Collective Intelligence against the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Civil Society in Endangered Democracies


The COVID-19 pandemic triggered unforeseen problems, and most governments around the world were unprepared, finding themselves urged to design responses in a very short period of time and under highly uncertain conditions. In countries with low state capacity and high social inequality, the challenges have been even greater. Government responses have been limited by lack of resources, infrastructure, and knowledge, in addition to the burden of having to immediately handle long-standing social fissures that quickly revealed that not all are equal before the virus.

In Latin America, where state capacity is characteristically low and inequality high, the coronavirus found optimal conditions for proliferation. In some countries, the health emergency has also been aggravated by pre-existing economic crisis, social unrest, and political instability. No response could have been rapid enough to address centuries-long problems such as political exclusion and social inequality, or effective enough to circumvent the deep-rooted lack of accountability engrained in political institutions. But had political leadership not been shadowed by populism in countries like Brazil, much could have been done to prevent the pandemic from swiftly becoming pandemonium.

In such scenarios it seems relevant to acknowledge the limits of the state to deal with huge and unpredictable challenges and thus the need to resort to civil society. State capacity cannot be built overnight, but collective intelligence is an unlimited and permanently available resource. In recent years, digital technology has multiplied what has been long called social intelligence (Dewey, 1937) and is now more often known as collective intelligence (Lévy, 1994), the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki, 2004), or democratic reason (Landemore, 2017). Taken together, these concepts point to the most powerful tool available to governments facing complex problems and unprecedented challenges: the sourcing and sharing of knowledge, information, skills, resources, and data from citizens in order to address public issues, as well as to formulate and enforce more effective and legitimate public policies.

This research project seeks to investigate the extent to which collective intelligence is a valuable resource for addressing public problems in countries with low state capacity and high social inequality. We aim at exploring how civil society organizations gather knowledge, information and data in order to a) improve government’s responses, b) directly address immediate needs of vulnerable groups and neighborhoods, and c) tackle a variety of social problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic (such as hunger, unemployment, absence of water supply, and lack of internet access).

In order to achieve these goals, we will pursue a case study of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the first 18 months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Rio de Janeiro, located in the world’s third country most affected by the pandemic, combines low state capacity, high social inequality, and a strong civil society, in addition to being a hotspot with record rates of mortality. We expect not only to trace existing collective intelligence initiatives and understand the role of civil society in mitigating the impact of the pandemics, but also to explore how “civic crowdsourcing” may become relevant problem-solving and decision-making tools in democracies, especially those endangered by populism

A cooperation of Oxford University and WZB

Thamy Pogrebinschi
Andreza A. de Souza Santos (Oxford)

Funding: WZB
Duration: July 2021 to June 2022


Related Publications

Pogrebinschi, Thamy (2020): Might social intelligence save Latin America from its governments in times of Covid-19?, OpenDemocracy