Can Millennials and social media solve complex world problems?

crowd sourcing

I came across a thought-provoking post last week: Millennials and the Power of Social Media by Chris Altchek. In this post, Chris notes that crowd-sourcing has been successful in areas like product development and funding start-ups but observes that the power of the crowds has generally failed to solve complex societal and political problems.

For this to happen, Altchek says four things must occur:

1) Minority voices on social media should not get drowned out or relegated to a sort of algorithmic purgatory. Technology should promote diverse ideas to inform a better outcome.

2) Platforms should emerge that allow people to build on ideas in a way similar to the way collaboration occurs in product development.

3) If progress were made on policy issues like those on product development issues, enough incentive would be provided for the Millennials to keep participating and drive change.

4) Big Data analytics will allow leaders to sift through piles of information to find the best solutions.

He concludes by writing:

Our generation’s major roadblocks will only be overcome through mass mobilization and collective ingenuity. Companies, governments and organizations should be working to create social platforms for this type of mass collaboration. Truly innovative public policy, commercial products and social contracts will all be crowd-sourced in real time, and the impetus is on us all to make sure that we all are heard.

This may not be the most politically-correct opinion, but I generally disagree with the idea that solving the world’s problems can be crowd-sourced. While I applaud Mr. Altchek’s optimism and vision, and I agree with most of his points, I think there are three major practicalities he overlooked.

Who’s in charge, and why?

If you look at many of the complex projects that are being successfully crowd-sourced, there is a financial benefit to success. One example is NASA’s crowd-sourcing of technical problems. NASA saves money by digging deep, finding alternative answers, and crowd-sourcing solutions. The “winners” also receive a financial reward.

But solving issues like universal healthcare, civil rights, and global warming are POLITICAL issues. The ultimate reward for those in charge are “staying in office,” “looking good in the media,” or “building political support.” Crowd-sourced solutions, no matter how elegant and diverse, are fighting highly complex political interests, rich political action committees and entrenched bureaucracy.

An example of this problem is public education in the U.S. Nearly everyone can agree this is a system that is failing many groups of children despite being one of the best-funded in the world. The problem is not a lack of ideas. The broken system is entrenched through political interest, unions, parent groups, and elected school officials.

I think a problem can be effectively crowd-sourced if there is a single entity in charge that can actually enact the change and reward participants.

Can you crowd-source diplomacy?

Many of the most serious problems we face cannot be affected with a local policy change. It takes global buy-in and global collaboration. This is a very sticky spider web of interactions and impacts.

For example, applying pressure to solve human rights issues in South America could be tied to oil sales in Western Europe, arms trade in the Middle East and the political priorities of the ruling party in the U.S.

Can you crowd-source your way out of that?

Leadership is lonely

I would like you to picture in your mind some of the people behind truly revolutionary change. People who transformed an industry, a country, a global social problem. Perhaps you’re thinking of

Steve Jobs



Mother Teresa

Nelson Mandela

My point is that behind every great revolution is an individual with the enormous drive, passion, political savvy, and personal sacrifice to overcome everything to succeed. Momentum in the masses can create a mission and birth a leader but it cannot lead complex change.

You can’t crowd-source leadership and ultimately, you MUST have a leader to create revolutionary change.

By the way, I think leadership trumps all. If you have a leader willing to crowd-source change then the other obstacles I mention in this post could be neutralized.

I know this topic is a little wider and perhaps a little weirder than what I normally cover here on {grow} but it is also a vitally important topic.

Can you crowd-source societal change?  What do you think?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Photo courtesy of Flickr CC and James Cridland

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  • Will Reichard

    A big, old question–do leaders produce the times, or do the times produce the leaders? I don’t know (obviously), but I share a sense that young people today are leader-averse in a way that’s deeper than anything that’s come before. I’ve often wondered what’s going to happen when they ascend to positions of authority and have to manage one another, because no one’s supposed to be “above” anyone else. It’s deep with them, I think. And different from how we were brought up.

