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Guidelines for Making Wiser Decisions on Public Issues

by Tom Atlee

July 2011


Executive summary

As a civilization we have tremendous collective power, but we don't always use it wisely. We can make good decisions, but we face messy, entangled, rapidly growing problems with complex, debatable causes. Efforts to solve one problem often generate new ones. We need more than problem-solving smarts here. We need wisdom.

A good definition for wisdom here is

the capacity to take into account
what needs to be taken into account
to produce long term, inclusive benefits.

To the extent we fail to take something important into account, it will come back to haunt us. But often we only realize we overlooked something long after our decision has been implemented. Certain practices - because they lead us to include more of what's important - can help us meet this challenge. Here are eight complementary ways to do this. The more of them we do, and the better we do them, the wiser our collective decisions will be.

1. Creatively engage diverse perspectives and intelligences. High quality conversations among diverse people with full-spectrum knowledge, using their full human capacities - including reason, intuition, and aesthetic sensibilities - can generate wisdom.

2. Consult global wisdom traditions and broadly shared ethics. Ethical principles common to most major religions and philosophies provide time-tested wisdom, augmented by what we have learned more recently through global science and global dialogue.

3. Seek guidance from natural patterns. Wisdom is embedded in nature, in organisms, in natural forms and processes, and in evolution, providing a vast reservoir of insight and know-how tapped not only by scientists and engineers but by tribal and agricultural cultures.

4. Apply systems thinking. Wisdom comes from understanding underlying causes and taking into account how things are interrelated, how wholes and parts influence each other through power relations, resonance, feedback dynamics, flows, motivating purposes, and life-shaping narratives, habits and structures.

5. Think about the Big Picture and the Long Term. Wisdom grows as we step out of limiting perspectives to understand (and creatively use!) histories and energies from the past, current contexts and trends, future ramifications and needs, larger and smaller scales, and other mind-expanding perspectives.

6. Seek agreements that are truly inclusive. The more people contribute to, engage with, and believe in an agreement, the more likely it will wisely address what needs to be addressed and be well implemented.

7. Release the potential of hidden assets and positive possibilities. It is wise to notice and creatively engage existing energies and resources and to tap the power of people's aspirations which often show up at the rough edges, on the margins of our thinking, our group, our society.

8. Encourage healthy self-organization and learning. Any situation or system has problem-solving and self-organizing capacities which can be released and supported with well-designed forms of invitation, participation, and collaboration - powerful questions, crowd-sourcing activities, incentives, democracy, conversation, games...

9. Co-create accessible, relevant, accurate, full-spectrum knowledge. Fundamental to every one of these principles is the ability of decision-makers to know what's important.

Society's capacity to make wise decisions will be enhanced to the extent these wisdom-generating practices are supported and institutionalized AND to the extent the systemic obstacles to them are removed or bypassed.

"We are drowning in information,
while starving for wisdom."
-- Biologist E.O. Wilson

It is becoming increasingly obvious that human civilization has tremendous collective power but lacks the collective wisdom to use it well and sustainably.

Our civilization seems not yet able to thrive without making a mess of things. Our social systems' ability to channel our vast and rapidly expanding information, resources, collective intelligence and power into controlling and exploiting people and nature for sustenance, pleasure, and profit is generating some dire consequences.

Faced with mounting crises, we encounter more and more "wicked" problems - problems that do not solve easily. Their causes are unclear, complex, and difficult-to-address. WIcked problems are tangled up with other problems. We try different approaches and each attempt ends up making more messes. (See

We can't stop trying. We know our solutions and choices will profoundly impact the future of our communities, our societies, and our world. "Good" choices, despite their messiness, could lead to much better lives and a more sustainable and vibrant civilization. "Bad" choices will almost certainly accelerate our collective descent into further trouble, even global catastrophe. But the difference between good and bad choices is by no means obvious, especially while those decisions are being made. The "wickedness" of our public problems becomes even more daunting as we wrestle with conflicting interests, messy history, rapidly evolving disruptive technologies, discordant perspectives and problematic psychological and social dynamics.

Clearly our usual approaches to "problem solving" are not enough. We need to upshift and expand our ability to see what's going on, what's important, what's available, what's needed. We need to discover a more comprehensive level of insight that can embrace deeper understandings of a bigger picture than we are used to seeing. We need high leverage approaches that don't require micromanagement and massive resources, but improve people's capacity to continually address whatever problems show up, on the fly, while enhancing life in general.

