Collective intelligence, as a field of study and practice, is
Summary: Collective intelligence, as a field
of study and practice, is taking off. Some really interesting
work is being done, quite beyond the dialogue and deliberative
democracy realms we focus on at the Co-Intelligence Institute.
It turns out that even when thousands of people don't talk to
each other at all, they can still be (somewhat mysteriously) collectively
brilliant in solving problems. All told, there seem to be at least
eight different -- and often mutually reinforcing -- types of
collective intelligence, which are briefly described here. Some
of the most interesting explorations of this field come from five
sources we've recently bumped into:
- WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine's May-July 2004 issue on
the theme "Come Together! The Power of Collective Intelligence"
- James Surowiecki's book THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY
ARE SMARTER THAN THE FEW AND HOW COLLECTIVE WISDOM SHAPES BUSINESS,
ECONOMIES, SOCIETIES AND NATIONS (Doubleday, 2004). <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/index.html>
- Patricia A. Wilson's "Deep Democracy: The Inner Practice
of Civic Engagement" <http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/Fieldnotes/Issue3/Deep_Democracy.pdf>
- Thomas Hurley's "Archetypal Practices for Collective
Wisdom: Timeless Ways of Evolving Personal and Collective Capacity"
- Doug Engelbart's lifetime mission to augment our collective
-- a vision which, among other things, has made it possible
for us to send you this email...
Think about the best and worst meetings you've attended. Think about
Congress. Think about how the peace movement makes decisions. Think
about how the Bush administration planned for the Iraq war.
All around us we see evidence that groups of people are often less
intelligent -- and occasionally more intelligent -- than their members
are as individuals.
Those who study this phenomenon often call it "collective
intelligence" (or "collective stupidity").
Collective intelligence has little to do with how smart the INDIVIDUAL
members of a group are. Groups of bright peple can be collectively
stupid (a phenomena Irving L. Janis called "groupthink,"
which was rampant in Iraq war planning) -- whereas very ordinary
or dull people can, under the right circumstances, generate real
All of us know that conversations and meetings can be productive
or crazy-making. But how many of us know that thousands of us ordinary
humans can make independent guesses or predictions about something
-- and collectively average a more accurate estimate than over 90%
of us do individually.
All these realities reveal collective intelligence (or its shadow,
collective stupidity) at work.
Collective intelligence is a holy grail of social change. If we
could better understand how to support it, increase it and facilitate
it, we would be more able to effectively co-create a better world.
Doing that, of course, involves significant political, economic,
social, cultural, organizational and spiritual challenges. But the
rewards, when these challenges are successfully engaged, are tremendous.
I have been exploring this subject since the late 1980s, when hardly
anyone was talking about it. Now "collective intelligence"
is such a common a phrase that Google lists 46,700 pages using it
-- as well as tens of thousands of other pages using comparable
terms like "collective IQ," "collective wisdom,"
"community intelligence," "group intelligence,"
and so on.
And I am truly amazed at the number of different KINDS of collective
intelligence people are talking about, and the number of different
perspectives they have on the subject. Furthermore, their explorations
of this topic are becoming more sophisticated every year. I now
find myself surrounded by the population of a busy city in a once-raw
territory I helped pioneer, often meeting other pioneers I didn't
even know were there at the beginning, so vast and undeveloped was
the landscape back then.
Three of my own recent contributions to this work are on the Collective
Intelligence Blog (weblog) <http://www.community-intelligence.com/blogs/public>
where I discussed eight forms of collective intelligence people
seem to be talking about:
- Reflective collective intelligence. This includes
efforts by groups, organizations and communities to consciously
use their diversity as a resource to address common concerns.
Here we find all those great methods for dialogue and deliberation
- Structural collective intelligence. This is
generated by official standards, architectural and community designs,
laws, institutions, and other social systems that help people's
collective behaviors add up to something that makes sense instead
of frustrating them or creating more problems. For example, statistics
that reveal how healthy and happy a community is generate more
collective intelligence than those (such as Gross Domestic Product)
that measure only how much money gets spent.
