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A compact vision of co-intelligence



In this essay I offer an overview of co-intelligence, somewhat oversimplified into two parts: collective intelligence and collaborative intelligence. I show how these together suggest a new vision of cultural transformation. Even this introductory material, well applied, could have a profound impact on our culture. -- Tom Atlee


Intelligence is the word we commonly use to describe our individual capacity to learn, to solve problems, to plan our future, and to make sense of our inner and outer worlds. As a species we pride ourselves in this intelligence, a capacity that seems to set us apart from most other species.

Much more could be said about individual intelligence, but for now I want to suggest that this capacity we call intelligence isn't confined to individuals. Every human collective -- every group, organization and society -- exhibits at least some capacity to learn, to solve problems, to plan its future, and to make sense of conditions in and around it. If it didn't, it would not survive.

So we can speak of individual intelligence and collective intelligence. We can further distinguish different kinds of collective intelligence -- group intelligence, organizational intelligence, community intelligence, societal intelligence, and species intelligence, to name a few.

Although this idea may be new to you, I want to assure you that there really isn't anything very esoteric about it. I am not, after all, speaking of collective consciousness, which may or may not exist. I am merely speaking of collective intelligence, which is an observable, demonstrable, perhaps even measurable capacity. From the neighborhood sports club to the United Nations, groups of people engage in solving their problems, planning new activities, and formulating stories about what's happening around them -- in other words, using their intelligence, just like individuals do. And, just like individuals, some groups and societies are smarter than others -- and all of them are smarter at some times than at other times.

I often suggest to people that they recall meetings, relationships, organizations and crowds they've been in, and consider whether those groups of people were more or less intelligent than the individual people who made them up. Some of the stupidest groups and meetings are made up of really smart people. And sometimes quite ordinary people come up with brilliant solutions when they work together well.

What really interests me is that when I tell people about co-intelligence, they usually look at me blankly. But then I ask them if they've ever seen co-stupidity -- and they start to chuckle! What a commentary on our culture, that people who have never heard either word can't imagine co-intelligence, but are already familiar with co-stupidity.

Which gives you a hint of why I think it is important to establish a field of study so we can learn more about this phenomenon. It could obviously help us make our homes more peaceful and our companies more profitable. But even more important, societal intelligence and species intelligence, in particular, would -- by definition -- enhance our ability to address social, economic, and environmental problems. Our collective intelligence -- and we always have more or less of it -- has a profound effect on our individual lives and on our collective prospects. In times of collective crisis -- like now -- this is of paramount importance.

In fact I believe that attention to collective intelligence is a key ingredient missing from most civic and political undertakings. All around us we find people and groups who have important insights and solutions to social and environmental problems. Yet those problems persist -- and usually grow worse. We don't have to continue that way. 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. Understanding collective intelligence can help us fulfill the original dream of democracy: the participatory determination of our collective fate. We have many tools now to accomplish this.

Collective intelligence involves more than collective problem-solving. We face a complex future that we are all co-creating, for better and worse. If we had more collective intelligence, we might be better able to co-create a future that we really wanted. Solving our social, economic and environmental problems would be one facet of that. Envisioning and birthing vibrant communities and new cultures would be another.

In fact, the outcome of every social and environmental concern and of all the hopes and dreams we have for our families, our communities, our nations and the world depends on our having and using sufficient collective intelligence. This is true whether we're aware of collective intelligence or not.

Building our capacity for collective intelligence may be a sine qua non of sustainable social change and collective welfare. Many other issues find new significance through their role in our collective intelligence. For example, as fewer and fewer corporations own more and more media, it becomes harder and harder for a society to collectively reflect on what is happening to it and to consider an adequately broad range of options for its future. The impact of this on the collective intelligence of a society can be (and is) devastating.



SMALL GROUPS: An individual IQ test compares a person's 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. This was once accomplished 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.

LARGE GROUPS: Problem-solving capabilities can be exercised by groups containing hundreds of people. In the summer of 1986 as 400 of us walked through Colorado on the cross-country Great Peace March, some of us wanted all marchers to walk together in orderly impressive rows, while others wanted everyone to walk at their own pace, strung out so they could reflect, appreciate nature, and talk to townspeople along the way. The conflict was tearing the March apart when a torrential summer storm forced us all into the shelter of a friendly fertilizer factory. Huddled under its corrugated metal roof (which made quite a din in the rain), we spent a couple of hours taking turns talking about this divisive issue, two minutes each, using a portable PA system. A full hearing of all the relevant perspectives and information generated a palpable collective intelligence and a depth of understanding that shaped the March's collective behavior with neither force nor formal decision for the remaining six months of its trek. The solution was obvious to all of us when we finally saw it: it just made sense to march together in the cities (where the media and traffic were) and strung out in the country (where the nature and farmers were). The storm ended and we drifted off to set up our tents, amazed at what had just happened.

