In nature, no single individual bee has the intellectual or organisational capacity to build a beehive, yet a group of several thousand bees—each with the same limited intelligence—can accomplish this sophisticated task.
“No one can explain how it happens. However, this is an emergence,” says Chris Riedl, a professor of business and computer science at Northeastern University, who is interested in crowdsourcing innovation. His past research shows that crowdsourced problem solving can be improved dramatically by combining it with the “emergent” qualities of group dynamics.
To break it down, the concept of emergence relies on the fact that the ability of a group to create solutions can far exceed the creative limitations of its members. Riedl says there’s something almost “magical” about group dynamics that makes the collective whole much more than the sum of its parts. Similarly, on a human level, he theorises that a network of individuals, whether working in close proximity or connected via the internet, can harness this same emergent quality as the bees to craft solutions that surpass the ability of any of its members.
“No matter how big your company is, there are more smart people outside the company than inside,” he adds. Most companies usually employ crowdsourcing as a form of contest to solve a particular challenge and attract participants with prizes. However, it’s still hundreds of individual bees trying to build a beehive. This is where emergence could help, says Riedl.
The breakthrough made by Riedl’s group was to find a way to create an “emergent” process among individuals spread out across the world who could collaborate and work together on the internet as a group. “Not only is group creativity more effective, but it can also be conducted effectively online, across time zones, and among people who do not know one another. Even more important is proof that emergence can be created among groups of people who have never met and are separated by thousands of miles,” he says.