    Occupy is the ultimate current symbol of this. No one’s in charge; no one can even say what the “movement” stands for. And look how it confounds the system (which is exactly what they want). Though it’s not a natural go-to place for me (because I was brought up the way you and most of us were), I still have to say I see because of this all the ways that most “authority” is artificial and maintained by power. In a lot of ways, this goes back to your previous post–it’s about trust between equals, a fair exchange of value, increasingly enabled by technology. and not about being coerced or cheated. So in that sense, it does seem we live in different times. And I say this as someone who was seriously offended by the young person who said a while back that no one over 25 could understand social media, but maybe she was right. Maybe I’m just old-school. That does happen, even to good people.

    Keep up your great leadership, Mark. The very fact that you can see both sides is what makes you a leader. (Some other time we can debate whether Jobs really was a leader…I’m not so sure. But overall I think your point is spot on, as usual.)

  • MaureenMonte

    Really great post – love it when you wander off the beaten path. It helps give me inspiration to keep doing the same. From where I sit, you cannot crowd source change because most of the crowd will grab onto the river bank and stay until they die (they fear the change or that their nugget may be left out of the change.) And one person’s reward is another person’s death sentence (if we reward change agents, those who don’t change feel punished, which makes them cling even tighter.) Also, the reminder that leadership is lonely… so is intrapreneurship… maybe it’s the same thing. 🙂 And to be clear, I am not in the category of the folks you provided as examples. Thanks, Mark.

  • You make some extremely interesting points Will and the one that really sticks with me is that Millenials are leader-averse.

    To be honest, I’ve read about issues that kind of dance around that issue but I don’t recall any research that explicitly states that. Have you seen something? Would be interesting to read.

    My sense though is that you are correct but I wonder if that is a trait for this generation or for idealistic people in general? There is no such thing as group leadership. A single leader will emerge, even if they say there isn’t one.

    Thanks for the great comment and the support!

  • I don’t believe that intrapreneurship is possible. But that is a subject for another post. : ) Have you ever really seen successful intrapreneurs that could compete with entrepreneurs?

    Superb points Maureen! Thanks for the great comment.

  • Rezwan Razani

    A political issue is often about rent-seeking behavior – people protecting their industry, investments, or jobs by lobbying as special interests, feeding a political system in which those guys are likewise perpetuating their jobs. And the rest of us stay with this system again, also because of job security, habit, short term thinking and daily distractions.

    That being said, I’m working to solve a complex social problem that affects all of us – the energy tribalism. This is what is in the way of getting a great quality of life for 10 Billion people with zero carbon footprint. And the mechanism by which to conquer the energy tribalism is a community information and decision making process wrapped up in the emerging Energy Cinderella Project.

    I’m looking for partners, leaders, supporters, advisers, mentors and members. Please join me in this project! It is winnable – and we can have fun doing it. The artwork alone.

    I look forward to hearing from you! Yes, you. You read this far : )

  • Will Reichard

    Mark–I can’t think offhand of a source that really gets at that point. But I did think about Tapscott’s Wikibrands. E.g., “A study of more than eight thousand members of the Net Generation identified eight cardinal lifestyle and cultural norms—freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, speed, and innovation…” which I think starts to quantify that. I know Pew Research has also done a lot on the millennials.

    To the point about group leadership … maybe Jobs is a good example. Left to Woz, would the company have ever gone anywhere? As little as I cared for Steve personally, I’d have to suspect no. The open-source movement has its problems for sure. Somebody like Shuttleworth is the only one who makes any waves. But then I think of the Power of Free and wonder if it’s maybe not in part that the media like stories of individuals (I do, too, and for some cool thoughts on that question, check out

    To me, young people are democratic the way the ancient Greeks were democratic. In other words, we’re all equal, but it’s going to be darned hard to get my vote or my respect. That may be more the result of a fragmented world that’s always at war (I’ve heard it said that democracy is a response to tribalism) rather than idealism. I guess I imagine something more positive and hopeful in leaders, something more than enforced equality. There, too, I think Occupy was interesting–it refused to enforce anything at all.

    So maybe the question is, Did Occupy produce anything? To which it would probably say, We weren’t trying to. 😉

    Fun stuff. Thank you, Mark. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get yourself elected to something!