- Evolutionary collective intelligence. This
is the learned wisdom and workable patterns that we find embedded
in cultures (e.g., myths and proverbs) and ecosystems
(e.g., the field of biomimicry <http://www.biomimicry.org/intro.html>),
as well as in society's great collective learning enterprises
like scientific, academic and thinktank research activities that
cultivate ever-expanding fields of evolving knowledge.
- Informational collective intelligence. This
form of collective intelligence is generated by the fact that
so much information is available to so many people through media,
libraries, the Internet, networks of associates, and so on. Some
information technology visionaries speak of this as "the
global brain" <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/SUPORGLI.html>.
- Noetic -- or consciousness-based -- collective intelligence.
Prophets, mystics, shamans, clairvoyants and everyday meditators
often connect with levels of reality or sources of wisdom beyond
normal awareness, usually realms of deep kinship, wholeness or
Oneness. As more people develop these special modes of consciousness
-- individually and together -- tapping into (or attuning to)
such transpersonal realms is becoming more common. <http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org>
- Flow -- or mutual-attunement-based collective intelligence.
Here we may find a top improvisational jazz group or basketball
team acting as one coherent smoothly-functioning entity. Here
we also find intelligent flocking behaviors and hive dynamics
in nature. In each case, the group just hums productively along.
And in flowing human groups, individual capacities and uniqueness
are often enhanced by the process. <http://wie.org/j25/teamwork.asp>
- Statistical collective intelligence. This odd
phenomenon arises from the fact that, under the right conditions,
dozens or thousands of people, ants, and even virtual "agents"
(entities that exist only in computers) can arrive at brilliant
solutions to their problems without even communicating with each
other, simply by "covering the territory" or averaging
out their behaviors or guesses. <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/excerpt.html>
- Relevational collective intelligence. Here
we find answers that seem to appear in our midst almost from nowhere,
simply because they are relevant -- often by one person MISunderstanding
what another person says, or by "accidentally" stumbling
on the exact vital information in a newspaper. Search engines
attempt to engineer this, but it often happens mysteriously in
In the Co-Intelligence Institute, we do a lot of work with the
first four types of collective intelligence, because we believe
they are basic to creating a wise
democracy. However, other people focus on other forms of collectived
intelligence, with good reasons of their own.
And now that I've painted the big picture of this rapidly emerging
field, I want to alert you to several remarkable people and documents
I've seen recently. I can't recommend them highly enough. I've provided
some summaries and commentary below so you don't HAVE to read them.
But if you are at all interested in this topic, I think every one
of them will excite you. Additional links are peppered throughout
to further spice up your explorations.
Enjoy them all. They are true treasures!
1. WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine's May-July 2004
issue on the theme "Come Together! The Power of Collective
Here you will discover collective intelligence in Los Angeles Lakers
basketball games, Blue Angels navy airshows, corporate boardrooms,
rock concerts, beehives, bird flocks, international diiplomacy,
women's circles and spiritual visions.
The long, thoroughly amazing lead article by Craig Hamilton is
one of the most comprehensive overviews of the field currently available.
It describes many of the leading players, such as
and dozens of others. It also feautres Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer
et al <http://www.solonline.org>,
whose work on presencing <http://www.presence.net/index.html>
is covered further in another article in the issue.
The lead article goes on to explore hot issues like the role of
the individual, of diversity, of synergy, of common ground and of
"group fields" and spirit in generating collective intelligence.
It notes the special capacity of collective intelligence to embrace
more of the whole picture in any given situation. It also wonders
aloud if all this emerging collective intelligence activity may,
in fact, herald a major evolutionary breakthrough for humanity.
