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Defining "Collective Intelligence"

For a collection of 17 "collective intelligence" definitions
by diverse "collective intelligence" authors, click here

Note: Collective intelligence is only part of co-intelligence

I believe there is a rich and diverse field of study and practice which concerns itself with "collective intelligence." However, "collective intelligence" lacks an agreed-on definition.

If we wish to facilitate cross-fertilization and co-evolution among the diverse scholars and practitioners in this field, I suggest that we choose a definition that intentionally transcends our own sense of the subject to potentially embrace the perspectives of everyone else conceivably involved in it -- especially those who already use the term. This choice would be intended to help diverse people feel welcome and to reduce fruitless arguments about the "proper" meaning of the term.

In this spirit, I suggest the broadest definition of collective intelligence is simply this:

which arises from one or more SOURCES.

We can then expand on each of the highlighted key terms in the above definition -- intelligence, collective and sources -- to paint an inclusive picture of the whole field. Also, by specifying particular meanings for each of those terms, we can describe a particular perspective on the topic.


In its most generic sense, "collective" refers to any entity constituted by other entities -- a whole with all its parts.
When used in the term "collective intelligence," the word "collective" can refer to any or all human wholes -- social entities such as relationships (friends, couples), families, groups, organizations, communiities, networks, polities (cities, counties, states, provinces, nations), cultures, social systems (markets, governments, health care systems) or humanity as a whole.

By using the term "collective intelligence," people are usually suggesting that some form(s) of intelligence characterize or can operate in or through such human collectives.

(Note: In some definitions of collective intelligence, words like "group" are used in a generic sense meaning any social collective -- a community, an organization, etc. For clarity here, I will use the terms "human collective" or "social collective" to cover that territory, while reserving the word "group" to refer to "people gathered in a room or for a specific activity" or "people of a certain type" without the unique connotations carried by words like "organization," "community" or "polity.")

In some approaches to collective intelligence the term "collective" is not limited to human collectives. It may refer to animal collectives such as flocking birds or nesting ants -- or even to a larger living system like a forest. The term can also refer to groups of virtual artificially intelligent agents in computer environments. Perhaps most broadly, it can refer to the functioning of the entire planet or universe as an intelligent entity, whose intelligence is fed by and expressed through the entities in it.

Perhaps most rarely, the term "collective" is used to complexify our thinking about entities we most often think of as individuals, such as human persons. Collective intelligence in this case can refer to the intelligence arising from the diverse systems, intelligences or voices that make up a single individual person, seen as a composite being.

In short, the word "collective" in the term "collective intelligence" may be most broadly thought of as refering to a holon -- that is, any object seen as a whole made up of parts. Of course, such a whole is part of larger wholes, and such parts are also wholes in their own right. So the term "holon" contains within it the parts-within-wholes-within-larger-wholes pattern that pervades the universe. And "collective intelligence" is the intelligence that relates to that pattern, at any and all levels.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines intelligence as "the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge." The Encylopedia Britannica, attempting to embrace animal and artificial intelligence with a more objective definition, defines it as "the ability to adapt effectively to the environment, either by making a change in oneself or by changing the environment or finding a new one." Many non-experts prefer simple, practical definitions like "the ability to solve problems."

My own efforts to define intelligence include "the ability to create, maintain, change and apply mental models so that they align with reality," "the capacity to respond creatively, appropriately and successfully to varied (or varying) circumstances," and even "the capacity to guide each subsequent unfolding of life or understanding into new, useful forms of coherence."

We soon find that defining intelligence is as controversial, elusive and fascinating an activity as defining art or life or love. So, for our purposes, rather than attempting a single definition, it may be more useful to look at the characteristics, capacities or functions that are variously ascribed to intelligence, and then to say that any instance of these characteristics, capacities or functions constitutes an example of intelligence. That means we would welcome into our "field" anyone who was exploring the collective expression of any of these characteristics, capacities or functions. We could then discuss their relationship to "intelligence" -- including which ones are necessary or sufficient -- once we have everyone in the room!

So here is my own effort to list some of these markers of intelligence, created in full awareness that a complete list is impossible. Intelligence includes:

problem solving
applying knowledge
strategic skill; action planning, coordination and
mobilization of resources
action that is reliable, successful, appropriate-to-context
response and adaptation to changing conditions
altering existing conditions to meet one's needs or
accomplish one's goals
reasoning, logic
analysis; information sorting and categorization
integration, synthesis
vision, prediction and scenario creation
memory; retrievable storage of perceptions, ideas
and knowledge
consciousness, awareness
evaluation, deliberation, judgment, weighing options
decision-making, especially based on reason and evidence
accurate estimation of effort
generation, maintenance, application and revision of
mental models/hypotheses
imagination, visualization
creation, innovation, invention
inquisitiveness; information gathering
distinguishing the relevant from the irrelevant
seeing differences, similarities and identities
making sense and meaning; comprehension, understanding
capacitance (ability to contain complexity, nuance,
uncertainty, and dissonance)
evolution towards higher order integration and
sense of timing

Perhaps we can say that the more of these we find present, the more agreement we would probably get among diverse practitioners and scholars that "intelligence" is present.