ORGANIZATIONS: Can a whole organization exhibit intelligence? In November 1997, 750 forest service employees sitting in one room together generated, in just three days, a shared vision of change covering all facets of forest service activity, including action plans developed by people who were excited about implementing them. This was a one-time exercise that had lasting effect. MIT's Organizational Learning Center and other institutes research and promote corporate capacity for ongoing organizational intelligence by building a culture of continual, high-quality dialogue about the whole-system dynamics in and around the organization. Just as group intelligence depends on things like group process, so organizational intelligence depends on organizational factors like an organizational culture that promotes dialogue, organizational memory systems (files, records, databases, minutes, etc.) and systems that collect and utilize feedback from inside and outside the organization. When such things are in place, an organization can create, accumulate and use understandings and solutions which become part of the organization, itself -- knowledge that outlasts the tenure of individual employees and executives. In other words, the organization is learning, exercising its intelligence and applying it in life the same way an individual does.

COMMUNITIES: What would community intelligence look like? Perhaps we see an example of it in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which, in the early 1980s, was reeling from local recession, deteriorating schools and rising racial tensions. Several dozen citizens formed Chattanooga Venture, an on-going cross-class, multi-racial organization that, over the next decade involved hundreds of people in an inclusive effort to set and achieve community goals. Of 34 specific city-wide goals set in 1984, 29 were completed by 1992, at which point Chattanooga Venture again convened hundreds of citizens to create new community goals. Among the goals realized through this process was the creation of Chattanooga's Neighborhood Network, which organized and linked up dozens of neighborhood associations to help people co-create a shared future right where they lived, enhancing their community intelligence even further. Chattanooga Venture provides a glimpse of the sort of ongoing collective intelligence we could build to brilliantly solve problems, to learn together, and to generate a better life right at home.

STATES: A state-wide 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 provide specialized health care knowledge, citizens weighed the trade-offs involved in over 700 approaches to deal with specific medical conditions, and decided which should be given preference. In general, approaches that were inexpensive, highly effective, and/or needed by many people (which included many preventative measures) were given priority over approaches that were expensive, less effective and/or needed by very few people. Although clearly some people would not get needed care under this system, it was pointed out that some people didn't 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.

WHOLE SOCIETIES: Most exciting of all, it may be possible to generate a powerful society-wide intelligence. One approach would be to study the population for significant diversity, and then help a group who truly represent that diversity to learn, dream, and explore problems and possibilities together -- while the rest of the society watches. These proxy conversations -- which could be made especially productive with professional facilitation -- could be used to stimulate ongoing conversations by ordinary citizens in living rooms, schools, churches and bars across the land. This could dramatically change the political environment. Subsequent government decisions would be made in a context of greater public wisdom, sophistication and consensus.

This approach has been tried in a number of countries. Consider Canada's experiment: One weekend in June, 1991, a dozen Canadians met at a resort north of Toronto, under the auspices of Maclean's, Canada's leading newsweekly. They'd been scientifically chosen so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion in their deeply divided country. But despite their firmly held beliefs, each of them was interested in dialogue with people whose views differed from their own. That dialogue was facilitated by "the guru of conflict resolution," Harvard University law professor Roger Fisher, co-author of the classic Getting to Yes -- and two colleagues. Despite the fact that they'd never really listened to the viewpoints and experiences of others so unlike themselves, and despite the tremendous time pressure (they had three days to develop a consensus vision for Canada), and despite being continuously watched by a camera crew from CTV television (who recorded the event for a special public-affairs program), these ordinary citizens succeeded in their mission. Maclean's reported their conversations and recommendations in detail and urged that a similar process "be extended to address other issues." What impact do you suppose widespread practice of such dialogues would have on a country's politics -- especially if they were done regularly, like every year?



As someone takes into account additional relevant factors in their studies, decisions or solutions, their results tend to improve. Their understanding becomes more aligned to the actual state of affairs, and so tends to work better when applied in the real world.

We could say that intelligence involves excluding factors that are truly irrelevant and including as many relevant factors as we can deal with. We don't want to include factors that are clearly irrelevant, but neither do we want to exclude factors that are clearly -- or even arguably -- relevant. Our understanding would be impeded if we did.

Collective intelligence increases as it creatively includes relevant viewpoints, people, information, etc., into collective deliberations. Although including everyone in every decision is seldom desirable (or feasible), the history of collective decision-making and problem-solving reveals a tendency to include increasingly diverse and numerous voices. Authoritarian systems include just a few voices -- and give those people the power to enforce their decisions, thus ensuring that the whole system's intelligence reflects the leaders' intelligence -- or lack thereof. Democracy, in contrast, includes more voices, ideally everyone's, with no voice(s) dominating -- thus creating greater possibilities for collective intelligence. However, practical considerations dictate that only in small groups can everyone be heard -- such as at town hall meetings. So representative democracy was created to provide manageable small groups through which to channel the voices of whole populations. 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. We have lost a good deal of the inclusive collective intelligence we managed to gain in the earlier years of democracy.