We find transcendent spiritual realities comingling naturally with
deep dialogue about the important issues of life, bringing people
in touch with their "authentic selves" and releasing levels
of creativity they've seldom experienced before. "In light
of the remarkable potentialities emerging in our midst," concludes
Hamilton, "it is hard to imagine a possibility more worthy
of our collective aspiration."
Other articles cover the scientific evidence for collective consciousness;
the remarkable audience-performer synergies at Grateful Dead, Beatles
and Paul McCartney concerts; an interview with NBA coach Phil Jackson
about spiritual group intelligence possible in basketball; and a
conversation between Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen that includes reflections
on how our Authentic Self is grounded in our collective evolutionary
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? has established a fascinating web page on
collective intelligence at <http://www.wie.org/collective>,
which currently includes audio interview excerpts with a number
of explorers in this field (including me).
You might even like to subscribe to WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? because
collective intelligence promises to keep resurfacing over and over
in it. The topic isn't an academic one for the team that produces
the magazine. This extraordinary group also happens to be doing
leading-edge explorations of collective intelligence, themselves
-- using their own daily life together as the laboratory
2. James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY
ARE SMARTER THAN THE FEW AND HOW COLLECTIVE WISDOM SHAPES BUSINESS,
ECONOMIES, SOCIETIES AND NATIONS (Doubleday, 2004) .<http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/index.html>
This just-released book promotes the idea that "together all
of us know more than any one of us does." Its collection of
amazing collective intelligence stories is somewhat slanted towards
the perspective of markets (Surowiecki is financial columnist for
THE NEW YORKER) but reaches far beyond that.
Surowiecki shows how diverse crowds of people can guess how many
beans are in a bottle -- or how many pounds of meat are in a steer,
or the correct answer to a quiz show question, or the exact temperature
in a room, or even how future events will turn out -- with COLLECTIVELY
uncanny accuracy -- usually well over 90 percent -- even when most
of the individual answers are way off.
He describes a computer experiment where virtual "agents"
(artificially intelligent electronic entitities generated by a computer
program) learned their way through a maze after three or four attempts.
But when their first-try paths (which were all wrong) were COMBINED
(that is, overlaid over each other on the maze), the majority decision
at each turn of the maze -- a path NONE of the individual agents
took -- traced one of the shortest paths through the maze.
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS stresses the vital role of diversity in collective
intelligence, noting political scientist Scott Page and organizational
theorist James March's research on the subject. Surowiecki also
hightlights the importance of independence (no conformity dynamics),
decentralization (no one in charge or dominating), and "a way
of summarizing people's opinions into one collective verdict."
He cites fascinating research, as well, on successful and unsuccessful
small group deliberations.
The one significant shortcoming in this book, in my view, occurs
in the chapter on Democracy. Surowiecki wonders whether "democracy
is actually an excellent vehicle for making intelligent decisions
and uncovering the truth." As much as he seems to want to believe
that, he can't seem to decide that it is true. Like most people,
he doesn't know about citizen deliberative councils and is seemingly
blinded by the myth that democracy is mostly about elections and
representation. After musing about whether or not citizens are basically
self-interested, about the expense of James Fishkin's deliberative
polling projects, about the difficulties of turning over decision-making
to experts and how tricky it is to nail down "the common good,"
Surowiecki concludes that the wisdom of democracy is not in its
policy decisions but in its processes. It is the wisdom of compromise
and peaceful change. "The decisions that democracies make may
not demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd," he says. "The
decision to make them democratically does."
This is fine, as far as it goes. But, faced with the 21st Century's
overwhelming problems, we need more than that. If we want democracy
to survive, we need to tap the wisdom of our citizenry to solve
those problems and find sensible policies. Luckily,
it is possible to do that, and we can invite James Surowiecki
to join us in that possibility.
