What good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?

Two stories I read yesterday morning are worth sharing. The first, an editorial by science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg, was entitled The Death of Gallium, a meditation on the increasing scarcity of valuable elements like gallium, used in flat panel TVs and computer displays, which is estimated to be used up by 2017. Other less rare but equally important minerals are also expected to run out within decades. The other, a New York Times story entitled Asleep at the Spigot, is summarized well by its subtitle: “A thirst for oil comes back to haunt a nation of gas guzzlers.” It’s a short but poignant history of the many warnings and missed opportunities to change our gas guzzling habits during the seventies, eighties and nineties, when the eventual shortage was apparent, but the political will to make changes was lacking in the face of opposition from companies interested in maintaining the status quo, backed up by a short-sighted electorate.

These stories are a great way to highlight the focus of the 2008 Web 2.0 Summit Launchpad. We’ve entitled the business plan competition “Web meets world,” described as follows:

For Launch Pad 2008, the focus will be on startups in the fields of alternative energies, social entreprenuerialism, microfinance, developing economies, political action, renewable technologies, and the like. We’ll be particularly interested in where these companies display significant cross over with the web, of course, but this will not be required.

This might seem like quite a departure for the Web 2.0 Summit, the conference that made its name by celebrating the revolution in the consumer internet caused by the move to the internet as platform, service based business models, and social media. Or is it? After all, I’ve argued all along that the real heart of Web 2.0 is the ability of networked applications to harness collective intelligence. Yes, you can harness collective intelligence to build amazing internet businesses, as the past five years have shown us.

But what good is collective intelligence if it doesn’t make us smarter?

In an era of looming scarcities, economic disruption, and the possibility of catastrophic ecological change, it’s time for us all to wake up, to take our new “superpowers” seriously, and to use them to solve problems that really matter.

The potential is huge. In recent months, I’ve seen fascinating startups for earth monitoring, carbon markets, energy efficiency of electronic devices, and home energy management. There are lots of projects for open government and responsive politics, which in an ideal world should have commercial potential. There are world-changing opportunities in collaborative scientific research, early detection of infectious disease outbreaks, personalized medicine, resource discovery, new materials, you name it.

That’s why we’ve titled this edition of the Web 2.0 Summit The Opportunity of Limits. As John Battelle wrote so eloquently on the Summit web site:

In the first four years of the Web 2.0 Summit, we’ve focused on our industry’s challenges and opportunities, highlighting in particular the business models and leaders driving the Internet economy. But as we pondered the theme for this year, one clear signal has emerged: our conversation is no longer just about the Web. Now is the time to ask how the Web—its technologies, its values, and its culture—might be tapped to address the world’s most pressing limits. Or put another way—and in the true spirit of the Internet entrepreneur—its most pressing opportunities.

As we convene the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, our world is fraught with problems that engineers might charitably classify as NP hard—from roiling financial markets to global warming, failing healthcare systems to intractable religious wars. In short, it seems as if many of our most complex systems are reaching their limits.

It strikes us that the Web might teach us new ways to address these limits. From harnessing collective intelligence to a bias toward open systems, the Web’s greatest inventions are, at their core, social movements. To that end, we’re expanding our program this year to include leaders in the fields of healthcare, genetics, finance, global business, and yes, even politics.

Increasingly, the leaders of the Internet economy are turning their attention to the world outside our industry. And conversely, the best minds of our generation are turning to the Web for solutions. At the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, we’ll endeavor to bring these groups together.

In short, we’re looking for great startups to introduce to the world in the Web 2.0 Summit launchpad in San Francisco in November. Here’s how it works: You start by filling out the application form (by no later than September 10.) If you catch our attention, you’ll be contacted to provide a pitch to our panel of VCs, who will consider your presentation as if for funding. Six to eight finalists will appear on stage at the conference, with audience voting for additional feedback.

The full list of participating VCs will be announced shortly, but will include both internet and cleantech VCs. So far we’ve confirmed Chris Albinson of Panorama Capital, Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, and Mike Goguen of Sequoia Capital.

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