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'Wisdom of Crowds' benefits Design Excellence Dinner

April 15, 2008

Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Financial columnist James Surowiecki has researched this phenomena for his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.” Surowiecki spoke at the College of Design annual Design Excellence Dinner on April 10, 2008, which took place at the J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa.

Surowiecki used the example of the jar filled with jelly beans to illustrate how “invariably the group’s estimate is superior to the base majority of the individual guesses.” In an experiment, a jar that held 850 beans was estimated by individuals in a group to hold 871. Only one of 56 people made a better individual guess. And if the experiment is conducted several times, it will not be the same person who guesses correctly each time.

As a twice-monthly financial writer for The New Yorker and past contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Wired and The Wall Street Journal, many of the cases that he examines in “The Wisdom of Crowds” are focused on a business audience—how businesses work, how new ideas are advanced, how global economies cooperate and how our daily lives are affected by group decisions. “There are a lot of hurdles—both institutional and psychological—that make it hard for organizations to change,” Surowiecki says.

Surowiecki described systematic ways to organize and aggregate the intelligence available in an organization to arrive at superior decisions—often better than those that individuals would make, even if they are “experts.”

To demonstrate how this wisdom can be harnessed, College of Design Dean Wellington Reiter presented eight questions that the audience answered using a digital response device that recorded the groups’ consensus and displayed the results immediately. The questions ranged from what creates more pounds of global warming carbon dioxide per person each year based on consumption: gasoline or plastics? (gasoline 5,310 lbs to 295 lbs. of plastics, which the audience guessed incorrectly as plastics!) To the audiences’ opinion of what will be the single most important issue facing Arizona in 2025? (Water by 49 percent of the vote.)

“The college was pleased to present James Surowiecki for this year’s Design Excellence Dinner, especially in this time of an unsettled stock market, housing market, and global business environment—all arenas that operate through the wisdom of crowds. His presentation gives our supporters fresh insights into how groups operate and offer practical methods that really serve their organization’s goals,” Dean Reiter says.

Proceeds from the dinner benefit the Dean’s Academic Enrichment Fund, which provides support for college programs and student scholarships.