  • useradvocate

    Another very interesting post Mark. I certainly agree that this gets into the realm of the political and that is a very deep pit to jump into. But for the sake of discussion let’s just re-frame your premise that a single entity needs to be in charge. This implies an executive role where decisions can get made, in real time, and for the good of its constituents. In terms of systems design this, to me, suggests a mechanism for achieving resolution in various senses of the word – e.g. resolving issues, acquiring a strong resolve to do an action, and accuracy of representation (high versus low resolution).

    This is something that takes place in the brain in a highly decentralized way all time as our neurons share the responsibility for collectively ‘making decisions’ – or at least resolving all aspects of how to interact with the environment (on behalf of the entire being). This implies that there is some sort of model in nature for the idea of ‘crowd sourcing’ complex problems.

    Just to illustrate this in a slightly different way – back in the ‘90’s I had the pleasure of participating in a remarkable experiment that foreshadowed the underlying principles behind crowd sourcing, if not all of social media. It was an experiment conducted at Siggraph in Las Vegas by Lauren Carpenter – an important pioneer of computer graphics. He arranged for the 5000 participants in the auditorium to play the world’s largest game of Pong. After dividing the room into two groups of 2500, the members of each team collectively controlled their respective on-screen paddles – simply by flipping individual paint stir sticks that were red on one side and green on the other. The remarkable result was that we could actually play! Our individual human minds worked together to ‘crowd source’ the task and produced intelligent responses to the puck bouncing around the giant screen. Each team was able to collectively move its paddle up and down, slowly but accurately, without any consultation or additional mechanisms beyond seeing the common problem through a common frame of reference. Through Carpenter’s system our noisy inputs were resolved into high signal value, i.e. responsible, behaviour.

    Maybe that means something, maybe not.

    (BTW, I have more thoughts about resolution systems and how they apply to building a meaningful web in this video )

  • I agree that Jobs was a leader. I read the biography and am convinced he was a very broken man but people did rally behind him and his vision in a remarkable way.

    The Occupy thing kind of blows my mind. I put it in the category of “performance art.” It temporarily arouses an emotion but results in no lasting change. If this represents the future of protest, we are trouble.

    I also love the Tapscott work but cannot recall something precisely discussing this notion of leadership. Would be interesting to get his opinion on it. I wonder if i could pull that off?

  • So you are trying to create lasting social change by posting photos of weird shoes? It’s fun and fanciful but is that going to get me to take action? On the social web we create weak links that will happily click a “Like” button on a pretty picture, but what are you doing to change this to strong links that will actually DO something?

  • Mind blown.

    I never thought of the brain as a crowd-sourcing organism but I can’t argue with that. You have my wheels turning on that one!

    I think the nuanced point here though is, I don’t dispute that the hive mind can create solutions. My point is, does it matter? Will the solution be enacted? Will the problem be SOLVED?

    I recently had the pleasure of meeting Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn who is now pursuing alternate education solutions. He has some amazing ideas for change. When I asked him how they would actually be implemented (since they threatened existing institutions) he said that he didn’t know, admitting the enormous problem. He would probably have to start his own school system.

    Any way, I agree with you, but I don’t think my point and your point are mutually exclusive.

    Thanks for sharing your brilliance!

  • Will Reichard

    I’d love to read that, Mark–I think you can do it!

  • Jeff Reed

    I believe social media can be a means to connect Millennials and once connected they can try to solve problems. However, without real,
    visionary leadership they will be like kids on a playground ready to play kick
    ball. Excited and happy but until someone steps forward to be team captains and choose sides nothing happens.

    Leadership is essential in all worthwhile endeavors and all leaders have a vested interest in success. Their reasons should be transparent if they
    want buy-in from the crowd. However I don’t forsee the crowd ever leading effectively. Heck, I can’t get 3 friends to agree on where to have lunch. I sure don’t want them collectively in charge of something important.

    When I initially read your post two favorite quotes on leadership and diplomacy came to mind.

    “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been. ”
    ~ Henry Kissinger

    “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”
    ~ Will Rogers

    Thanks for the thought-provoking topic.

  • PeterJ42

    Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, gives us the answer.