But there's good news: Simultaneous with this development, humanity has been developing powerful tools for solving these problems. Consider proxy dialogues, such as the Canadian one described above, combined with sophisticated use of media -- especially telecommunications -- and powerful group processes that creatively use diversity. And this is only one of hundreds of possible approaches "blowing in the wind." These developments suggest that we may be poised on the edge of our next evolutionary leap in democracy as the inclusive path to political collective intelligence.





We've seen how collective intelligence is a more inclusive form of intelligence that can be generated by people in groups, organizations and communities. Collaborative intelligence is an entirely different sort of phenomenon, but no less important. Collaborative intelligence is about exercising a co-operative quality or style of intelligence -- the capacity to apply intelligence in a spirit of partnership, rather than for domination, defense or escape.

Collaborative intelligence is an important component of collective intelligence. As we saw in the wilderness survival experiments, 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 victory, they are much more able to generate collective intelligence.

Collaborative intelligence can also exist between collectives. Some say the information age will generate an economics based on sharing information and opportunity with others. When Widgets, Inc. and Blodgetts Corp. put up links to each other's websites, both of them (and their customers) win. There is even talk of "business ecosystems" in which clusters of hardware producers, software producers, suppliers, distributors, and corporate and individual users create a market alliance of benefit to them all. Similarly, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and economic justice organizations sometimes form alliances to protect a neighborhood from toxic facilities. Any intelligence used to support such alliances -- or the growing number of public-private-community partnerships or other such arrangements -- is collaborative intelligence.

We can also collaborate with our circumstances, using our intelligence to move with (or learn from) the natural tendencies at work in a situation. Aikido and judo masters protect themselves not by hitting their attackers, but by moving with them, supporting their energy -- perhaps stepping out of the way of a charging opponent, and giving them a gentle nudge that sends them flying in the direction they were already running. Some people say that every problem is also an opportunity; it takes collaborative intelligence to recognize and engage those opportunities.

We are also called -- individually and collectively -- to collaborate with nature. Rather than spreading toxic pesticides on vast fields of single crops, we can plant crops together that support each other, and include some insects that prey on the insects we don't like. And we can fertilize our farms and gardens with compost made from our wastes, the way natural systems feed themselves. The way a house faces the sun, the way its walls and windows are made, the insulation in its attic.... all these provide us with opportunities to work with nature to heat or cool our homes with no imported energy. It takes intelligence -- collaborative intelligence -- to achieve what is otherwise achieved by exerting undue force, energy, and effort.

Some say that collaborating with nature and with circumstances is, in fact, collaborating with a Higher Intelligence, a universal plan or pattern. They say that we can often fruitfully let go of control and let things unfold naturally. Most twelve step addiction-recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous involve intelligently moving away from willfulness and selfishness towards letting the healing tendencies of life and community carry us forward. This attitude is shared by many indigenous and traditional cultures, as well, and by many holistic healing practices.

A major challenge in all collaboration is the creative use of diversity. One form of diversity is, interestingly enough, different cognitive styles or what some call multiple intelligences. Within and among us, we find analytical intelligence and emotional intelligence, verbal intelligence and musical intelligence, kinesthetic bodily intelligence and transcendental intelligence, and many more. How do analytical, intuitive and kinesthetically-oriented people apply their diverse intelligences collaboratively to generate a more powerful, complete collective intelligence?



We can develop intelligent communities, groups, organizations and societies that collaborate with each other and with the fullness of life in and around them. We have hundreds of theories, approaches and practices that can serve the realization of that dream. We can fathom the underlying reality out of which all these theories, approaches and practices come and which they embody, and thereby come to understand the dynamics common to them all, that make them all work.

Many of the needed insights will arise out of inquiries into the nature of wholeness, interconnectedness, and co-creativity. When we think of intelligence as the way an individual gains dominion over their world, we have lost something vast and important. I propose, instead, that intelligence is fundamentally about creating and re-creating wholeness, coherence, fittedness. We apply our intelligence to make things right, good or beautiful, to discover truth and reality, to make sense of things, to support our health or well-being. All of these are forms of wholeness, coherence, harmony.

Sometimes this harmony is broken by doubt or challenge or change. At such times, our intelligence seeks a higher-level coherence that will make new sense out of our experience. Healthy, intelligent individuals do this all the time. In society, as well, old ideas and realities are challenged and changed. Science, art, academics, politics and social change movements are just a few of the ways we have of institutionalizing our societal learning process.

The renewal and healing of our intelligence begins with this sense of intelligence as our capacity for creating and discovering coherence. It continues with the inquiry into what intelligence would look like if we took wholeness, interconnectedness, and co-creativity seriously. Whenever I find another answer to this question, I put it in a box called co-intelligence. In that box are collective intelligence, collaborative intelligence and plenty of room for whatever else we may find or create together as we explore our way into a world of fully co-intelligent cultures capable of solving our collective problems and evolving creatively for millennia to come.