Agenda 2030, an ambitious set of goals that establishes milestones of growth & equality within the limits of the planet.  Many say they are too ambitious – 169 commandments according to the Economist and A free for all according to the New York Times.
Fair enough. But what does ‘too ambitious’ as an indictment really mean? Are we saying that the full collective intelligence of humanity is not enough to reach the goals by 2030 – say ending HIV and AIDS, stopping violence against women, and ensuring no one lives in extreme poverty?  Yes these are high goals, but are we not smart enough to make that happen?

It they can find a red balloon in nine hours, why can’t we reach the SDGs?

Indulge me with an update of the maxim, “if they can put a man on the moon…” {usually followed with a lament of the lack of society advancement in a seemingly more simply terrain, i.e., ala Seinfeld,  why can’t they make a decent cup of coffee}. The SDG update goes like this: If a team from MIT can locate 10 red balloons hidden across the continental U.S. in nine hours, then why can’t we reach the SDGs in 15 years?

The story of the red balloon is a good one to illustrate what collective intelligence is capable of. Handbooks and courses by Tom Malone on the subject at MIT (which I recommend) often start with the red balloon story.  In 2011, DARPA held a contest find 10 large red balloons which were floating somewhere in the continental  US. A $40,000 prize was offered to the team who could find all 10 balloons first. With no other information than the fact that the balloons were somewhere out there, the team used a social media network and incentive system to locate all 10 red balloons in 9 hours.  [Hint, the trick was to incentivize people to refer others to the search party to make the collective smart enough to find the balloons quickly.]

If the U.S based collective could do this in 2011–can’t we take 2016 to begin tapping into similar collective intelligence on a global scale to achieve the SDGs?  If we take the perspective that intelligence is not just something that sits in individual brains, but it arises from groups of individuals, and increasingly, people and computers together, then what is possible when it comes to the world’s new ambitious set of sustainable development goals?

Inspiration from NESTA’s CEO on collective intelligence

With this as a backdrop, in December, with help from mentor/agitator Giulio Quaggiotto, I organized a brown bag discussion with UN staff to engage with Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of NESTA, to share his thoughts based on their applied thinking and experience with collective intelligence.  We were particularly interested in how to use planning processes (the UNDAF in UN parlance) as collective intelligence experiments. How does a UN Country Team harness a country’s best minds for sustainable development? What does a genuine multi-stakeholder planning process look like that goes from public engagement to decision making and investment? Internally within the diversity of the UN system, how do we act smartly as a collective? These were what framed Geoff’s talk on Collective Intelligence, the SDGs and the UN.

Geoff gave us a good framework to work from, the elements of individual intelligence as a framework for assessing the smarts of a collective.


The complexity increases on a continuum of the attributes of individual intelligence which can also be applied to teams and groups of people. Take observation as a cognitive function  – this is what happens when people are on flood watch. Moving up the chain, wisdom according to Geoff’s presentation adds a moral dimension.

Wisdom is a tall order collectively – and individually for that matter.  Interestingly, Geoff mentioned that while web-based data tools may help a team cultivate joint cognitive functions like observation of data flows, when it comes to wisdom, no tech solution can make a team wise!

New year’s resolution: make planning as a collective intelligence moment

Duly inspired by this line of thinking, and pumped with all the good intentions of a new year… how about a resolution to apply collective intelligence as a framework to get Agenda 2030 moving? Within our work at the UN Development Group, what if we transform our own strategic planning processes into collective intelligence experiments? What would this look like in countries as they adapt national development strategies to the global sustainable development goals?  Many UN teams and governments across the globe have started to move in this direction by making their multi-year partnership planning processes more inclusive, more future-oriented and better informed by data, including peoples’ experiences as a new form of data. More of this all around!

Instead of filling the new year’s log frames with mind-numbingly dull jargon, what if we roll up our planning sleeves with the intention to approach planning as collective intelligence experiment?   So that’s a collective provocation for you all. Calling all smart people out there who can now figure out how a collective intelligence planning process would look in practice… Any takers?


Gina Lucarelli Gina is Team Leader of Knowledge & Innovation at UN Development Operations Coordination Office. Follow Gina on Twitter.


  1. Mickelle Hughes says:

    Great and thought-provoking article, Gina.
    Let’s get it done already!

  2. Gina Lucarelli says:

    Thanks Mickelle! Glad you are on board – are you working with the UN in Jamaica? Let’s apply it there!

  3. Gina Lucarelli says:

    Alberto, thank you for this, as usual, thoughtful and thought provoking comment. You have hit the nail on the head. This is about sensemaking on the one hand, and legitimacy on the other.

    For those of you who haven’t come across, definitely have a look, and even more so — get involved with these very collectively smart teams.

    And a question — where does the Human sensing network live? Are you focused in one geographical area?

  4. Hello Gina, I work with the UNDP-implemented GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP). One of the principles of the SGP is that multiple iterations of small grants working directly with civil society organisations leads to more rapid cycles of learning. The network of CSOs funded also leads to “network effects” with the horizontal transmission of knowledge without relying on the services of so-called expert intermediaries. The GEF SGP has now financed over 20,000 small grants in some 129 countries world-wide. For the current phase from 2015-2018, one of the challenges and opportunities will the global transfer of experiences as of the South-South knowledge exchange platform. I look forward to connecting further with UNDOCO on this in relation to the SDGs.

  5. Gina Lucarelli says:

    Hi Terence! I love the network effects model for collective intelligence. If you ever want to write a blog about the silo fighting work of the GEF Small Grants Programme and your intermediary free knowledge transmission methods, we would love to learn more!

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