We showed how a 'collective intelligence' approach, that gets people working together on air quality issues, can help double impact.
Air Quality (AQ) is a communal, collective and societal issue. While we don't pretend that the responsibility lies solely with individuals to fix its problems, it's clear that we do each have some part to play and that, in the absence of a strategic approach that each of us can be part of, a widespread sense of disempowerment could make it even harder to generate much-needed change.
Pollution Explorers Collective Action (PECA), funded by a Collective Intelligence grant from Nesta, builds on Umbrellium's work on air quality issues with communities around Europe over the last 10 years. In previous projects, including WearAQ and Pollution Explorers, we found that, when people use their own innate senses and perceptions to evaluate air quality in their neighbourhoods, they seem to take more meaningful steps to try to be aware of and improve AQ than if they are just given AQ data or digital sensors. Something about activating the senses and getting physically involved seems to make AQ more conspicuous and tractable.
In PECA we wanted to go further than our previous projects, by working with a larger group of people over a longer period of time, and more specifically we wanted to look at whether groups of people provided with a platform to gather their 'collective intelligence' (for inter-group collaboration and communication) would perform better (in terms of AQ impact and commitment) than those who did not.
Working with dozens of London households across Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and The City, over 4 months in early 2021 we provided participants with a set of 15 PECA Challenges that they could carry out — any number of them and as often as they wished. These challenges are known, at scale, to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For internal calculations, we converted each of these into a carbon equivalent which on its own is inaccurate and not very useful, but which enabled us to make comparisons between activities and participants of relative impact, scaled effects and perceptual complexity across different challenges.
Our analysis showed that the Experimental groups adhered to challenges longer, tended to adopt more impactful challenges, took on a wider variety of challenges and, over time carried out more challenges simultaneously each week than the Control group. While the Experimental groups were more expensive to run on a per-participant basis (taking more management time, incurring more network fees and infrastructure costs), the calculated impact per £ spent they had was almost double that of Control group participants.
It might seem obvious and self-evident that people working together would achieve more, but we had found little specific data on this — at least for complex community projects dealing with seemingly invisible environmental issues like air quality. PECA showed how, using a collective intelligence approach, AQ projects can double the impact per £ spent, compared to typical data/information AQ projects.
These findings suggest that collective intelligence can help local authorities and other organisations develop more effective citizen-participation strategies on large-scale complex issues relating to the climate emergency. These might apply to a broad range of issues from managing city resources (e.g. use and maintenance of green spaces and parks) to larger scale environmental concerns (e.g. energy use, health).
While most cities have allocated budgets towards air quality and how people move around cities (e.g. AQ sensor deployments), and in many cases have legislation in place, there are few viable programmes or methodologies for engaging 'the hearts and minds' of their residents, or programmes that result in measurable behaviour change. Legislation is a top-down force that has certain types of large effects.
Our findings, building on work we have carried out with dozens of local authorities around the world, shows a need for a corresponding bottom-up and collective intelligence approach like PECA to get people actively and consistently invested in the aims of legislation.
For further details of the experiment and its findings please see Collective Action — Strategies for Tackling Pollution (Research findings & Recommendations) or get in touch to discuss how we can help.