In the meantime, I know of no better resource for tracking the
fascinating world of statistical collective intelligence than his
remarkable new book
3. Patricia A. Wilson's "Deep Democracy: The Inner
Practice of Civic Engagement" <http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/Fieldnotes/Issue3/Deep_Democracy.pdf>
In Wilson's powerful, inclusive model of collectively intelligent
"deep democracy," people's feelings of alienation are
transformed into an experience of interconnectedness through co-creative
engagement in the civic arena. Individuality and community dance
together for mutual benefit, moving from dialogue to collective
learning, then to collective will and vision, and finally to collective
co-creativity that actualizes the vision -- only to return to civic
dialogue for reflection and renewal, beginning the dance anew at
a higher level.
Such engagement produces a participatory consciousness and sense
of oneness that has tremendous value in itself, quite in addition
to the blessings of collective accomplishment in the life of the
community. With practice, it weaves itself into the community's
culture and becomes a wellspring of individual and collective meaning.
Facilitative process leaders and social process technologies are
keys to catalyzing this dynamic. Wilson's article includes one of
the internet's rare lists of "social technologies for civic
engagement" -- organized into four categories: Deliberation,
Dialogue, Collaborative Action and Community Conflict Resolution.
Each is described in brief but insightful detail. In addition, Wilson
describes the leading edge of deep democracy which includes innovations
in facilitation, communication, decision-making and peer learning
She closes her short but compelling article with the "depth
dimension" of civic engagement, her favorite and central dimension.
She describes it as depth "not downward but inward, moving
deeper toward collective attunement to the inner source of knowing."
In this deep realm she joins WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? in citing the
work of Rupert Sheldrake and Otto Scharmer,* as well as William
Isaacs work on profound change <http://www.pegasuscom.com/PDFs/spiral.pdf>,
Allan Kaplan's on co-creativity* <http://www.cdra.org.za/articles/The%20Developing%20Of%20Capacity%20-%20by%20Allan%20Kaplan.htm>
and mine on co-intelligence <http://www.co-intelligence.org>.
She also acknowledges the depth dimension of traditional tribal
talking circles and ritual circles which can "lead directly
to the inner experience of knowing the whole through group attunement
For our individual practice she suggests we start with "cultivating
just one habit of deep democracy: to smile and listen to understand
the 'other' before advocating a position."* In a note to me,
Wilson described Otto Scharmer's template for group sensing of the
emergent future, which he calls the U model. "Starting at the
top of the U with discussion (where we are blind to our mental models),
the conversation gets deeper as it goes down the left hand side
of the U with reflective listening and sensing (of external information
as well as thoughts, assumptions, feelings) until at the bottom
of the U we get to presencing [pre-sensing, becoming present to
a just-now emerging future]. Silence and shifts in the felt sense
play a role here. And then the emergent, evolutionary, action-oriented
(Scharmer calls it prototyping) phases moving up the right hand
side of the U. So instead of jumping from discussion to action,
the U model is about deepening the place from which we know and
allowing the knowing to emerge. Such knowing then manifests in actions."
In another note, Wilson quoted from Allan Kaplan's chapter on "Co-Creating"
in his book DEVELOPMENT PRACTITIONERS AND SOCIAL PROCESS: ARTISTS
OF THE INVISIBLE (pp. 177-178): "We are participants in the
unfolding and becoming of those with whom we work; it is through
them that we unfold and emerge. This is the essence of co-creation.
With such a sense of co-responsibility we can indeed help to develop,
enlarge, and make more human, the social fabric which surrounds
and nurtures us like the membrane of a womb."
4. Thomas Hurley's "Archetypal Practices for Collective
Wisdom: Timeless Ways of Evolving Personal and Collective Capacity"
This remarkable piece is another of the class of advanced approaches
to group work that features individual practice. It realizes that
one individual who connects to deep realms (what Hurley calls "the
archetypal realm of human experience") can then, through their
authentic interactions with a group, transform the awareness and
activity of that group in positive ways. They carry wisdom from
the depths to feed the common good. And they are not necessarily
exceptional people. They merely take seriously the personal practices
that nurture this capacity. Therein lies the potential gift of such
practices for democracy: We can all share in bringing this capacity
to our common work of accessing and crafting the collective wisdom
we need to meet the challenges we face.
