Current decision-making processes are struggling to address the most pressing challenges because they are not fit for the twenty-first century. People want to have a more significant say in shaping the policies that affect their lives beyond the opportunity to vote every few years. However, there are no tools that meet peoples’ new expectations for participation in local decision making. The existing community engagement tools for civic organisations are limited to opinion posting and voting, which cannot integrate different perspectives and do not work well on complex problems. Research has shown that social media platforms may exacerbate this issue because it fragments opinions rather than uniting them. Continuing to use tools that aren’t fit for purpose will negatively affect social cohesion and the likelihood of addressing important complex challenges.
People Supported Intelligence (PSi) is an online platform for civic organisations, like a local council, to engage their whole community in deliberative participatory decision-making. PSi is novel because it gives civic organisations a more engaging and social way to hold citizen consultations about a specific local issue without relying on outdated methods like post, comment and like. PSi is more social than other community engagement platforms, so it can leverage the collective intelligence of people online. We have built-in automated group facilitation to improve disagreement management, encourage deeper critical thinking and reduce extreme ideas.
The Psi algorithm ensures that even large communities converge to a decision. PSi is more effective, faster and cheaper than existing solutions so that civic organisations can sustain a commitment to participatory decision-making.
Where did the idea originate from?
PSi originates from the Co-Founders experiences in the workplace. I work as a freelance Project Manager, and I have delivered collaborative initiatives for health and tech companies like the NHS, the Health Foundation and Clue the period tracking app. In my work, I facilitate group decision-making and co-design programmes and services with multidisciplinary groups that can include patients and carers, legal teams, engineers, and policy-makers. My practice of facilitating large, diverse groups to find ways forward together has been translated into the PSi online decision-making design.
Co-Founder Niccolo is an Assistant Professor of Cyber-psychology. He has a PhD from Oxford University and previously worked at MIT. Niccolo studies group dynamics and collective intelligence. Researchers found several principles that can help groups of people make good decisions. However, this knowledge is rarely translated into the design of online platforms and social media until now. Niccolo applies this science to PSi so everyday people can make better decisions together.
Was your business inspired by a major global challenge or industry need?
As someone trained by the NHS Leadership Academy and is working in the health sector, I have experienced a significant shift to increase the diversity of voices in decision-making. However, there is still a long way to go before decisions are genuinely representative and leverage the intelligence of diverse populations. The frustration I felt from not having a scalable way to engage a large, diverse group of people in my work motivated me to study for the Global Master in Public Health at Imperial because the course focuses on public approaches to public health and innovation.
Research like the science of fake news (Lazer et al. 2018; Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral 2018) presents strong evidence for how current social media impacts policy and civil discourse. The impact on important topics like the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly evident over the last year. The evidence inspired SURU to apply our practice and science to ensure that PSi is resilient against misinformation impacting the decisions made on the platform so civic organisations can get an accurate sense of what their community cares about.
How did your team meet?
Nic and I are partners in business and real life. We met while studying at University College London.
Do you have any advisors?
SURU’s advisors include Jacqueline Dyer MBE, Deputy Leader at Lambeth Council in London. I have delivered several projects that support Jacqui’s work to improve outcomes for Black communities across England, for example, establishing of Black Thrive Global Community Interest Company in Lambeth. Working closely with Jacqui has helped me understand how civic organisations engage their communities in local decision making and the challenges civic organisations face when trying to make sure their decisions consider the needs of everyone in the community.
What stage is the business at and what are your plans moving forward?
SURU is pre-seed. We are building PSi and will hold the first community test in London in September. Providing the platform to a real community will help us make the final improvements before bringing it to market in November.
Are you raising funding? If so, what will you use the funds for?
Yes, we are raising seed funding to bring PSi to the UK market in November. The fundraising target is £360,000. The resource will mean I can work full-time to bring PSi to communities, and SURU can expand the team. In particular, we now need sales and marketing expertise skilled at connecting with civic organisations, fostering support for pioneering a novel and social way to engage a community.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
2021 has been a whirlwind year for the team at SURU, from winning €55,000 in EU funding to building PSi to creating a great network of advisors and supporters, including Anthony Zacharzewski, President of the Democratic Society. The most significant success was winning 1st prize and £15,000 in the Imperial Enterprise Lab’s WE Innovate competition. We spent six months developing our product-market fit, supported by experts from the Enterprise Lab. Now the team can confidently demo the platform to civic organisations like Lewisham Council.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was refining a well-known social problem into a specific challenge felt within a particular market. Once we landed on the civic organisation market, we could focus on meeting the right people. Over the last six months, we’ve met with over 16 professionals who shared their experiences with community engagement. Investing our energy into customer discovery and WE Innovate’s coaching helped us better apply our expertise to develop a practical way to solve their challenges.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
My advice is to be authentic. The WE Innovate programme encouraged us to have tough conversations about our skills and strengths. This advice gave us a realistic view of how we can help solve a complex social challenge. If you are honest about your team’s strengths and networks, you can find a market and build a venture that you can speak about from a place of authenticity.
One day I hope PSi can support private organisations to engage their stakeholders and the general public in the same kind of participatory decision making. Still, for now, my strength lies in my understanding of civic organisations and institutions like the NHS. Knowing this about myself means that I can confidently talk about PSi and its value proposition. I am a successful entrepreneur because my venture is built around an authentic representation of what I know.