Crowdsourcing vs Collective Intelligence. What’s the diff?

Thanks to intrepid design blogger, oyster fiend, and “bro”, John DiPalma and his solid blog at DesignRising, I’ve been coerced into writing much richer blog posts about the topics that I’m exploring. So, here goes the first in a series of attempts to share some meatier topics and the findings that I’m uncovering.

As the title of this blog suggests (and if you’ve ventured as far as reading the “Project” section) I’m exploring the role of collective intelligence in design. When I describe my research to people, I usually start with the description of collective intelligence, and then quickly find myself falling back on the more commonly known crowdsourcing. If that doesn’t work, I run through others like open innovation and wisdom of crowds to try and paint a clearer picture for those that are unfamiliar with the concepts; all of which revolve around mass, open innovation. This naturally progresses into questions about the difference between these terms, and examples of their applications. In this post, I’m going to address the two most relevant terms: collective intelligence, and crowdsourcing.

To date, I’ve been comfortable with considering collective intelligence as the intellectual potential of a large group of individuals to make better, more informed decisions and choices than individual experts. The appropriate applications, considerations, and limits of collective intelligence are still being uncovered as we finally have technology which enables the harvesting of vast amounts of input from many individuals in relative real-time. Collective intelligence functions on the adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of any individual parts” with the whole being human society interconnected with technology, and individual parts being individual experts that we have traditionally relied on as authorities on given matters and topics.

When it comes to crowd-sourcing, I have conventionally viewed it as a mechanism with which to implement the broader concept of collective intelligence. It requires technological platforms (generally broadband internet, but I’m more interested in SMS) in order to use the potential of the internet to collect the input from large amounts of individuals around the world working towards a common goal. The most popularly cited examples of crowdsourcing applications are generally Wikipedia, and Threadless, however from a design context I would highlight OpenIDEO and frogmob as relevant examples of crowdsourcing. In a future post I’ll highlight these in particular and comment on how they work, what they seek to accomplish, and offer a critique of the two.

While my opinions have been formed by extensive reading on the topics from a variety of sources, let’s take a look at some popular, accepted definitions of the terms from “experts” in the field (ironically enough since prominent “The Wisdom of Crowds” author James Surowiecki among others calls on us to stop “chasing experts” and start trusting the crowd, but hey…).

Collective Intelligence

The term collective intelligence is generally credited to Pierre Lévy in a 1994 book “L’Intelligence collective. Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace”. Pierre Lévy is currently a professor in the Department of Communication at the local University of Ottawa and is Canada Research Chair in Collective Intelligence. I look forward to reaching out to him in the very near future to discuss these topics. 

According to Malone, Laubacher and Dellarocas in the influential (and more fodder for future posts) 2009 paper from the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence “Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence”, over the last decade, the Internet has enabled communities to connect and collaborate, creating a virtual world of collective intelligence. This same publication defines collective intelligence rather simplistically as “a group of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent”. While I understand the value in stripping a definition down to its most basic elements, I find this one somewhat primitive. Is cheering at a sporting event collective intelligence? 


As a term, crowdsourcing is relatively younger, having been credited to Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired magazine article. At that time, he defined it as “the process by which the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of a specialized few” and in 2010 has elaborated by stating that crowdsourcing “is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”.

Is there a difference?

In some publications (Buecheler, Sieg, Fuchsil & Pfeifer, 2010) the terms have been used interchangeably for “using a large group of individuals to solve a specified problem or collect useful ideas.”

For the purposes of my research I’m going to stick with keeping them separate. While the similarities are obvious, and it is evident that crowdsourcing as a term is an evolution that is more technology focused than the blanket term collective intelligence, that’s exactly how I’d like to keep it.

In my eyes, collective intelligence is the hope that humanity as a whole, connected in very different ways than ever before can work collaboratively towards the betterment of society by tapping into the shared and diverse intellect of the world. Crowdsourcing is more specifically a tool that is employed using the internet or other technologies such as SMS to collect the input from many decentralized individuals working towards a common goal. 

In the scope of this project, I am more specifically looking at the applications of collective intelligence using crowdsourcing approaches in the developing world and in low-technology contexts for the furtherment of participatory design initiatives. 

3 Notes

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