In short, we need wisdom.

I would like to suggest a functional definition of wisdom. I'm not posing it as an ideal definition. I offer it only as a good working definition to help us think about the messy collective situations in which we find ourselves and how to better approach them. Here it is:

In public decisions, wisdom is
the capacity to take into account
what needs to be taken into account
to produce long term, inclusive benefits.

This definition suggests that, while "smart" decisions may be successful in the short term for some players, "wise" decisions are broadly and deeply successful for many people and for life in general over a long term. "Wise" decisions differ from "smart" ones in how much of the whole they take into account. Therefore, we can ask of public decisions: How much ground is covered by the information and perspectives they are based on? How broadly empathic and deeply prudent are the reflections that shape those decisions? How insightfully novel are the options considered? How many lives, communities, situations and generations are positively impacted by the resulting actions?

This definition is based on the obvious and painful fact that when we fail to take something important into account, it comes back to bite us - perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later, one way or another. Foolish, ill-considered decisions tend to leave us with worse problems than we had before. Wiser decisions tend to create fewer bad outcomes because they take into account more of what - and who - is most relevant and important.

In practice, though, we don't really KNOW how wise a decision is until long after it is implemented. After all, it is the long-term results that make it wise. The more wicked the problem, the more we get to face this sobering reality because the problem's complexity makes it that much harder to predict what will happen. To really know whether a decision is wise, we have to wait and see.

However, just because we can't be certain a decision is wise at the time it is made, doesn't mean we're helpless. There is much we can do before, during, and after we make a decision to make it more likely that it will be wise. The definition above - considering what actually needs to be taken into account - can guide us. Certain practices can lead us to consider "more of the whole" and thus significantly improve our chances.

Below are several dependable, interrelated approaches to making wiser public decisions. After each one I offer a few references that address various aspects of that approach. Neither this list of approaches nor the references I give are comprehensive. I offer them simply in the hope that they will stimulate further thinking on this critical subject.

1. Creatively engage diverse perspectives and intelligences. To what extent did the decision-making process include a full range of voices, information, and viewpoints about the issues being considered? To what extent did it engage diverse forms of intelligence - emotion, aesthetics and intuition, for example, as well as intellectual and verbal capacities? To what extent were different worldviews, cultures, demographics, and life experiences included and taken into consideration? To what extent were those diverse perspectives integrated into a bigger picture or used to stimulate creativity in the decision-making process, rather than being suppressed or marginalized? Achieving this usually means including sufficiently diverse people, information and activities in the conversation in the first place - and then helping them be more curious than opinionated, listening well and taking each other seriously. We need to understand the rich scope of human diversity and to facilitate quality dialogue and deliberation that helps people use their diversity creatively instead of having it undermine their humanity and their collective intelligence. See, for example:

The Co-Intelligence Institute page on Diversity -
The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation -
Citizen Deliberative Councils -
Dynamic Facilitation -
The World Cafe -
"A Theory of Everything" by Ken Wilber, reviewed at
"Citizen Participation: Questions of Diversity, Equity and Fairness" by K. Callahan -

2. Consult global wisdom traditions and broadly shared ethics. In and around all our immense differences, our biological, social, and some say spiritual nature grounds us in vast common realities that show up over and over in inspired works from around the world. So we may well ask to what extent a decision is supported by the time-tested wisdom found in the world's religions and philosophies. By this I am not, of course, referring to the parts of those traditions that make them different, competitive, and self-righteous. What I'm talking about involves certain principles - like the Golden Rule and non-arrogance - that most societies in most places and times have considered important guides to a good and moral life. These are the nearest thing we have to universal values and ethical standards appropriate for democratic decision-making where people's diverse religious, spiritual and philosophical views are respected but no one sectarian worldview dominates the others. As a complement to this, we might learn from research on deep human needs and what usually makes people most deeply happy, as well as globally co-created ethical documents like the Earth Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, collective wisdom on a particular community's shared ethics can be tapped by convening randomly selected citizen panels to consider specific questions of how we should live together. For interesting perspectives on shared ethical wisdom see:

The Parliament of the World's Religions "Declaration Towards a Global Ethic" -
Wisdom Commons -
Manfred Max-Neef's socioeconomic view of human needs -
"The Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt -
The Earth Charter -
Universal Declaration of Human Rights -
"How should we live together?" by Ned Crosby -

(Note that specific forms of prayer, meditation, oracles, "tuning in to other realms", etc., can also be wisdom-generating practices for many individuals, and for groups that use those methods collectively. However, such practices are usually not appropriate for inclusive democratic decision-making among citizens of diverse religious or spiritual sensibilities. In place of those divergent practices, brief periods of generic silence can often be used to give people in such public conversations time to reflect or deepen in whatever ways they find most meaningful and useful. In addition, we need to acknowledge that individual states of awareness and profound acts of compassion, service and conscience - including civil disobedience - can also bring wisdom to public decision-making.)

