Ramu Iyer - 3 years 9 weeks ago
Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee and George Pór
by Tom Atlee, in collaboration with George Pór
This paper was prepared as a pre-reading for Evolutionary Salon 2; Jan. 14-18, 2006. Go here to see more .
Intelligence is the ability to interact successfully with one's world, especially in the face of challenge or change. Human intelligence involves making, modifying, and applying effective mental models -- a process we refer to with words like learning, problem solving, planning, visioning, intuition, understanding, creativity, etc. Many theorists see other capabilities as intelligences or aspects of intelligence, such as relationship skills (emotional intelligence), physical competence and responsiveness (kinetic or bodily intelligence), "street smarts," and "business savvy."
As we seek ways to generate more effective groups, organizations, institutions, healthy communities and sustainable societies, it will help us to explore collective intelligence and how it can address the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century.
What collective intelligence is
Collective intelligence is older than humankind itself. Here is a broad, straightforward definition:
Collective intelligence is any intelligence that arises from -- or is a capacity or characteristic of -- groups and other collective living systems.
We see primal forms of collective intelligence at work in the synergies and resilience of ecosystems, as an aspect of "the intelligence of nature." It becomes even more obvious in groups of social animals like ants, bees, certain fishes and birds, and many mammals, including wolves and primates. Members of the first human groups shared with those predecessors in the evolutionary chain the instinct to combine their respective information and expertise to meet survival tasks they could not possibly meet separately.
Language and tools are both expressions of those early forms of collective intelligence, and enablers of its evolution to new stages capable of absorbing more complexity. In today's world, collective intelligence serves diverse functions, comes in diverse forms, and has many diverse names. For example, there is statistical collective intelligence, also known as the "wisdom of crowds" (named after the book with the same title), in which people simply "act in their own self-interest by playing the game to win", and their compounded decisions keep markets running in a self-organized way. This is a useful example because markets can also generate disasters, so it behooves us to understand what is needed for collective intelligence to be benign.
Collective intelligence and the human condition
When we carefully investigate the problems we face in the world today, we seldom find that individual evil is a central cause. More often we find basically good, intelligent people collectively generating discord and disaster -- in families, groups, organizations, nations and the world. Meanwhile, in their own lives, from their own perspective (and usually that of their loved ones), most of them are doing perfectly good, decent things.
Think about the best and worst meetings you've attended. Think about Congress or Parliament. Think about how activist groups and corporate boards make decisions. Think about how the Bush administration planned for the Iraq war -- and what happened then.
All around us we see evidence that groups of people are often less intelligent -- and occasionally more intelligent -- than their members are as individuals. This is collective intelligence and collective stupidity at work.
Collective intelligence and collective stupidity have little to do with how smart the individual members of a group are. Groups of very bright people can be collectively stupid (a phenomena Irving L. Janis called "groupthink") -- whereas very ordinary or dull people can, under the right circumstances, generate real wisdom.
Clearly individual intelligence is not enough. And neither is simple collected intelligence -- individual intelligences added together. If we wish to successfully deal with the various social and environmental challenges we face today, we need to develop far more collective intelligence as a society and as a global civilization -- and then apply it with wisdom.
Collective intelligence and wisdom
As is clear from the operations of many markets, political systems, and organizational activities, collective intelligence is not necessarily wise. In relation to intelligence, wisdom can be viewed as an expanded perspective and motivation that embraces more of the whole of the situation being considered. Collective intelligence is wise, then, to the extent it successfully embraces whole systems in all their complexity and contexts; the interests, capacities and perspectives of all stakeholders and of the systems, themselves; full, relevant, and nuanced information about the situation; the whole of who we are as human beings; any emergent realities and creative possibilities; and so on. The more that intelligence -- whether individual or collective -- embraces the whole of relevant reality, the more wise we can consider it to be.
Collective intelligence as an evolutionary capacity
We can view collective intelligence through a developmental perspective that suggests we can and should evolve towards greater wisdom. A particular form of collective intelligence can be said to be more evolved than others to the extent it successfully addresses more of the inherent complexity in the situations it encounters, and can increase its capacity to do so in subsequent situations. In this evolutionary context, we can describe collective intelligence as follows:
Collective intelligence is the capacity of human communities to evolve towards higher order complexity and harmony, through such innovation mechanisms as differentiation and integration, competition and collaboration.