Hurley offers sixteen practices presented in eight pairs. I balked
at his model's overall complexity and at various similarities among
the sixteen practices. I found myself wanting to summarize them,
to pull them together into one practice, perhaps like this: "We
see and engage openly with what is most authentically and vividly
present in and around us -- intentions, feelings, truths, shadows,
nuances, boundaries, the realities of others... -- sharing clearly
what we experience and moving powerfully and lovingly with its rhythms."
But even if that captures 80 or 90 percent of what he's saying,
it short-circuits an important dimension of his contribution. His
brilliant way of dividing the needed capacity into different practices
adds insight and power by introducing a certain creative tension:
Each of his practices has a complementary practice that seems to
contradict it in some way. The Taoist tension between them creates
a psychological space wherein much deepening work can be done.
The further I progressed through Hurley's paper, the more the different
dimensions of the work showed up inside each other and echoed back
and forth, building a sense of rich and rewarding challenge. At
the end I had to admit that his model has an energized integrity:
As with a good story, the dancing parts are greater than any clever
summary of the whole. As he says of one of his practices: "Being
with all that arises means embracing these tensions, rather than
trying to eliminate ambiguity or reduce complexity prematurely to
make ourselves comfortable."
Many of Hurley's articulations are gems of concise wisdom. "A
strong stand is flexible and open, not inflexible and closed --
a form enabling interaction with the world, not a position foreclosing
it." "Inquiry need not cease while we act, even when time
presses; we can embed inquiry into our action."
"Staying in the fire means letting ourselves cook....When
our bodies are filled with overpowering emotion or the group field
is charged with tension, we stay conscious and work with what is
arising instead of acting out. We contain and ground the electricity
that runs through us like lightning, seeking a target." "If
I cannot endure the darkness in myself, I will see it only in others.
If we cannot acknowledge the shadow in a group, we will close ranks
and only see it in the world beyond ... In avoiding bitter truths,
we cripple ourselves..."
Hurley's centeredness in the inner life is obviously balanced by
extensive experience in real-world groups and organizations, which
are brought to life in riveting stories which illustrate each practice.
He knows the importance of diversity, of good group process, of
co-intelligent social institutions and commitment to global transformation.
He also knows that "even when we commit ourselves in good faith
and work diligently, the process is rarely stress-free." But
he notes that committed work increases our capacity to more competently
and creatively engage with both the shadow and the light, ultimately
empowering us to "play the whole game magically."
At that point leadership becomes transformed "from a compulsion
to control others and drive a system to a passion for creating contexts
in which all can thrive, ever more fully experiencing their individual
and collective genius." In so doing, suggests Hurley, we become
"more interesting partners for God.
5. Doug Engelbart's lifetime mission to augment our collective
Few people have heard of Doug Engelbart. Most of those who have,
know him as the inventor of the computer mouse.
But his inventions include far more than that. Over 30 years ago
-- back when computers were programmed with punch cards and output
was on printouts -- he and his team developed an integrated system
for electronic collaboration that included much that we now take
for granted -- not only the mouse, but cathode ray tube displays
of text, a consistent graphical user interface (windows), display
editing (black on white word processing), integrated text and graphics,
outline editors for idea development, hyper-documents (links), e-mail,
online help, user configurability and programmability, asynchronous
collaboration among teams in different locations, and two-way video-conferencing.
Remember: This was way before there were personal computers.
And it was all part of a larger vision. Long before the Internet
or the World Wide Web, he was imagining people "sitting in
front of displays, 'flying around' in an information space where
they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed
He didn't market his inventions -- although others did. He had
a bigger mission. "The reason I invent," he says, "is
to advance the evolution of society and its institutions. My crusade
is to find much better ways for people to work together to make
this world a better place." He insists that the proper role
of computers is to augment human intellect -- especially through
increasing "collective IQ" -- to address our global predicament.