3. Seek guidance from natural patterns. Leonardo Da Vinci said, "Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain." So we can ask: To what extent did the decision tap into the wisdom embedded in nature, in living organisms, in natural forms and processes, and in evolution? For example, the field of biomimicry asks "How have evolved organisms efficiently solved engineering problems in ways that we could imitate to solve our own engineering problems?" We can also learn from how evolution works its magic: e.g., principles like "To make a functioning larger whole from smaller living parts, set things up so that when the parts pursue their self-interest, they automatically contribute to the welfare of the whole." Much of the wisdom of indigenous peoples and ancient cultures comes from observing nature and respecting its ways. Taoism studies "the Way" (the Tao) of nature and applies that understanding to both spiritual and practical matters. Many tribal cultures see "Mother Earth" as sacred and are therefore aghast that modern people would dig into the Mother for oil and minerals (which they see as Her bodily fluids and flesh), feeling that She will die or be angry. The metaphor has tremendous truth and predictive power embedded in it, as the Earth does bring us all into being and sustains us and is, therefore, deserving of profound respect and protection. Furthermore, lately the Earth does seem to be acting increasingly angry at our selfish exploitation of its/Her bounty. (Modern people may look down on how pre-modern cultures personify and deify natural forces - believing in gods of the sea and wind and so on - while failing to notice how much more destructive is the modern practice of reifying, personifying, and insulating corporations with "corporate personhood".) (Note that two other approaches on this list - systems thinking and self-organization, below - derive much of their insights from observing natural dynamics.) Useful explorations of nature as a source of wisdom include:

Biomimicry Institute -
Bioneers -
"Seeing Nature" by Paul Krafel
"Evolutions Arrow" by John Stewart (full text online
"Evolution for Everyone" by David Sloan Wilson
"Reflections on Evolutionary Activism" by Tom Atlee
"The Tao of Da Vinci" by Fritjof Capra -

4. Apply systems thinking. To what extent did the decision take into account how things are interrelated and how the whole - the whole situation, community, social system, society, planet - shapes the lives within it, and how those lives, in turn, shape each other and the whole? To what extent did the decision-makers look at the feedback dynamics that make the issue persist or grow or become increasingly problematic? If we ignore how an issue is connected to other issues and to other things going on, and how the whole situation is related to its parts and relationships that make it up, the chances are high that something will mess up whatever solutions we pursue. Wisdom comes from understanding underlying causes and taking into account how things are interrelated, how wholes and parts influence each other through power relations, resonance, feedback dynamics, flows, motivating purposes, and life-shaping narratives, habits and structures. See, for example,

"Thinking in Systems" by Donella Meadows -
"Twelve Leverage Points to Intervene in a System" by Dana Meadows -
"Blind Spots" by Madeleine L. Van Hecke -
(expanded by comments on a critical review -
The Integral Process for Working on Complex Issues (TIP) -
"Permaculture is Systems Thinking" -
"The Web of Life" by Fritjof Capra
The Natural Step's Four System Conditions -
Alternatives for GDP for Measuring Progress -

5. Think about the Big Picture and the Long Term. To what extent does the decision take into account the issue's context - its social, cultural, economic, and psychological history and sustaining dynamics? To what extent did the decision-makers reflect on how the decision would probably impact people who live elsewhere, or future generations, or those who disagree? Did they consider its likely impact on the welfare of individuals, the community, the society, and the environment ten, fifty, two hundred years from now? To what extent did decision-makers look beyond obvious immediate factors to consider nuances, contexts, possibilities and options outside of mainstream thinking? Wisdom grows as we step out of limiting perspectives to understand (and creatively use!) histories and energies from the past, current contexts and trends, future ramifications and needs, larger and smaller scales, and other mind-expanding perspectives. There are hundreds of approaches to this, including:

