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Collective Intelligence

With Tom Atlee

As we explore ways to generate more effective groups, organisations, institutions, and other human systems, it may help to begin by taking a closer look at collective intelligence.

In my own experience, when I investigate the problems that we face in the world today, I seldom find individual evil.

I usually find basically good, intelligent people collectively generating discord and disaster – in families, groups, organisations, nations and the world.

Meanwhile, in their own lives, from their own perspective (and usually that of their loved ones), most of them are doing perfectly good, decent things. How can this be?

As you may have gathered already, I believe that individual intelligence is not enough. If we wish to successfully deal with the various social and environmental challenges we face today, we need to develop far more collective intelligence as a society and as a global civilisation.

To date, much has been learned about how to develop collective intelligence within organisations — usually to help corporations become more competitive in the global market.

Good work has also been done to increase collective intelligence in civil society at the community level, especially to deal with local environmental conflicts.

Yet comparatively little effort has been applied toward building collective intelligence in the public sector, for governance and social system design.

In order to ensure our success as a species, we will need to apply what we have learned about collective intelligence to improve our capacity to create sustainable social, political, and economic systems that work well for everyone involved.

This much is clear: Given the right conditions — conditions which have been created in numerous environments around the world on many occasions — communities and societies can collectively reflect on their problems and possibilities, and collectively choose and implement effective, even brilliant solutions and initiatives.

Understanding collective intelligence can help us fulfil the original dream of democracy: the participatory determination of our collective fate.

Collective intelligence at different levels of society

Given the central importance of collective intelligence, let us take a closer look at this phenomenon. The following examples show how collective intelligence might be applied at a variety of levels: in groups, organisations, communities, states, and whole societies.

An individual IQ test compares individuals’ problem-solving skills with the problem-solving capabilities of others their age. In a similar manner, we could demonstrate the existence of group intelligence by comparing how well various groups solve problems.

In a classic experiment, group intelligence was measured by presenting small groups of executives with a hypothetical wilderness survival problem.

All-female teams arrived at better solutions (as judged by wilderness experts) than all-male teams.

The women’s collective problem-solving capabilities were enhanced by their collaborative style, while the men’s efforts to assert their own solutions led them to get in each other’s way.

Significantly, the resulting difference in collective intelligence did not occur because the individual women were smarter than the individual men, but rather because of a difference in gender-related group dynamics.

This example also shows how collaborative intelligence can enhance a group’s collective intelligence.

When people align their individual intelligences in shared inquiries or undertakings, instead of using their intelligence to undermine each other in the pursuit of individual status, they are much more able to generate collective intelligence.

In the pursuit of collective intelligence, organisations often invest in many kinds of ‘team-building’ approaches in order to generate greater collaboration within groups.


Can a whole organisation exhibit intelligence? In November 1997, 750 US forest service employees used a technique called Open Space Technology to create, in just three days, a shared vision of change, including action plans.

The vision that this group generated covered all facets of forest service activity, and the employees were genuinely excited about implement-ing the action plans they themselves had developed. This one-time exercise had a lasting effect upon the larger system.

Several organisations and networks, such as the Society for Organisational Learning, research and promote the capacity for organisational intelligence by helping corporations build a culture of ongoing, high-quality dialogue that examines the whole-system dynamics in and around the organisation.

Just as group intelligence depends on things such as group process, organisational intelligence depends on organisational factors. These factors range from an organisational culture that promotes dialogue to organisational memory systems (files, records, databases, minutes, etc.).

They include systems that collect and utilise feedback (learning inputs) from inside and outside the organisation, as well as efforts to understand the feedback dynamics (cycles and interdependencies) that govern the organisation as a living system.

When such things are in place, an organisation can create, accumulate and use understandings and solutions which become part of the organisation itself — knowledge that outlasts the tenure of individual employees and executives.

In other words, the organisation is learning, exercising its intelligence and applying it in life the same way an individual does.

One particularly interesting innovation is chaordic organisation. The term ‘chaordic’ was coined by Visa co-founder Dee Hock to describe complex, self-organising systems that manifest both chaotic and orderly qualities.

In The Birth of the Chaordic Age, he describes how a chaordic organisation, such as the Internet, is not so much a thing as a pattern of agreements about interactions which help voluntary participants achieve certain shared goals or visions, guided by certain agreed-on principles.

Such organisations provide workable alternatives to conventional command-and-control structures. The Chaordic Commons is a non-profit organisation dedicated to making this work available in the world.

As mentioned earlier, much of the research on how to generate collective intelligence has taken place within the private sector.

Unfortunately, all too many corporations are still playing a destructive role within our larger system, and are using their enhanced collective intelligence to consolidate power and consume resources faster.

This is in part because society has yet to change the fundamental ‘rules of the game’, including how corporations are chartered and monitored.

Nonetheless, if we are to survive as a species, we need to apply our knowledge of collective intelligence to larger and nobler ends than profit.