The capacity of groups to evolve is a compound capacity and can be augmented by activating any or all forms and functions of collective intelligence, in any of the realms in which it is defined.
Practitioners, students and advocates of collective intelligence can advance the evolution of this shared field by remembering that all forms/levels/fields of collective intelligence (see below) co-exist and contribute. One does not replace the others, any more than TV replaced radio or the internet replaced TV -- although later forms do change the context and role of earlier forms.
Why the "collective intelligence" meme is rising so rapidly
The idea of "collective intelligence" is spreading through hundreds of thousands of web pages that contain it, numerous books, professional meetings, online discussions, and informal conversations. 25 years ago hardly anyone was talking about it. As of November 2005 "collective intelligence" is such a common a phrase that Google lists over 500,000 pages using it (up from 50,000 a year ago) -- as well as hundreds of thousands of other pages using comparable terms like "collective IQ," "collective wisdom," "community intelligence," "group intelligence," and so on.
People are talking about a truly amazing number of different kinds of collective intelligence and different perspectives on the subject. The explorations of this topic are becoming more sophisticated every year.
Why is this happening? -- and why now? We suggest that, as complexity and crises increase, more people and institutions are recognizing that our collective intelligence -- at every level, and especially in its wiser forms -- has tremendous potential to produce positive change and even turn major breakdowns and crises into evolutionary breakthroughs.
Thus collective intelligence is a holy grail of social change and social creativity. 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.
Eight Forms of Collective Intelligence
There are many different kinds of collective intelligence, including
- the collective intelligence generated by high quality conversations among diverse people working together (ParticipatoryPractices)
- the collective intelligence generated by independent participants in markets and contests (wisdom of crowds)
- the collective intelligence of birds flocking, ant colonies self-organizing, and jazz musicians jamming "in the groove" (teamwork)
- the collective intelligence of global information systems weaving the knowledge of humankind into one fabric (super-organism)
- the psycho-spiritual fields of collective intelligence we can reach through meditation and deep dialogue (collective wisdom initiative)
- the collective intelligence of whole societies who weave all of these into their cultures and into their political, governmental and economic institutions.
For more information on these, see Collective Intelligence blog.
System levels of human collective intelligence
Human collective intelligence manifests differently at different levels of human system. Some human systems whose collective intelligence we can observe and nurture are the following:
- Individual collective intelligence (among our own internal subjective parts and voices)
- Interpersonal / relational collective intelligence
- Group collective intelligence
- Activity collective intelligence
- Organizational collective intelligence
- Network collective intelligence
- Neighborhood collective intelligence
- Community collective intelligence
- Citywide collective intelligence
- County / shire collective intelligence
- State / province collective intelligence
- Regional collective intelligence
- National / societal collective intelligence
- International collective intelligence
- Global / species-wide (humanity's) collective intelligence
Emerging and converging fields involving collective intelligence.
The following fields of study and practice have an emergent, leading edge quality to them and, at the same time, seem to be overlapping more and more, and even converging into an increasingly coherent understanding of the collective intelligence of whole systems, and of Life as a whole. Increasingly, these fields are using methodologies, language, metaphors and narratives from each other to support and describe what seem to be manifestations of the same patterns in different realms and at different levels.
We can further the evolution of our cultures towards becoming a multicultural global wisdom society by supporting these and other such diverse fields to discover each other, talk together and collaborate.
- "Group magic," especially through dialogue or attunement (e.g., collective meditation), including all the methodologies of healthy group co-creativity
- Self-organization theory and methods -- including chaos and complexity theories, living systems theory (including cybernetics, ecology, permaculture and evolutionary biology), network theory, the "invisible hand" of the market, "swarm intelligence" and flocking behavior, etc.
- Social/transpersonal applications of the new sciences, particularly quantum and field theories, such as morphogenic fields and synchronicity
- Transpersonal and Jungian psychology, non-dualistic spirituality, psychic phenomena and other studies of psycho-spiritual phenomena beyond the individual ego
- The dynamics of collective behavior studied by social psychology
- Efforts to revitalize community and democracy, including public participation, deliberative democracy and creative forms of spiritual politics, community organizing and nonviolent activism
- Open source challenges to the proprietary confinement of knowledge, innovation and co-creativity in software, the arts, business, etc.