Science, technology, society and environment education -
Scenario Work like "The Art of the Long View" by Peter Schwartz -
Seventh Generation Sustainability -
"What is sustainability" -
Big History -
Edward deBono "H+ (Plus)" -
A pattern language for reliable prosperity -
"Sacred Economics" by Charles Eisenstein

6. Seek agreements that are truly inclusive. To what extent does the decision appeal to a high percentage of those involved -- especially those who tend to be adversaries or stakeholders in the issue, or those who are marginalized in the society generally? In a community decision, was the whole community - and/or a legitimate microcosm of the community - engaged in it? Requiring that a decision have a supermajority vote (66-80%) or consensus (all concerns being handled well enough for all parties to support the solution) often produces a better decision than one made by a 50%+1 majority. Another approach is to allow voters to prioritize or rate several options they can accept, thus increasing the likelihood that a final decision will be agreeable to them. A wise agreement will be achieved to the extent it involves inclusive thinking, seeking to understand and satisfy everyone's deep needs and legitimate interests rather than by engaging in lowest-common-denominator compromises and side-issue deal-making. The more people contribute to, engage with, and believe in an agreement, the more likely it will wisely address what needs to be addressed and be well implemented. (Note: A simple popular vote or opinion survey can also be a test of wisdom, but only to the extent the public has been engaged in informed deliberations about the issue and therefore understands what they are expressing their opinion about, and to the extent those being polled legitimately represent the diversity of the population, often through random selection.) You can gather some useful insights about inclusivity from resources like these:

"Getting to Yes" by William Ury and Roger Fisher
Consensus councils -
"Consensus: Manipulation or Magic", Chapter 18 of "The Tao of Democracy" by Tom Atlee
Nonviolent Communication and the deep human needs of individuals -
"Random selection of citizens for technological decision making" by Lyn Carson and Brian Martin
Supermajority voting -
Preferential voting -

7. Look to positive possibilities and assets. Learn what's going on the creative leading edges and/or sense into it with those involved. Recognize that important positive possibilities almost always show up first on the margins of our thinking or our society. Use "positive deviance" to find out who is dealing well with the situation, and how they can help handle it broadly. Practice Appreciative Inquiry to explore what has worked in the past, and visioning and scenario work to explore what might best serve life in the future. Use practices like Dynamic Facilitation and Future Search and principled negotiation to turn oppositional energy into the discovery of positive possibilities. Ask "What is possible now?" and "Where is the life energy in this situation?" Assume that the resources to resolve the situation exist - albeit latently - within the community or system involved. Ask them, "What strengths, skills, and resources do you have to offer here?" It is wise to notice and creatively engage existing energies and resources and to tap the power of people's aspirations. Some excellent resources are:

"Engaging Emergence" by Peggy Holman
"What is Appreciative Inquiry" -
Dynamic Facilitation -
Future Search -
Positive deviance -
Theory U -
Asset Based Community Development -
The Oasis Game -

8. Encourage healthy self-organization and learning. In every situation - especially when things are problematic - there are energies and entities trying to resolve it, to move it forward, or to play their own creative role. In most cases, we can help all these generate collective wisdom, using well designed forms of invitation, participation, and collaboration. We can use powerful open-ended questions and conversations, Open Space conferences, open source and crowd-sourcing activities, games and incentives, market structures* and democracy -- all approaches that help people interact productively, learning and adapting as they go, passionately pursuing what interests them without undue management or pre-determined outcomes. We do this because wisdom tends to arise from a life-serving balance between order and chaos. To the extent things are working well, it makes sense to support status quo values, habits and order. To the extent things aren't working well, disturbances tell us that something needs to change. In such challenging situations, if we embrace disturbance and free people's passion and vision into it, we release innovation, learning and transformation, generating creative chaos from which new order can emerge that better meets the new needs. When we're using this self-organization approach, we're not focusing on problems. We're trying to arrange things so that people, groups, communities, societies, and other living systems can learn and solve problems for themselves. For a variety of perspectives on self-organization, see the following:

Open Space Technology -
"The Power of Questions" by Tom Atlee -
"The Birth of the Chaordic Century" by Dee Hock -
"Complexity" by M. Waldrop
Permaculture -
Self-organization -
"Nine Laws of God" by Kevin Kelly -

(* Note that large market structures generate wise outcomes only to the extent that all the social and environmental costs are embedded in the prices of the goods and services.)

