Collective Intelligence as a Field of Multi-disciplinary Study and Practice
by Tom Atlee and George PÃ³r
In this paper we define intelligence as the ability to interact successfully with one's world, especially in the face of challenge or change. Human intelligence involves gathering, formulating, modifying, and applying effective knowledge -- often in the form of ideas, images, sensations, patterns of response and sense-making -- a process we refer to with words like learning, problem solving, planning, visioning, intuition, understanding, creativity, etc.
Anyone seeking to generate more effective groups, organizations, institutions, healthy communities and sustainable societies soon discovers that individual intelligence is an insufficient factor in their success. We need to explore collective intelligence and how it can address the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century. The global scale, interconnectedness, and potential impact of those challenges makes such exploration more than a matter of convenience and competitiveness. It is a matter of collective survival and potential evolutionary leaps.
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.
Primal forms of collective intelligence manifest in the synergies and resilience of ecosystems. This is often referred to as "the wisdom of nature", which "learns from its experience" through the interactive create-and-test dynamics of evolution. Collective intelligence becomes 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 evolutionary ancestors the instinct to combine their respective information and expertise to meet survival tasks they could not possibly meet separately.
Those early forms of collective intelligence gave rise to language and tools which, in turn, enabled new forms of collective intelligence to evolve that were 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
There are many forms, manifestation of CI, and correspondingly, many "tribes" of its practitioners. This is an abbreviated overview. A more detailed inventory by Tom Atlee can be found here.
a. Dialogic CI â€“ A diverse group of participants suspend their old mental models and engage in dialogue that values the emergent whole higher than its parts. Variations of this approach include Bohmian dialogue, "generative conversation" (Otto Scharmer) and "enlightened communications" (Andrew Cohen).
b. Co-evolutionary CI â€“ This form of CI builds on the power of such evolutionary mechanisms generating intelligence over time as trial and error, differentiation and integration, competition and collaboration, etc. Its examples include: ecosystems, sciences, and cultures.
c. Flow-based CI â€“ A group of people become so absorbed in a shared activity that they experience being completely at one with it and one another. Ensembles, high-performance sport teams, astronauts, and others in that state of communion, report on both an enhanced state of autonomy, and collective intelligence.
d. Statistical CI - Individuals thinking and acting separately in large crowds can reach successful conclusion about their collective cognitive, coordination or predictive challenges. Examples include the "intelligence" of markets and cases popularized in the "Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki.
e. Human-machine CI â€“ This form of CI leverages the synergy of the human mind and its electronic extensions, drawing on the best capacities of both. The "collective" includes symbiotic networks of humans and computers working together and developing compound capabilities. It can also support all other forms of CI.
This post is a seed for collaborative taxonomy development. I will follow and contribute to conversation ensuing it, as time permits.
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 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 culture(s) towards becoming a global wisdom society by supporting these diverse fields to discover each other, talk together and collaborate.
I suspect this list is not complete. I hope others will add new fields or emergent factors that they see as part of this convergence toward greater collective intelligence. But these are the ones that come to my mind at this point:
One of the most intriguing aspects of collective intelligence is its relative independence from individual intelligence. It is clear to most students of the field that a group of intelligent people will not necessarily manifest group intelligence. Nor will a coalition of intelligent groups necessarily add up to an intelligent coalition. Nor will making all organizations intelligent, by itself, produce a collectively intelligent society. The intelligence of the parts/individuals varies independently with the intelligence of the whole/collective.
Usually the difference is described in terms of cooperation. If the individuals cooperate, they can generate collective intelligence. Often the importance of collective resources or structures, like various forms of group memory (databases), are noted. These, and other analyses, are quite valid.
I sense something underlying them all, though. That is the presence of "the whole" in the life and functioning of "the parts." For example:
* If workers in an organization share a common vision and/or an understanding of the functioning of the entire organization, they tend to self-organize in more collectively intelligent ways.
* People who collaborate are doing so either because they believe in their shared work (the larger whole that embraces them all) or because there is a collaborative group ethic which lives in or among them strongly enough to structure their interactions.
* In decision-making bodies, having diverse information from all stakeholders which paints a more complex big-picture reality than any member came in with, and/or having a process that can help them deal with their diverse perspectives creatively so that they "encounter more of the whole" creatively, facilitates the emergence of collective intelligence.
* People who are collectively attuned to more inclusive, less fragemented realities -- including Quakers and certain practitioners of ego-transcendence -- tend to be able to more readily find high-quality common ground and shared energy, often in ways that feel more like the Whole is working THROUGH them or AS them.
For many years, I've felt that the essence of wisdom is wholeness. Wisdom, in all its forms, helps us deal creatively with more of the whole of life, of situations, of the people who sit across from us -- engaging more of their complexity, nuance, aliveness and fullness. It recently occurred to me that wisdom may be a concept within which to collect all the different factors that enable individual intelligence to manifest as collective intelligence. If wisdom is present at the individual level, or in the environment where the individuals are relating to each other, then it tends to expand their individuality into the "higher" (collective) levels where all those individualities can then manifest collectively as positive, intelligently coherent functioning.
This may be too abstract to be useful to others, but I expect to be exploring it further for my own purposes in the future. For what it's worth, here are some notes that summarize this thesis....
There are probably hundreds of factors we could identify as important for the generation of collective intelligence in different types of human system. We find these factors wherever we see collective intelligence being exercised, and when we support them (especially in combination) we often find collective intelligence increasing.
From my work with reflective forms of CI in groups, communities and societies, I find that about fifteen factors stand out most vividly, and I've listed them with brief descriptions here. As I tried to articulate them, I noticed how they overlapped and showed up as part of each other. So I expect as we develop this list further -- and I hope we do -- we will find these things are intimately interrelated. I further hope we will continually learn more about those interrelationships. That said, I think articulating such factors as if they are distinct gives us useful points of entry in our work to enhance collective intelligence.
With that purpose in mind, I invite you to add your own additions (and modifications) in the comments section below.
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 -- at least -- 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?
I have lately been receiving a lot of information on forms of and approaches to collective intelligence that do not fit within models I've been working with for the last fifteen years (that are largely deliberative). I am no expert on these other approaches, but encountering them has led me to brainstorm an annotated list of different forms to cover what I've seen so far.
I feel certain my list is not complete and that there are other ways of differentiating forms of collective intelligence, which I'd love to hear about. I intend this initial listing to be temporarily clarifying and stimulating and, hopefully, to trigger people to come up with new ways to map this terrain that better lay the groundwork for an evolving general theory of collective intelligence that embraces all variations.
Note that not all collective capacities are "intelligence." Occasionally CI overlaps with other capacities like collective consciousness or "power-with" -- capacities that can be characterized by collective stupidity OR collective intelligence. Furthermore, some dimensions of collective intelligence, like "flow," have collectively stupid manifestations (mobs) as well as collectively intelligent ones (high functioning teams). I will try to navigate these distinctions creatively here, but the reader should keep them in mind.
Note also that some phenomena that I have not included here could conceivably be included in this list. For example, are "networks" an intrinsic form of CI, or are they a pattern useful in developing CI? I have chosen the later categorization, but people more familiar with networks may be able to make a case for them as a distinct form of CI.