Toward this end he founded the Bootstrap Institute "to boost
mankind's collective capability for coping with complex, urgent
problems ... in the interest of mankind as a whole."
Just as people back in 1968 struggled to comprehend his vision
then, we would do well to try to comprehend his vision today. It
includes "Dynamic Knowledge Repositories" (DKRs) -- incredibly
sophisticated online knowledge environments, sort of like living
encyclopedias where knowledge is gathered, tracked, created, recorded,
used and discussed. Technically, DKRs would be based on a higher
order of detailed hyper-linkability (new technology which Engelbart
calls the Open Hyperdocument System, or OHS) and a new order of
browser -- the Hyperscope, that would hyperlink across virtually
all kinds of documents, from email to Powerpoint presentations to
audio, video and computer-aided design (CAD) materials -- making
today's system of browsers and hyperlinks seem positively Stone
Age. A domain of knowledge could be articulated overall, with each
aspect linked to specific other information that supported and/or
questioned it -- and all of it being continually updated, while
preserving its evolutionary history -- and all of it appropriately
accessible to -- and designed to engage -- users at different levels
expertise and interest.
Using this infrastructure, Engelbart envisions Networked Improvement
Communities (NICs) in each area of concern or expertise creating
Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs, those "living encyclopedias")
where collective learning could take place and be recorded for the
use of everyone in the world. Within existing learning communities
and communities of practice, he suggests developing a role called
"Knowledge Workshop Architect" to facilitate their evolution
into true Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) who can then
be useful stewards of DKRs as integrated leading-edge knowledge
NICs could be developed in universities, professional societies,
businesses, philanthropic organizations, government agencies, nonprofits,
and anywhere else where concentrated collaborative work is done
and collective learning would be an asset. Engelbart suspects that
universities are the best NIC startups -- where departments could
build prototype DKRs for selected knowledge domains. He already
has two pilot efforts.
He also advocates the high-priority creation of specialized NICs
dedicated to learning how to enhance Collective IQ, itself. He suggests
that if they apply that knowledge to THEIR OWN operations, they
could thereby increase their own ability to enhance Collective IQ
in an ever-ascending spiral of capacity -- a strategy Engelbart
calls "bootstrapping" (thus the name of his institute).
A special branch of NICs could track the evolution/resolution of
issue-oriented dialogues in an Issue-Based Information System (IBIS),
graphically portraying the structure of arguments and interrelated
factors involved with a particular issue.*
Taken all together, this is truly a vision of a global brain, designed
for addressing global situations. To actually be realized, this
would probably require a massive social effort not unlike the Manhattan
Project that created the atomic bomb. But what a different difference
for the world THIS Project would make!
From my own perspective, grounded in a vision of a wise deliberation-based
democracy, I find it interesting to contemplate how citizen deliberative
could be informed by consulting such Dynamic Knowledge Repositories,
and then participate in building them. The outcomes of citizen juries,
for example, would be valuable components of such DKRs. In a wise
democracy, the informational form of collective intelligence would
blend seamlessly and powerfully with the reflective and evolutionary
(collective learning) forms of collective intelligence.
* Two other efforts come to mind that
share this vision of making full info on an issue available to
the public -- Robert Theobald's possibility/problem focuser <http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC09/Theobald.htm>
(and pp. 95-96 of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY) and Robert Steele's Web-Based
Virtual Intelligence Community (ref. his review of THE TAO OF
DEMOCRACY on Amazon available at <http://www.taoofdemocracy.com/reviews.html>
and pp. 133-135 of his NEW CRAFT OF INTELLIGENCE). Theobald notes
that graduate students could play a major role in such ongoing
efforts. The mapping of issue/argument structures (especially
Robert Horn's work) is explored at <http://www.wiki-thataway.org/index.php?page=KnowledgeMapping>.
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