    We need Connectors – people who help ideas spread. We need mavens, who do the deeper research and comparison.

    The idea needs stickiness – it needs to resonate with a large number of people. And it needs Context.

    But you have created a false construct in your title with the word solve.
    Solve is a Yes/No switch.
    There is no Solution. One person’s right is another one’s wrong.

    But I’ll bet one thing. They do a better job than we did.
    Our Command and Control structures caused the problem. Our silos made it worse. Our sense of hierarchy left out most of the world.

    To create a better world, first they have to dismantle all of that.

  • I’ll give it a shot.

  • LOL. great comment Jeff! Great to see you in the comment section.

  • Gladwell also says in his famous New Yorker article “The next revolution will not be tweeted” that the weak links of social media will not lead to social change. When the Arab Spring started, i thought he was wrong. He was right, There was no leadership, no deep connections that lead to change.

    He also later discredited his own theory and clarified that it does nto necessarily work on complex change.

    of course problems can be solved. We put a man on the moon, integrated schools, cured polio. A solution is not an opinion, it is a solution.

    There are many wonderful examples of crowd-sourced solutions, but I don;t know if the model will work in a complex political world.

    Thanks for the dissent.

  • PeterJ42

    All of the solutions you mention were crowd sourced.
    One person didn’t decide to create a spaceship and land on the moon. Lots of people had ideas, created products and developed solutions which made it possible.

    Integrated schools don’t exist in most countries. Only the most blinkered could look past the racism and sexism in education and see that as solved.

    Even polio is on the rise as parents become complacent and scares on vaccination work their way through – look at MMR in the UK.

    We move towards better or more prevalent answers. But solutions is a dangerous – and wrong – mindset.

  • Thanks for disagreeing.

  • PeterJ42

    There is a difference between a disagreement and an argument. As any Monty Python fan knows: “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition” .

    I argued. The intelligent and polite response is to accept, put forward a counter-argument or collaborate towards a common position.

    There is a MOOC running on Coursera – “Think again – How to reason and argue”. It could be of value for you.

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  • You’re proposition was so full of holes (beginning with “there is no such thing as a solution”) that I decided that arguing with a stranger would be impolite and possibly fruitless. I know how to argue but also know when to spend my time more profitably during a busy day with clients. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

    Thanks for arguing.

  • PeterJ42

    But the holes were in your original piece. I only pointed them out.

    This is a pity – I had begun to think grow knew what it was doing. Then we get this teenage level rant which shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of complex problems.

  • MaureenMonte

    CRAP! You’re right! Just like you were right about you can’t change corporate culture through grass roots means… then please, why do companies say they want intrapreneurs?? I agree, we can’t compete with entrepreneurs (and having been one, it is less frustrating, in my opinion, than being an intrapreneur)- I just don’t get why companies make the claim if they don’t really want it or don’t know how to support. Man, I have learned a lot from you, Mark. I need to go sit under a tree and think.

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  • Ha! I guess that’s good. I probably need to write a post about this idea.

  • Rezwan Razani

    At present, the conversation around energy is dominated by people with specific financial interests and people with environmental interests who often wax ideological. The information signal around the best choice of energy is wildly distorted, and often incivil. Energy civil war, so to speak.

    Folks like David MacKay have done a lot of work to try and clear up the noise in the energy information signal.

    The Cinderella Project is about clearing up that energy signal. Energy footprint. Transparency glass slipper. The metaphor totally fits. We want to leverage that fit to show what action really needs to be taken. And wrap it in a ritual festive experience to seal the deal. It’s starting out as a transmedia augmented reality experience about energy tribalism that is meant to result in active community decision making and global transformation. There are energy games out there like Collapsus. That’s brilliant! But the Cinderella project has a different tone – more humor based. Kind of a chick flick approach. IMBY (in my back yard)/gardening oriented. Year Zero -esque. And it’s not just a game. It’s a tool for solving our environmental problems. It’s the real game we’re playing, all other games are there to help us sort through the scenarios to find the winning scenario fastest.

    Year Zero, FYI: Best book ever : )

    Right now, looking for partners in crime to make it happen.

