Turning to the crowd for a hint of future events

Turning to the crowd for a hint of future events

A Bar-Ilan University conference discusses how to predict trends and events based on the wisdom of crowds

A Jerusalem crowd (Photo credit: Uri Lenzi/Flash90)
A Jerusalem crowd (Photo credit: Uri Lenzi/Flash90)

“The crowd,” according to researchers, knows more about everything than the experts do. And that includes the future. If you want to know where business, industry, politics, or even security and conflict are going, ask the crowd.

The theory that collective wisdom – properly analyzed, of course – can foretell future trends was the subject of a conference at Bar-Ilan University this week. The annual Conference on the Future was organized and headed by Bar-Ilan’s Professor David Passig, Israel’s most famous futurist. This is the third edition of the conference, and the topic this year was applying the wisdom of crowds to forecasting the future.

It’s not prophecy or fortune telling, Passig told The Times of Israel, but rather a disciplined analysis based on proven methodologies of what people say about what they expect to happen in the future. Passig and other futurists work on improving those methodologies, using computer analysis to figure out what questions to ask, which people to ask them from, and how to apply their answers to analyzing future trends.

Done properly, said Passig, “collective wisdom gives more accurate answers about future trends than even the top experts in various fields.”

Many people have the wrong idea about what the wisdom of crowds is all about. “It’s not as simple as taking a poll on Facebook and finding out what people say,” said Passig. “If you don’t use proper methodology, you get a mishmash of chaos. But done properly, you get a much more accurate picture of what the trends are in almost any area.”

The crowd is a much more reliable resource — twice as reliable, or even more, Passig said — for business and government than the boatloads of experts that purport to predict trends that companies and political officials need to prepare for.

The conference discussed theories and methodologies in analysis of collective wisdom, as well as practical examples of how this young scientific discipline is being put to use. Speakers included officials from corporations, including Intel, which analyzes employee feedback to determine personnel policies and plan for what the Intel workplace will look like in another decade. Several research papers were presented, including one discussing proper methodology in analyzing collective wisdom on Facebook. And, conference organizers presented its annual award for an Israeli who has “helped promote future thinking” to Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, for his forward-thinkingness in developing electric cars.

It’s not just corporations and universities that are interested in this subject. Governments, said Passig, use collective wisdom to help them understand economic policy, social trends, even security needs. Government-conducted studies employ the wisdom of crowds to predict the likelihood of war, and if, when, and where a terror attack will occur.

“I myself am involved in several such studies, which I of course am not at liberty to discuss,” said Passig.

But others, including a major one by the CIA, have been made public, and Passig said that crowd wisdom research in the US has prompted the government to beef up security in specific situations, thus heading off terrorist attacks.

The CIA study included thousands of people, which is what you’d want when researching future trends. “The more people in a study, the better. Study after study has shown that 5,000 people who are not experts are much more effective at accurately figuring out future trends than even top experts, and this includes geopolitical issues as well. When the right methodology is applied, the crowd is much more effective at accurately portraying future events than even top army personnel,” Passig said.

And while no government bases its foreign or defense policy on collective wisdom — nor should they, Passig stressed — “collective wisdom analysis is another tool governments can use to determine policy.”

Of course, these days Israelis are very interested in future trends — and one issue in particular, whether or not Israel and Iran will clash in the near future, is on the minds of nearly everyone here. Unfortunately, said Passig, no specific study has been done yet on what the crowd says about the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran, although, he said, “I wish someone would do one.”

While Iran remains a mystery, Passig himself has done numerous studies on what the crowd says about Israel’s future, resulting in a book, “2048” (Hebrew link), about what Israel can expect. Among those events: a major regional war at the end of this decade, the rise of Turkey as the key regional power that will replace crumbling Arab dictatorships like Egypt and Syria, and an eventual detente between Israel and its neighbors that will last decades or as long as a century.

“Israel and Turkey will be the clear leaders of the region, and will balance each other,” said Passig. “It’s actually a good combination, with one leaning to the east, and one leaning to the west.”

And more good news for Israel: The rise of Turkey means a lessening of Iran’s influence, Passig said, as the two see each others as rivals despite the appearance of brotherly relations between them.

Again, Passig stressed, his predictions are not “predictions” as such, but deeply researched conclusions resulting from his work. “We believe that our methodology is very effective, and we have the studies to prove it,” Passig said. “While the research we have done in this area is no guarantee that any of the events we describe will actually happen, all of us would be wise to heed the wisdom of crowds.”

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