Here is a list of human systems which I think of as being capable
of collective intelligence. It is, of course, only one possible
list of this kind. Note that these are HUMAN systems. Other organisms,
social species and ecosystems -- and even computer systems -- are
also capable of collective intelligence.
The systems on this list may share certain characteristics, but
they also may have different characteristics. Hopefully someday
we will know more about this and be able to talk clearly and usefully
about collective intelligence dynamics in each of these human systems,
and the relationships between them.
At the very least, right now, we can be conscious of the level(s)
or system(s) we're focusing on, and realize that others may be focusing
on other levels or systems -- and that that may be a significant
reality. My own focus has been on community and whole society collective
intelligence. A tremendous amount of work has been done on collective
intelligence in organizations, because corporations have the funds
and motivation to support such work. What sorts of higher collective
intelligence are most vital for our survival and thrival as a civilization?
What needs to happen for those sorts of collective intelligence
to evolve and grow rapidly?
After the list, you will find some examples of collective intelligence
at various levels of society.
Some Human Systems in which We Can Observe and Nurture
INDIVIDUAL collective intelligence (collective intelligence among
our own internal subjective parts and voices)
INTERPERSONAL / RELATIONSHIP collective intelligence
GROUP collective intelligence
ACTIVITY collective intelligence
ORGANIZATIONAL collective intelligence
NETWORK collective intelligence
NEIGHBORHOOD collective intelligence
COMMUNITY collective intelligence
CITY collective intelligence
COUNTY/SHIRE collective intelligence
STATE/PROVINCE collective intelligence
REGIONAL collective intelligence
NATIONAL / WHOLE SOCIETY collective intelligence
INTERNATIONAL GROUP/NETWORK/ORGANIZATION collective intelligence
GLOBAL HUMANITY collective intelligence
Examples of Collective intelligence at Different Levels
Given the central importance of collective intelligence, let us
take a closer look at this phenomenon. The following examples show
how collective intelligence might be applied at a variety of levels:
in groups, organizations, communities, states, and whole societies.
An individual IQ test compares individuals' 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.
In a classic experiment, group intelligence was measured 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. [Lafferty and Pond,
The Desert Survival Situation, cited in Marilyn Loden, Feminine
This example also shows how collaborative intelligence can enhance
a group's collective intelligence. 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
status, they are much more able to generate collective intelligence.
In the pursuit of collective intelligence, organizations often
invest in many kinds of "team-building" approaches in
order to generate greater collaboration within groups. There are
also many simple, low-cost approaches that can be used to help neighborhood,
community, and activist groups develop greater collaborative
and collective intelligence.
Can a whole organization exhibit intelligence? In November 1997,
750 forest service employees used a technique called Open Space Technology to create, in just
three days, a shared vision of change, including action plans. The
vision that this group generated covered all facets of forest service
activity, and the employees were genuinely excited about implementing
the action plans they themselves had developed. This one-time exercise
had a lasting effect upon the larger system.
Several organizations and networks, such as the Society
for Organizational Learning, research and promote the capacity
for organizational intelligence by helping corporations build a
culture of ongoing, high-quality dialogue that examines the whole-system
dynamics in and around the organization. Just as group intelligence
depends on things such as group process, organizational intelligence
depends on organizational factors. These factors range from an organizational
culture that promotes dialogue to organizational memory systems
(files, records, databases, minutes, etc.). They include systems
that collect and utilize feedback (learning inputs) from inside
and outside the organization, as well as efforts to understand the
feedback dynamics (cycles and interdependencies) that govern the
organization as a living system. 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
One particularly interesting innovation is chaordic organization.
The term "chaordic" was coined by Visa co-founder
Dee Hock to describe complex, self-organizing systems that manifest
both chaotic and orderly qualities. In The Birth of the Chaordic
Age, he describes how a chaordic organization, such as the Internet,
is not so much a thing as a pattern of agreements about interactions
which help voluntary participants achieve certain shared goals or
visions, guided by certain agreed-on principles. Such organizations
provide workable alternatives to conventional command-and-control
structures. The Chaordic Commons is a
non-profit organization dedicated to making this work available
in the world.
As mentioned earlier, much of the research on how to generate collective
intelligence has taken place within the private sector. Unfortunately,
all too many corporations are still playing a destructive role within
our larger system, and are using their enhanced collective intelligence
to consolidate power and consume resources faster. This is in part
because society has yet to change the fundamental "rules of
the game," including how corporations are chartered and monitored.
Nonetheless, if we are to survive as a species, we need to apply
our knowledge of collective intelligence to larger and nobler ends
than profit. Our non-profit, community, and social change organizations
can improve their capacity for creating effective change by applying
the knowledge that has been gained about collaborative leadership,
whole-system planning, self-directed work teams, and a host of other
What would community intelligence look like? Perhaps we see a budding
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 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 solve problems, to learn together, and to generate a better
life right at home.
