The race for a COVID-19 vaccine shows the power of ‘community intelligence’


Over the past three decades, public perceptions of information technology have taken some wild turns. In the 1990s, many were swept up by the dream of the Internet weaving humanity into a single community. More recently, however, concerns about misinformation, disinformation, and worse have left many much more cynical. Lost in the sweeping generalizations and the legitimate concerns is a more nuanced reality: For all its shortcomings, the software now powering our personal and professional lives has the potential to do incredible good for the whole of humanity. 

By now, the problems are well known. While in theory the Internet once seemed poised to pull humanity closer together, in practice information technology has burnished old divisions. Filter bubblescyberterrorism, and now the broad spread of conspiracy theories have proliferated as our lives have migrated online. Many dreamed that instant access to information would improve our ability to discern truth from lies and good from bad. But in many cases, those distinctions have been blurred instead. Still, the possibilities of interconnectivity and information-sharing as forces for good are on display in every aspect of our lives, and they speak to a path forward for the companies and industries of the future. 

Today, science is fighting COVID-19 not as a series of individuals or labs, but as a community. Thousands of genome sequences have been shared across boundaries and borders. Progress is being made in record time. By combining their wisdom rather than searching for cures in silos, the community of scientists and researchers is speeding the progress exponentially. As epidemiologist and inventor Larry Brilliant recently told me, “Pandemics by nature divide, but we have to come together as a community to prevail.”

When we finally have an effective vaccine, researchers will rightly get credit for their ingenuity. But a large part of that outcome will result from what I term “community intelligence.” The vaccine will have been created through the wisdom that emerged because individuals were willing and able to share information dynamically. Those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 are tapping into the reality that none of us is as smart as all of us.

Community intelligence as a concept certainly isn’t new. Bell Labs, the iconic company that developed the laser, the transistor, and many of the 20th century’s most innovative technologies, offers an example. It succeeded by putting researchers working on disparate projects on the same campus in New Jersey and harnessing their collective power. What’s changed since then is the amount of data at our fingerprints, the ability and willingness to share it, and the supporting information technology that allows for unprecedented dynamic collaboration. Today, green shoots of community intelligence can be seen all around us. It shapes our daily decisions, whether it’s where to go and how to get there, where to eat, what to buy, or how to stay fit. By helping us get smarter together, community intelligence holds untapped potential of which we are just starting to scratch the surface.           

 The public’s excitement about global interconnectivity may be waning. But there is certainly reason for hope. It is on those of us who are building companies to protect the wisdom gleaned from community intelligence, to use it responsibly, and to build platforms that advance us all. And it’s up to the community to hold us accountable and ensure we progress. At a time when the world is yearning for a greater sense of community, what could be more important?

Rob Bernshteyn is the CEO of Coupa and the author of the new book Smarter Together.

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