(NOTE: While individual intelligence weaves many of these functions together more or less seamlessly, social forms of collective intelligence often have these functions being often held by different parts of a social whole. For example, we can view researchers and investigators as the perceptual aspect of the society's intelligence, while academics do the analysis; ethicists, activists, judges and novelists do evaluations; managers and administrators do the planning and coordination; and so on. To their work is added the work of people and systems that care for and transmit information -- educators, communications systems, libraries, media, etc. All these actors, activities and institutions together add up to a whole-society [or whole-organization], institutionally-embedded form of collective intelligence far beyond the capacities of any individual, which individuals can access.)


The other primary definition of intelligence is not a capacity but a quality of information -- strategically useful information -- "highly relevant, current information gathered, selected, distilled and/or evaluated to facilitate timely, high quality decision-making on important challenges, usually in a strategic context." This is the kind of intelligence that "intelligence agencies" generate for decison-makers in government and the military. Through the lens of our model above, we could say that it is information that has been put through a lot of the above-noted functions -- gathering, evaluation, analysis, comprehension, etc. -- so that all that remains is decision, planning and action.

Although "intelligence professionals" make up only a small percentage of those explicitly concerned with "collective intelligence," their entire profession is a de facto manifestation of collective intelligence: Creating strategic intelligence requires many different people in a coordinated effort -- an effort usually colored by the profession's traditional obsessions with secrecy, security and battle. In fact, many of the intelligence professionals who are exploring "collective intelligence" are explicitly interested in freeing the "intelligence community" from those obsessions and enhancing the open collective intelligence of the entire society. To engage their participation, their usage of the word "intelligence" needs to be folded in to our larger sense of what intelligence is all about.


Practitioners differ widely on where collective intelligence (as a capacity) comes from and where it resides. There are often unacknowledged assumptions about this which can seem to divide practitioners but which, when teased out and articulated, may in fact overlap or complement each other. In any case, all these perspectives can be considered valid for our purposes -- within the overarching definition given above -- and can be explored in more depth when they come together in dialogue. I've listed a number of these perspectives below; more can be written. Many approaches to collective intelligence combine several of these perspectives.

  • Collective intelligence belongs to or is a property of the whole in which individuals are embedded or of which they are an expression. It transcends and is in some way "other than" the intelligence of those individuals. From this [usually spiritual or deep-ecological] perspective, the intelligence pre-dates and will survive those individuals, although they may be involved in its evolution. It is often experienced by some of those individuals as a larger intelligence that operates through them, especially when they are individually or collectively attuned to it (as one tunes a radio to pre-existing radio waves).
  • Collective intelligence is a background field of intelligence co-generated by the minds that make it up, which influences and can be accessed by those minds (as in Sheldrake's morphogenic fields and Jung's collective unconscious).
  • Collective intelligence is an emergent property of the collective as a (social) system. As such, it has some significantly different characteristics than the intelligences that are embedded in it. It is generated from (and, in a sense, resides in) the dynamics of the system as a whole, of which those individual intelligences are one aspect, along with information gathering, collective records, communication systems, educational and co-learning systems, cultural patterns (of collaboration or competition, for example), and other factors.
  • Collective intelligence is a group phenomena in which the intelligences of individual participants who are in tune with each other merge into a larger form of intelligence within which meaning and action flow and evolve smoothly, more or less as one mind. This is experienced vividly by most participants as a form of self-transcendence and a source of wonder, often called "group magic."
  • Collective intelligence is cognitive synergy -- the synergistic product of appropriately diverse perspectives in conversation (dialogue, deliberation, shared reflection) where that diversity stimulates new insights or is used to paint a more inclusive picture of reality rather than a more fragmented one. The collective intelligence, in this case, embraces the conversational group and any individuals, groups or communities whose thoughts, feelings and behaviors are shaped by that group's output.
  • Collective intelligence is a phenomenon associated with distributed individual intelligences who have access to their collective output and thought processes through their co-generative participation (e.g., in the World Wide Web). There is a gigantic feedback loop in which the whole feeds the parts and the parts feed the whole. However, the whole, in this case, is little more than the accumulated intelligences of the participating individuals. Any enabling systems facilitate, but do not contain or source, the resulting collective intelligence, which resides in the individuals considered collectively and does not have a coherence of its own.
  • Collective intelligence resides in bodies of information, know-how, ideas, etc., that are collectively generated, processed and made accessible to all as needed. (This is another view of the WWW, as well as libraries, science, education, etc. It is like the previous perspective, but centers on the information, itself. Thus, it is also the perspective most aligned with visionaries in "the intelligence community.")
  • Collective intelligence is a natural product of the independent opinions or behaviors of diverse individuals or groups in a decentralized system (flock, market, guessing game) that aggregates those opinions or behaviors. Given sufficient diversity, independence and local sources of information, the collective intelligence arises from an almost statistical cancelling of errors on either side towards an average of correctness -- or from automatic whole-system adjustments arising from simple rules of relationship and self-interest.