9. Co-create accessible, relevant, accurate, full-spectrum knowledge. Fundamental to every one of these principles is people's ability to know what's important - including both awareness of important information and ability to discern the relative quality and importance of specific information in the informational sea that surrounds us all. Data, information, knowledge, and ideas underlie both individual and collective intelligence. Intelligence weaves them into understanding. The scope, depth and appropriateness of our understanding generates wisdom. Collective wisdom requires a healthy flow of information and insight, and thus the freedom, tools, and cultural attitudes that support that flow. So wisdom in public decision-making is nurtured to the extent we co-create the capacity of the society to generate, share, understand and modify full-spectrum knowledge. It involves the health and freedom of many diverse realms: education and other learning systems; journalism and other intelligence gathering and storytelling functions; multi-directional, multi-modal communications technologies, not only media and digital, but conversational methods and information presentation and processing approaches; research, experimentation, and other forms of intentional inquiry; respect for both expertise and lived experience; networking, crowd-sourcing and other collaborative knowledge-building systems; public relations and framings that expand rather than pollute public understanding; institutional transparency, protection for whistleblowers, limits on political money and media monopolies, and other policies and activities that promote freedom of information and impede concentrations of social power that can distort or repress information flows.... Furthermore, all these things should function in ways that help society - and particularly those involved in public decision-making - to clearly see the results of public decisions, so there can be collective learning from collective experience. Finally, wisdom requires a healthy relationship with both knowledge and uncertainty - humility, curiosity, information literacy (insight into the gifts and limitations of any information), perspective, and an ability to entertain and find deeper insight through opposites, paradoxes and mysteries. These are usually thought of as individual traits but can be promoted as qualities of a group's or a society's culture. Although the task of achieving a society with high quality information, knowledge and wisdom dynamics is a daunting long-term proposition, knowledge environments that are vastly better than usual can be created to support citizens, stakeholders and officials who have been given special decision-making roles on behalf of the larger society. A few resources that highlight different aspects of this vast territory include:

The work of Edward Tufte -
"Framing for Deliberation" by Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman -
Journalism that Matters -
Wikipedia -
Argument mapping -
Public Relations -
"Waking up to Wholeness, Dialogue, and Mystery" by Tom Atlee -
Holopticism -

If we want to have wiser societies we need to use, support, and institutionalize dynamics like these in our decision-making, problem-solving, and vision-pursuing activities. Furthermore, we need to eliminate or transform the social, economic, and political dynamics that block these wisdom-producing capacities. We need less ignorance-generating PR and more engaging ways to understand what's really going on. We need less divisive partisan battles and more ways for We the People to come together in all our diversity to create the world we really want. We need less concentrated economic and media power and more crowd-sourced engagement to build strong commons, resilient communities, productive conversations and shareable delight. We need less self-righteousness in science, religion, and politics and more bridge-building within and between these great human ways of finding our right relationship with life. We need fewer efforts to control and more efforts to partner. We need fewer silos, boundaries and bottom lines and more compelling intergenerational, interfaith, intercultural, interdisciplinary interactivity on behalf of the shared Life that is greater than any of us.

Complex living systems have an imperfect but natural capacity to generate wisdom relevant to their survival and thrival. That capacity can be distorted, thwarted, abused and co-opted - or it can be recognized, supported, enhanced, and institutionalized -- by our social structures, economic incentives, political systems and cultural narratives and practices. How well do we go about doing the nine things listed above? Doing them well will generate greater collective wisdom. Doing them poorly will generate greater collective folly. I suggest that these nine things, in all their diverse forms, deserve to be high priority targets for the transformational attention of change agents. They are all high leverage strategies. The populations and life energies of our world CAN be freed up and empowered to become more collectively wise.

E.O. Wilson, in the rest of the statement quoted at the beginning of this essay, said, "The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely." I think he is right, as far as he goes. Yet, in my view, he focuses too much on wise individuals and the top-down leadership and management dynamics that go along with that focus.

So I offer this modification of his insightful prediction:

If civilization is going to survive and thrive,
it will soon be run by synthesizing systems.
Society will be set up so that people -
individually and together -
can put together the right information
at the right time,
think clearly and creatively about it,
discern the larger, deeper patterns involved
and, based on those larger patterns,
discover new choices
that make their world more alive and beautiful
for themselves and the great, great, great
grandchildren of all living things that will follow them.

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