Bringing collective intelligence research into the 21st century

Steven Gray is taking these core concepts into the 21st century in an effort to address some of the most challenging issues facing the world, including climate change, resource management and coastal hazard planning.

Steven Gray

In 1906, a crowd of county fairgoers attempted to guess the weight of an ox. Sir Francis Galton, a famous statistician, examined all 800 entries and discovered that while individual guesses wildly over- and underestimated, taken together they came within 0.8 percent of the correct answer. Thus, the wisdom of the crowd was born.

Steven Gray, a professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability, is taking these core concepts into the 21st century in an effort to address some of the most challenging issues facing the world, including climate change, resource management and coastal hazard planning.

Gray developed a participatory interactive model called Mental Modeler that helps groups define key issues, identify relationships between those issues and make decisions. Gray and his team have used this software on issues as diverse as coordinated decision-making related to marine resources in Europe and examining community needs during the Flint water crisis from the residents’ perspectives.

Now he wants to take what he’s learned from these smaller scale participatory modeling workshops and scale up to examine the issue of collective intelligence.

“How can we aggregate these smaller models to address larger, complicated problems?” Gray said. “We want to take the system into the collective intelligence approach by examining unique pockets of expertise to examine problems in a unique way.”

Q&A: Steven Gray

Title: Professor, MSU Department of Community Sustainability

Joined MSU: 2015

Education: B.A. in anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 2002; M.S. in geography and planning, Texas State University, 2006; Ph.D. in ecology and evolution, Rutgers University, 2010

My favorite comfort food after a long day: I would say red wine, but that’s not technically food so I’ll go with tacos. I’m always on the hunt for a delicious taco.

What I miss about home: Can I say tacos again? No, in Austin, where I’m from, you stepped outside and you were surrounded by so many different life experiences. It’s a little different in Michigan. My friends tell me that you can drive two hours and have a million different experiences, but I hate driving so I’m still getting used to it.

My favorite book is: It is nonfiction, and it’s this amazing book called The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, by Scott Page. It’s about diversity and knowledge and why it pays off. He talks a lot about the power of diversity, and people think that it’s about sociocultural diversity and social equity and social justice, but it’s not. It’s empirical, about evaluation of the role of diversity in multiple systems that make them better.

My go-to guilty pleasure is: Game Show Network.

My favorite place to visit is: Copenhagen, which almost feels like home to me, oddly. It’s the home to a lot of friends I made in Austin thanks to the SXSW Festival. It’s so nice to have a place that feels like home and you have a lot of friends, but that is an out of the way and unique place.

The first thing I’d like to do when I visit Austin: Eat tacos!

A skill I don’t possess but wish I did: I wish I was better at math. I love math, but I am not great at it. That’s boring, though, I want to sound more fun. How about water skiing? That would be awesome!

Where I hope to see my field in five years: Routine for citizen scientists to be contributing pieces of expertise on complex problems like climate change, intense forest fires or invasive species. By everyone contributing a little piece of the puzzle they can be part of getting a greater understanding of the nature of these problems.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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