  • Rezwan Razani

    And thanks for reading that far!

  • A humor-based, chick-flick approach to energy policy certainly fills a specific niche : ) It’s still unclear to me what you want people to DO or how you will get them to do it but I applaud your passion, creativity and vision. Go get ’em!

  • Rezwan Razani

    Thanks! What I want them to DO is live happily ever after. But first, they’ll need to look at energy in a different way – the ladies at the ball being the personification of different energy types, and the kingdom of NIMBY being the land we all share, the shoes/footprints being accurate information that is comparable side by side. The best way to go about this is to start with a pilot area, evaluating its energy options in this manner. Enacting the ball. How do the utilities carve up energy territory? By State? Watershed? Still in brainstorming mode. And who do we invite to the ball? And who will try to keep who out of the ball?

    It’s about changing our relationship to energy, and really connecting with the vision of the world (the BY in NIMBY) we want to live in, and how to fuel that world.

    It’s merging accountability with pageantry and fairy tale archetypes. I want to build community around that.

  • Rezwan Razani

    What most environmental organizations do these days is take a legalistic approach, their metric is changing policy and laws. They start with a position, and work to block some action or get some subsidy. It’s tribalism.

    This is about bringing the kingdom together, so to speak, through courtship ritual and marriage. Symbolism. It seems to fit within the realm of social media.

  • fascinating post, Mark! file this under the “similar yet different” category: I recently went to a meetup where we discussed information security with medical devices…the conversation went around in circles. why? because of the different connotations within our own language! for example, developers have positive connotations to words used often in the industry like “hack” and “jam” whereas engineers see these words in a negative light.

    serious vulnerabilities in medical devices exist…but unfortunately it can’t be crowdsourced (for numerous reasons). this is a complex world problem waiting to be solved. but it becomes challenging when outsourcing means scary things like “hacking” to engineers. pretty interesting, eh?

  • Really insightful point Jessica. Really appreciate you sharing your experience.

  • Alexander Korf

    Crowd sourcing as in reaching many individuals to receive multiple inputs to solve a challenge. In that sense, true, no working together. I do have experience with an extended form of crowdsourcing in which teams are involved. A scenario studies for the Dutch Government done in 2006 with the horizon of 2020. End result: (only Dutch)

    The water and traffic department of the Dutch Government RijksWaterStaat (RWS) started a form of crowdsourcing to get inputs from different angles for their scenario study towards the year 2020. They invited many teams from the Dutch society to put forward their thoughts and solutions. Teams involved were, business companies (KPN, Shell, Unilever), “other government departments”, team Designers, team NGO’s, and my team which I coined Team “generation Einstein”, but are now described as “millennials”.

    The set up was quite effective for such a complex challenge: receive input on a scenario-study from multiple sources. Eventually the project-leader in charge on behalf of RWS stroke a balance in between conventional approach and crowdsourcing. Not entirely open to ALL the public but a diverse selected group set up in teams to work together.

  • Alexander Korf

    first accept the dogma that no system is 100% safe. Then approach this like an Open Source project for CMS software like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal. it is not a matter of how secure the system is, but how fast vulnerabilities get detected and solved.
    In your case, the challenge should not be how to make the most secure medical system, but how to make the best and fastest process to detect and fix found vulnerabilities.

  • Thanks for the great example!

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  • John+

    I am trying to find a
    business to start, something that makes me happy and hopefully makes a
    difference in the world. I started thinking about how all these
    great people ”aka makers” that go on sites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter and share
    their new ideas/initiatives and get funding for it.

    Now I had a very utopian idea that crowd-sourcing could be applied to world problems such as poverty, climate change, etc.

    I happen to fall on this post during my search and obviously, the comments are clear, there must be leaders and there must be incentive.

    The leader part I am
    not that afraid of. I mean, leaders emerge from the collective by being
    competent and visionaries. I would guess that people visiting such a “social problem
    crowd-sourcing site” would at least how the vision.

    The problem is the incentive part? Apart from “saving the world”, how could such a concept work? Would a hierarchical system based on participation and success be enough to
    reward participants? Maybe not. Seeking ideas here.

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