Finally, these two perspectives are on the edges of the collective intelligence field:

  • Collective intelligence is an augmentation of individual intelligence obtained through cooperation, communication, or participation in systems or activities designed to do that. Any increased intelligence manifests ONLY through the activities of individuals. (Calling this phenomenon "collective intelligence" may be a misnomer, as it is more mutual than collective.)
  • Collective intelligence is a natural epiphenomenon of successful cooperative action toward shared goals. In this sense, it is viewed less as an independent capacity and more as a way of describing, in retrospect, what went into that success.


There are many definitions of collective intelligence available online. Below are the one's I found so far. Some of them are edited to make them readable as definitions. Most define what I would consider only one portion of the full range of collective intelligence, being too narrow either in their sense of the "collective" that is intelligent, or in the functions they equate with intelligence, or in their sense of where collective intelligence comes from. But they are all very articulate about what CI is from their perspective. I'll start with definitions proposed by the prolific Pierre Levy:

The capacity of human communities to co-operate intellectually in creation, innovation and invention. -- Pierre Levy

The cognitive powers of a group -- e.g., perception, action planning and coordination, reasoning, prediction, memory, imagination and hypothesis generation, inquisitiveness, problem solving and, above all, learning capacity. Collective cognitive powers are closely related to the groupís culture. -- Pierre Levy (the cognitive powers list from this source has been expanded with items from Levy's definitions in and

A fully distributed intelligence that is continuously enhanced and synergised in real-time. -- Pierre Levy

Collective learning and creative process [realized] through exchanges of knowledge and intellectual creativity. -- Pierre Levy

A form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills... No one knows everything, everyone knows something. -- Pierre Levy

Human communities, organizations and cultures exhibiting "mind-like" properties, such as learning, perceiving, acting, thinking, problem-solving, and so on. [This embraces phenomena variously known as] distributed cognition, distributed knowledge systems, global brain, super-brain, global mind, group mind, ecology of mind, hive mind, learning organization, connected intelligence, networked intelligence, augmented intelligence, hyper-cortex, symbiotic man, etc... Emotions, bodies, medias, sign systems, social relations, technologies, biological environment and physical supports [also play roles in] collective intelligence processes. -- Pierre Levy

The capability for a group to organize itself in order to decide upon its own future and control the means to attain it in complex contexts. -- Jean-Francois Noubel

The oldest human social organization where individuals decide to mutualize their knowledge, know-how and experience in order to generate a higher individual and collective benefit than if they remained alone. Collective intelligence is the foundation of positive-sum economies where the whole is more than the sum of its parties. -- Jean-Francois Noubel

The capability of a collective/social system to hold questions and language too complex for any individual intelligence to hold, and to work out strategies, visions, goals, and images of a desired future, etc. -- edited from Finn Voldtofte's notes from a World Cafe

A specific property of a social structure, initialized when individuals organize, acquiring the ability to solve more complex problems than individuals can. This property amplifies if the social structure improves its synergy. -- Tadeusz Szuba

An unconscious, random, parallel and distributed computational process run by a social structure [such that the] social structure seems to be working well for a wide spectrum of beings (from bacterial colonies up to human social structures). -- Tadeusz (Ted) Szuba

People of different backgrounds or talents working together so as to help optimize the meshing of those talents in organizations -- Doug Engelbart

Collective problem-solving ability. -- Francis Heylighen

The capacity of families, groups, organizations, communities and entire societies to act intelligently as whole, living systems. -- Tom Atlee

The capacity of communities to evolve towards higher order integration and performance through collaboration and innovation. -- George Por

That which overcomes "groupthink" and individual cognitive bias in order to allow a relatively large number of people to cooperate in one process - leading to reliable action. -- Anonymous

Empowerment through the development and pooling of intelligence to attain common goals or resolve common problems. -- Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder

For more articles on collective intelligence, click here.


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