There are many other inspiring examples of the effort to develop
community intelligence. Many of these have been carried out using
the approach of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). This community
organizing approach does not directly address a community's problems
or treat citizens as clients in need of services from government
and nonprofit agencies. Rather, it sees citizens as assets and as
co-creators of their community. ABCD organizers help citizens discover,
map and mobilize the assets that are hidden away in all the people
who live in their community, as well as in the community's informal
associations and formal institutions. Those resources, brought out
of their isolation and into creative synergy with each other, are
then used to realize the community's visions. See John P. Kretzmann
and John L. McKnight's Building Communities from the
Inside Out or nwu.edu/IPR/abcd.html.
States and Provinces
A statewide 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 seven hundred approaches to deal with specific medical conditions,
and decided which should be given preference.
In general, approaches that were inexpensive, highly effective,
and needed by many people (which included many preventative measures)
were given priority over approaches that were expensive, less effective
and needed by very few people. Although clearly some people would
not get needed care under this system, it was pointed out that some
people did not 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.
Nations and Whole Societies
Admittedly, increasing the level of collective intelligence on
a national or societal level can be a daunting proposition. How
can we begin to involve everyone in a dialogue about the issues
we face, when working at such a large scale? I offer the following
paragraphs as a "preview" of an approach
described elsewhere on this site that offers some ideas about
avenues to explore if we wish to invite a deeper national dialogue.
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 had been scientifically chosen so that, together,
they reflected all the major sectors of public opinion in their
deeply divided country. Each of these people had accepted the invitation
to attend this weekend event, where they would be engaging in dialogue
with people whose views differed from their own strongly-held beliefs.
The dialogue was facilitated by Harvard University law professor
Roger Fisher, co-author of the classic Getting to Yes, and
two colleagues. These ordinary citizens had never engaged in a process
like this before. They started with widely divergent positions,
and little trust among them. The process took place under tremendous
time pressure, as well as under the eye of a camera crew from CTV
television who was recording the event for a special public-affairs
program. Nonetheless, these folks succeeded in their assignment
of developing a consensus vision for the entire country of Canada.
Their vision was published in four pages of fine print, part of
the thirty-nine pages that Maclean's devoted to describing
their efforts in their July 1, 1991 issue.
This experience was a very moving event for all who participated
in it or witnessed it. Maclean's editors suggested that "the
process that led to the writing of the draft could be extended to
address other issues." Assistant Managing Editor Robert Marshall
noted that earlier efforts, including a parliamentary committee,
a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens'
Forum on Canada's Future, all failed to create real dialogue among
citizens about constructive solutions, even though those efforts
had involved 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls and
mail-in reporting. "The experience of the Maclean's forum
indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would
be an extremely productive process."
The Maclean's experiment is a type of process that I call
a citizen deliberative council. These
councils are diverse groups, somewhat like a jury, who are called
together as a microcosm of "We the People" in order to
learn, dream, and explore problems and possibilities together while
the rest of society observes their deliberations. This approach
can dramatically change the political environment, as subsequent
government decisions are made in a context of greater public wisdom,
sophistication and consensus. Many types of these citizen councils
have been used in at least sixteen countries.
As we have seen, collective intelligence is a phenomenon that can
occur at various levels. Yet, what do all of these examples of collective
intelligence have in common? What makes all these forms of collective
Inclusion and the Intelligence of Democracy
At all levels, from groups to whole societies, the degree to which
various perspectives are included increases the collective intelligence
of the whole. Collective intelligence increases as it creatively
and constructively includes diverse relevant viewpoints, people,
information, etc., into collective deliberations.
Historically, practical considerations have allowed everyone's
voice to be heard only in small groups, such as town meetings. In
its ideal form representative democracy was imagined to provide
legitimate, manageable small groups (legislative, administrative
and judicial bodies) through which (at least theoretically) the
voices of whole populations could be channeled. 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.
But there is good news: Simultaneous with this development, humanity
has been developing powerful tools which could solve these problems.
For example, the citizen deliberation councils described earlier
could be combined with sophisticated use of media, especially telecommunications
and powerful group processes
that foster the creative use of diversity.
Furthermore, the national councils could be used to spark more and
better dialogue at the local level.
This idea combines only a few of the hundreds of approaches that
are currently available. This website describes many social innovations
that we could weave together in a variety of ways to create remarkable
enhancements to our present system. If we take this challenge, I
believe we will find ourselves poised on the edge of our next evolutionary
leap in democracy-not just as an alternative to tyranny, but as
an inclusive path to society-wide collective intelligence and wisdom.
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