Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute
What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


Collaborative intelligence

Collaborative intelligence is the capacity to work with the world around us, not dominate it, fight it, hide from it, ignore it or waste it. It notably includes our ability to work with people and to help them work together. It tends to have a certain elegance about it, minimizing the use of force. That is because the energy for whatever happens comes from the natural tendencies of the people and lives involved -- including our own. Our ability to work well in and with the energy that's actually present -- that is our collaborative intelligence.

We can observe collaborative intelligence in the phenomena called "flow" (exemplified by good teamwork and jazz improvization), in the elegant and nonviolent victories of Aikido masters (who move with the energy of their opponents), and in ecological practices like composting which work with the forces of nature to achieve human ends with little energy input or waste.

Collaborative intelligence is the ability to produce synergy in one's environment or in one's relationship with that environment. Dialogue, for example, requires the exercise of collaborative intelligence by people working together towards greater shared understanding. Open Space Technology and Dynamic Facilitation are among the forms of dialogue that most notably "follow the energy" of a group and therefore use and evoke collaborative intelligence most vividly. We can also note that people with high levels of collaborative intelligence make great facilitators and convenors of dialogues of all kinds.

Another example of collaborative intelligence is finding lessons in -- and assistance from -- the problems of life. Some call it "making lemonade out of lemons." When I am fired from my job, I can use that break in my life to find a more satisfying career. When I get a disease, I can use my bedridden neediness to take time out to reflect on my life and to connect more with friends and family. When my community is struck by disaster, I can use the opportunity to help my neighbors and gather people to think and feel and dream together about how to make our community more resilient.

Interestingly, collaborative intelligence be built into a system, it can be part of a culture. For example we might say that a culture of dialogue and a culture of civility are systemic forms of collaborative intelligence that invoke collaborative intelligence in individuals. In these cases, the collaborative intelligence is as much a part of the culture as it is of the individuals involved.

So collaborative intelligence is part of all collaborative phenomena, from dancing to barn raisings to planting a pear tree outside a south-facing window so that the leaves provide shade in the summer and then fall of in the winter, letting the sun into the house (which involves knowing how to collaborate -- and aligning oneself -- with both sun and tree). In all these cases, we find people applying their intelligence with each other or with the life around them.


Collaborative intelligence and collective intelligence

For obvious reasons, collaborative intelligence is often associated with collective intelligence in groups. When people work well together, they tend to generate collective intelligence. At the group level, it is easy to think these two overlapping forms of co-intelligence are the same thing.

However, many aspects of collective intelligence have little to do with collaborative intelligence, especially in larger systems where most people don't know each other. For example collective memory banks (databases, libraries, etc.), systemic feedback loops and appropriate economic indicators play major roles in collective intelligence but have little to do with collaborative intelligence.

Just as collective intelligence can exist without collaborative intelligence, so collaborative intelligence can exist in circumstances that have little to do with collective intelligence. Collaborative intelligence reaches beyond collective intelligence to our collaborative engagement with situations, with nature, and with our deepest selves. The Aikido master who deftly side-steps a charging opponent and helps him on his way is not exercising collective intelligence, but rather merging his own intelligence with the energy of the battle, and moving with it. Likewise, the permaculture gardener carefully observes the interactions among plants and animals, seeking to learn synergies she can collaborate with to serve the organisms involved, including herself. There is no meaningful collective intelligence at work between her and her garden (although we might say there is a built-in sort of non-human collective intelligence among the garden organisms).

The distinction with collective intelligence can be clear if we stay grounded in the fact that collaborative intelligence is a way of excercising intelligence. It is not the emergent intelligence of a collective entity like a group or community (collective intelligence).

Of course a collectively intelligent group could use its collective intelligence in collaborative or controlling ways -- or even use collaborative intelligence to help it compete. For example, a company can use better teamwork (collaborative intelligence) to build a more collectively intelligent company that can thereby dominate its market (non-collaborative intelligence). So collaborative intelligence can be used at any level of social organization.

When we don't use collaborative intelligence -- especially at higher levels of social organization -- we can generate some some serious problems...


