How to crowdsource the sustainable development goals

My twitter timeline today was full of people talking about #post2015.

This is another label for discussing what should follow the Millennium Development Goals -whether that’s sustainable development goals or whatever – essentially it’s about setting the global agenda for the next 30 years.

Today’s stuff was sparked by UNDP’s seminar in New York with Amartya Sen (admittedly, great), and post2015 has been on the agenda this week after the UN Sec-Gen announced a High Level Panel on the matter (and civil society pipes up with suggestions) of which UK Prime Minister Cameron is apparently the chair, etc.

But all of this ignores the importance of public participation. The post-MDGs planning offers a great opportunity for creating a legitimate set of goals – i.e. involving the people who the goals will affect – hopefully everyone.

I’ve blogged about why you’d want to crowdsource the next global goals before. Below, I try to guesstimate how it might be done. 

I think these are the main problems:

  1. the number of people who could theoretically participate
  2. the digital divide among those people
  3. public awareness, interest or willingness to get involved

The solution to these problems is researching, planning and planning some more to build a range of participation options.

Classic crowdsourcing / digital deliberation

This could involve one website, in several languages, whereby the crowd is let loose to write a bunch of goals – commenting and voting as they go.

While this has never really been practiced on this scale, there are lots of examples of big public projects happening online. While Iceland’s 2011 constitution-drafting process was much-hyped (several news agents called it a ‘crowdsourced constitution‘) –  it wasn’t really crowdsourced, they just made excellent use of social media and showed good commitment to transparency and openness.

More interesting was Iceland’s pre-constitutive assembly, in which they gathered 1500 Icelanders in a warehouse outside of Reykjavik and got them to set priorities (goals?) for the actual 25-member constitutive assembly that was elected later. Here’s the slideshare by the guy that produced it – pretty cool. It shows that large-scale collaboration on this kind of stuff can work.

Other, ‘purer’ crowdsourced governance attempts were practised here for the Egyptian constitution, and here in regard to the Moroccan constitution. These examples are the closest thing to a WikiConstitution imaginable. Using this type of bubble-to-the-top online platform might be easier when we’re only searching for a small set of goals.

The UN Development Programme has its FutureWeWant website, which is at least thinking along the right lines. It invites ‘visions’ of the future and there’s all kinds of fiction-writing and poetry submitted in response. But this approach is extremely generalised and its hard to see what a final product might look like.

It would make sense to tap in to the huge existing online networks of, for example, Facebook. Some kind of partnership with Facebook might be easier – rather than directing everyone somewhere new, you’ve got a potential community of 800m; then add the few other big social network sites (including China’s Sina Weibo) and you bump this up to a potential community of 1bn. China might be a little wary about encouraging crowdsourced governance…who knows?

Offline participation

Crowdsourcing online misses huge numbers of people. So there would need to be extensive offline media partnerships with TV, radio and press. Events and roadshows would be handy too.

This would be conversation-starting stuff, using the big networks like BBC World Service, Al-Jazeera, Times of India – but these channels can’t result in the same final product that using a digital platform does.

Perhaps offline has to be done first, to shape the debate and drive interest, then for those with no digital access some kind of SMS participation system is used? I might be overestimating the interest in a kind of X-Factor/Talent-spotting TV show on the subject of global goal-setting…

Basically the digital divide is going to be tricky to solve. Perhaps we say that if people are really keen on this stuff, they’ll find a way to engage – if not, well…

Either way, offline media is going to inform and educate people on what the debate is about.

How to make crowdsourcing work

1. You don’t have to involve everyone

What makes it legitimate is that it was open to everybody, that you created a sense that everybody could have a say if they wanted. Decisions are made by those who show up. Be fine with that. The fact that not everybody took part is not a problem when everyone had the opportunity.

Crowdsourced content is always produced by a minority – perhaps 0.03% of the audience of wikipedia actually contributes to it. So set a target of getting 2-3m different people involved in some way – whether writing, commenting, or voting. Some of the liberal online campaign movements already have way more members than this.

2. Set clear parameters for what you’re looking for.

The crowd needs to know what its supposed to be doing. This is the benefit of the ‘goals’ strategy – its simple and easily understood. And we’ve got the MDGs to use as an example. It puts the world on the same page: the task is to produce a smallish number of overall goals, targets and indicators. The goals are the important bit – UN policymakers and stats people can work out how that gets measured.

3. Don’t let it just be an Anglophone conversation.

This is a pretty big risk, so make real efforts to engage in other languages. It seems safe to assume the UN should be pretty experienced with this – and in how to agree on the final language versions etc.

4. Use networks to drive interest

Crowdsourcing only works if the crowd shows up. It might be that not that many people are interested in setting global goals for the next 30 years. To raise interest in this area, tap into existing networks like UN Associations, charities, faith groups, school networks, etc. Rustle up some UN ambassadors and get them talking about it.

5. This is going to take time

But we’ve got three years! Start setting up partnerships now, start seeding stuff. The hardest bit will be in the grassroots work to get the input of those communities not online and not likely to respond to offline media, such as indigenous communities. Then plan for the big digital participation process some where near the deadline.

6. If this all looks too hard – use a quick and dirty option: representatives

Stick with the High Level Panel – the UN Sec-Gen can choose a list of potential members. Then let the public vote on them via the internet and SMS. Try to ensure that the voting population largely fits the global demographics by limiting the votes in the West, boosting them elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be super-robust either, this is hardly something people will cheat on.


Again, a previous post detailed why you’d want to crowdsource the next global goals. This post suggested it would be pretty damn hard work – and  but imagine how much you might learn along the way about public participation in global governance. If it worked, we’d have a global challenge with a truly global answer.

Any thoughts, doubts or ideas are very welcome.

One reply on “How to crowdsource the sustainable development goals”

I’m also interested in this and have thought about it. In that spirit, would you like to have a skype call about this, and invite others?


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