- Open Source Intelligence challenges to the over-dependence on spying and secrecy which neglects public sources of information and inhibits cross-fertilization of intelligence not only in government but in society at large
- Information, communication and knowledge systems (usually computer-based or -enhanced) (most of the "global brain" theories are grounded here)
- Theories that expand our understanding of intelligence and cognition -- both individual and collective -- including some leading-edge educational theories
- The 21st century imperative for transformaton, evolution and wisdom (driven by global crises and often based in spirituality) -- and our growing understanding of the dynamics of transformation and evolution. This relates to the human potential movement, especially as it expands into social and collective human potential.
- Participatory and collaborative practices in all sectors and for all reasons
- The study and use of "decision markets" (systems for aggregating the independent actions, bets or estimates of hundreds of people) -- for prediction, fact-guessing and pattern-clarification (e.g., Amazon.com's "people who bought this also bought that" function)
- Holistic studies of all types, including general exploration of the nature of wholeness, the relationship between parts and wholes, and holistic patterns like fractals, holographs, and holons.
- Group and organizational dynamics, particularly studies of "groupthink" as well as the theory and practice of learning organizations, teams, communities of practice, and similar approaches to organizational development, innovation, and transformation
- Work involving the many manifestations of human difference -- including conflict, polarization, stakeholders, personality types, cognitive styles, socially charged "diversity" (race, gender, class, etc.), and so on -- and the role of diversity, in general, in living systems
Some functions of collective intelligence
Collective intelligence can:
- support the healthy functioning of groups and communities
- sustain and revitalize societies and cultures
- increase innovation, productivity and profit for companies
- heal conflicts and solve social and environmental problems
- bring breakthroughs, insights and inspiration to individuals and groups
- provide broad-spectrum, widely available, continually evolving information
- sense emerging futures and predict events better than experts
- ameliorate collective stupidities like “groupthink” and “mob rule”
- help groups learn, and improve collective awareness and behavior
- facilitate the emergence of new social forms and functions
- develop into a “global brain” or “noosphere”
- evoke significant transpersonal experiences in people.
The "field" of collective intelligence
When some of us involved with this subject began speaking of "convening the field of collective intelligence," we ran into the fact that there are two definitions of field.
1. "an area of human activity or interest" or "a topic, a subject, or an area of study, practice, or academic specialization" (as in "the field of psychology" or "the field of city planning").
2. "a physical, social and/or psycho-spiritual space which contains information and power capable of effecting what is within it" (as in "electromagnetic field" or "morphogenic field").
It is obvious from what we have said so far that the first definition applies: "Collective intelligence" is definitely a field of interest, study and practice. Its rapid growth in so many quarters also suggests there is a zeitgeist -- a spirit of the times or meme field -- which all this activity is generating and being influenced by -- which is more within the realm of the second definition. So one could legitimately "convene the field" by connecting and convening people from all these different activities and/or by communicating integrative messages into the vast social space they already occupy and/or by engaging directly -- psycho-spiritually -- with the field of consciousness associated with all this activity.
This pattern is also reflected in certain diverse views about group work, group magic, and group intelligence. Some people see this magic and intelligence arising out of dynamic synergies between diverse group members, so they tend to focus on the group's diversity and the quality of its interaction and dialogue. Others see the group's magic and intelligence as coming from outside the group, from a higher intelligence, or from a field of intelligence in which the group is embedded, of which it is a part. Practitioners who hold this latter view tend to focus on the ability of the group to be receptive and to attune to each other and to the larger intelligence they seek to relate to. Dialogue, if it is practiced at all, is in service to that attunement; and often practices like meditation, prayer, "presencing" or "attending to the center" take precedence.
When presented with this dichotomy, whole systems practitioner Peggy Holman suggested, "This is a case of particle and wave. The first perspective sees the group in terms of its particles, or people, interacting. The second sees the group intelligence as a field phenomenon. Particle and wave. Both are always present. However, as in physics, which you see depends on how you set up the experiment."
You will find rich although far from exhaustive collections of the diverse forms, functions, and definitions of collective intelligence -- and much more -- in the articles listed on co-intelligence.org.