Our non-profit, community, and social change organisations can improve their capacity for creating effective change by applying the knowledge that has been gained about collaborative leadership, whole-system planning, self-directed work teams, and a host of other innovations.


There are many inspiring examples of the effort to develop community intelligence

Many of these have been carried out using the approach of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).

This community organising approach does not directly address a community’s problems or treat citizens as clients in need of services from government and nonprofit agencies. Rather, it sees citizens as assets and as co-creators of their community.

ABCD organisers help citizens discover, map and mobilise the assets that are hidden away in all the people who live in their community, as well as in the community’s informal associations and formal institutions.

Those resources, brought out of their isolation and into creative synergy with each other, are then used to realise the community’s visions. See John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight’s Building Communities from the Inside Out

A statewide example of collective intelligence can be found in the efforts of the non-profit Oregon Health Decisions (OHD), which involved thousands of diverse, ordinary Oregonians in in-depth conversations about how to best use limited health care funds.

Hundreds of such meetings in the 1980s resulted in the legislature mandating in 1990 the use of community meetings to identify the values that should guide state health care decisions.

With experts ‘on tap’ to pro-vide specialised health care knowledge, citizens weighed the trade-offs involved in over seven hundred approaches to deal with specific medical conditions, and decided which should be given preference.

In general, approaches that were inexpensive, highly effective, and needed by many people (which included many preventative measures) were given priority over approaches that were expensive, less effective and needed by very few people.

Although clearly some people would not get needed care under this system, it was pointed out that some people did not get needed care under the existing system.

The difference was that in the old system, it was poor people who fell through the cracks by default.

In the new system, Oregonians were trying to make these difficult decisions more consciously, openly and justly.

So they tapped into the collective intelligence of their entire state, weaving together citizen and expert contributions into a wisdom greater than any person or group could have generated separately.

Nations and whole societies

Admittedly, increasing the level of collective intelligence on a national or societal level can be a daunting proposition.

How can we begin to involve everyone in a dialogue about the issues we face, when working at such a large scale?

One weekend in 1991, a dozen Canadians met near Toronto, under the auspices of Maclean’s, Canada’s leading newsweekly. They had been chosen so that, together, they reflected the major sectors of public opinion in their deeply divided country.

Each of these people  accepted the invitation to attend this weekend event where they’d be engaging in dialogue with people whose views differed from their own.

It was facilitated by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, co-author of Getting to Yes, and two colleagues.

These people had never engaged in a process like this before and started with widely divergent positions, and little trust. The process took place under tremendous time pressure.

Nonetheless, these folks succeeded in their assignment of developing a consensus vision for the entire country of Canada.

This experience was a very moving event for all who participated in it or witnessed it. Maclean’s editors suggested that “the process that led to the writing of the draft could be extended to address other issues.

The experience of the Maclean’s forum indicates that if  a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process.” The Maclean’s experiment is a type of process that I call acitizen deliberative council.

These councils are diverse groups, somewhat like a jury, who are called together as a microcosm of ‘We the People’ in order to learn, dream, and explore problems and possibilities together while the rest of society observes.

This approach can dramatically change the political environment, as subsequent government decisions are made in a context of greater public wisdom, sophistication and consensus.

Many types of these citizen councils have been used in at least sixteen countries. As we have seen, collective intelligence is a phenomenon that can occur at various levels.

Yet, what do all of these examples of collective intelligence have in common? What makes all these forms of collective intelligence similar?

Inclusion and the intelligence of democracy

At all levels, from groups to whole societies, the degree to which various perspectives are included increases the collective intelligence of the whole.

Collective intelligence increases as it creatively and constructively includes diverse relevant viewpoints, people, information, etc, into collective deliberations.

Historically, practical considerations have allowed everyone’s voice to be heard only in small groups, such as town meetings.

In its ideal form representative democracy was imagined to provide legitimate, manageable small groups (legislative, administrative and judicial bodies) through which (at least theoretically) the voices of whole populations could be channelled.

However, over time, our legislatures, executives and judges have become both less representative and less responsive — a situation that has led many of us to reconsider our political and governmental arrangements.

But there is good news: Simultaneous with this development, humanity has been developing powerful tools which could solve these problems.

For example, the citizen deliberation councils described earlier could be combined with sophisticated use of media, especially telecommunications and powerful group processes that foster the creative use of diversity.

Furthermore, the national councils could be used to spark more and better dialogue at the local level.

This idea combines only a few of the hundreds of approaches that are currently available. I hope to show in this book that there are many social innovations that we could weave together in a variety of ways to create remarkable enhancements to our present system.

If we take this challenge, I believe we will find ourselves poised on the edge of our next evolutionary leap in democracy – not just as an alternative to tyranny, but as an inclusive path to society-wide collective intelligence and wisdom.

By Tom Atlee
Excerpted from The Tao of Democracy and published under Fair Use agreements

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