Climate CoLab: Harnessing The Hive Mind To Alleviate Climate Change

It certainly doesn’t seem like anyone in charge has any ideas about how to stop climate change, so let’s open it up to everyone. A crowdsourcing project from MIT has found the best solutions from the rest of us–like personal rapid transit or convincing us all to eat less meat.

Climate CoLab: Harnessing The Hive Mind To Alleviate Climate Change
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

In the face of planetary crises, no opinion should be discounted; there’s no telling who might come up with the next great idea. This is especially true with climate change–a quandary that has few definitive answers.


In 2010, MIT’s Climate CoLab–the climate crowdsourcing arm of the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence–attempted to crowdsource the next international climate agreement, with the top ideas presented to the United Nations, Congress, and the Department of Energy. While the ideas never contributed to a major climate agreement, the Climate CoLab is back again with its 2011 contest winners. This time, the entrants were given a different task: figure out how the 21st century economy should evolve to meet the risks of climate change. Our favorite winning teams, all of whom will get to present their ideas in front of the United Nations and Congress later this month, are below.

Cut Down On Global Meat Consumption

Proposed by a team affiliated with liberal blog Daily Kos, this winning idea suggests cutting down on meat consumption to ease our planetary burden. The team works through convincing statistics: It’s estimated that 80% to 90% of cleared land in the Brazilian Amazon can be attributed to pasture or ranching, deforestation in the tropics makes up as much as 20% of CO2 emissions from human activity, and raising livestock and poultry is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions (in part because methane is released from animal farts and burps).

This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to stop eating meat today. The team proposes “a rapid acceleration of education through the existing organizations with emphasis on larger institutions and with additional emphasis on the growing economies of China and India,” as well as increased lobbying “for influence of the US 2012 Farm Bill, to try to reduce US government subsidies for corn and soy which contribute to the Factory Farm livestock culture.” There’s no need to eliminate meat entirely; just making it less of an everyday staple can make a big difference in greenhouse gas emissions.

Personal Rapid Transit Grids

Christopher Fry, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, proposes the widespread installation of personal rapid transit (PRT) systems in the densest urban and suburban areas containing 50% of the U.S. Population. Says Fry: “We can eliminate cars, buses, subways and short-haul airplanes from our urban areas with a grid of 1-mile square cells of mag-lev guideways, 20 feet above a city containing 2 person ‘pods’ that are waiting for customers at an average distance of 1/4 mile from every point in the grid. These pods use less energy and money per passenger mile than any practical electric car, bus or rail (light or not) and are safer and faster.”

PRT already exists. NASA, for example, is currently testing Skytran, a system of two-person pods attached to guideways above streets and roads. The pods can stop every half mile or so for anyone who needs to get off.

It’s a great idea, but the real question is whether local governments will ever invest in it. After all, it requires a major overhaul of our transportation system, and even minor changes cost a lot of money.


Climate-proofing the Economics of Socially Sustainable Small-Scale Agricultural System

Suggested by a team from the Nigeria National Centre for Technology Management, this proposal attempts the ambitious goal of climate-proofing sustainable agriculture in Africa. The basic idea: leveraging climate change education among small-scale farmers (they produce 50% of food in local markets in developing countries) to overhaul the food system. The proposal features a complex web of networking, mentoring, and training to ensure that farmers use best practices–including the creation of experimental farms to test out emerging farming technologies.

The team explains the rationale: “This proposal will not only help small-scale farmers harness their market potentials, it will also reduce poor harvests as a result of the impact of climate change, high price of energy crops, high dependence on imported agricultural products, etc. Considering the fact that Africa spends about $10 billion annually to import food, then it is not an overstatement by saying that any policy targeted at African development without considering small-scale farming and climate change education does so at a very great risk.” The graphic above envisions the impact that creating an agricultural growth corridor–containing “hubs” of seedlings, irrigation, fertilizers, and more–will make in just a small part of the continent.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.