Collaborative intelligence and our collective problems

A large part of our collective problems come from our efforts to get what we want from the world without taking into account its needs or its wisdom. This leaves our economic and technological systems overextended, energy intensive and vulnerable to sudden collapse -- while depleting the natural and human systems they depend on.

We'd be wise not only to care for nature and communities, but to learn from them. Natural systems tend to be resilient, thanks to their living complexity, which has been evolving for billions of years into a level of built-in wisdom that continuously amazes scientists and romantics alike. Most modern cultures are arrogant enough to think that they can create highly complex systems from scratch -- without learning from and working with natural cycles -- and get away with it. We lack the patience and humility to learn from nature how to collaborate with it to grow what we need. Sometimes it seems we only have the capacity to force nature to tell us enough of its secrets to take what we want.

This difference is visible in the distinction between indigenous science and modern science. Indigenous science -- the science practiced by native peoples -- learns the dynamics and spirit of nature in a particular place, so that the learner can develop a right relationship, a respectful partnership with the life forms and natural dynamics in his or her environs. This is collaborative intelligence at its best. Modern science, in contrast, attempts to find universal causal principles that will allow technicians to manipulate physical reality to construct and extract without having to give much, if anything, back; without having to belong or owe or love. Take the money and run.

If you look at the big picture, our computers have sadly been used mostly to increase our capacity to take the money and run, to efficiently extract and move what we want from point A to point B, faster and farther, with less expense, effort or obligation. The interconnectedness this has woven into our culture has added to our ability to extract life from each other, from communities, from the highly-evolved and productive natural systems around us. We suck out life, and leave deadness behind. Look at the hills that are mined or clearcut. Look at the boarded-up towns, the megalopolis slums. Look at the faces on the trains and in the cars (even the well-to-do ones), the endless cars and trucks laying their tracks of stone over everything, driving weather to extremes (through global warming). This is a web of death, as brittle as a dead branch, ready to snap. It doesn't matter how fast the pieces move, how vast the masses, statistics, or cities are, how bright the colored plastic. It is not alive and it is forced. It dominates life, instead of working with it, and so has to bring in tons of energy from the outside in order to function at all.

Permaculture offers one view out. Permaculture has the solidity of modern science yet the sensitivity of indigenous science. Permaculture has principles, universal ecological design principles. And once you learn them, you throw them away far enough that you can then look at the life that is all around you and really see it -- see what it does, what it needs, what it has to offer, what kind of dance it is inviting you into. Permaculture teaches us -- those of us who have forgotten -- how to work with nature, to become partners with Life, so that plants and animals and dirt and water and weather and sun yield us food and clothing and shelter and energy and meaning freely and vibrantly without having to be hacked, yanked, blocked, forced and poisoned. Permaculture systems are resilient, because they use the natural tendencies of things to do what they naturally do, all arranged so that they are all useful to and supportive of each other. You don't have to poison the slugs; the ducks will eat them. The ducks will swim in the pond you made by digging out earth with which to build your aesthetic, well insulated home, whose greywater flows through a marsh you built -- complete with lovely cattails -- to purify it before it arrives in the pond where the ducks swim above the goldfish.

I saw these things I have just described on a visit to an actual permaculture site near Point Reyes, California. It had a profound impact on me. It was more Eden than farm, more work of art than constructed development. It was not planned and built. It had grown and evolved for several years, with the equal participation of the land, plants, animals, and humans. The humans brought to the dance their conscious observation, thinking and caring -- their collaborative intelligence. Next year that site won't be the same, because it will have led to something else, equally beautiful and productive, ever new.

People like I met there don't generate massive social and environmental problems. They don't create global warming, racism and toxic waste dumps. Their spirit is collaborative, patient, spiritual, eager to give as much as to take, happy to belong and co-create, loving the wisdom that grows so deeply all around them and curious to see what it will do next, and what it has to tell them.

Collaborative intelligence is fundamental to our survival. If we can learn this gigantic lesson -- if we can see that what is pulling us down is our unwillingness to resonate and work with the world's needs -- not just this or that "cause" of this or that individual problem -- then our grandchildren will come to know again what life is all about. And they will carry it on, they will belong to the Earth again -- and to each other.

And then human culture will once again be more like a dance than a march.

If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2003, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)