Collective Intelligence

CollectiveIntelligence is the intelligence we generate together through our interactions and our social structures and cultures. Inclusiveness (finding effective ways to include all of the parts of the larger whole) and the creative use of diversity are two key elements for increasing collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence means that families, groups, organizations, communities and entire societies can act intelligently as whole, living systems. What we believe, what we do, and how we organize our collective affairs can make or break our collective intelligence. We could improve our collective intelligence to a point where humanity not only survives and flourishes into the foreseeable future, but also consciously evolves.

Now more than ever we need to be in active conversation with others. No one can do it alone. We need access to our collective intelligence to address the questions that are critical to our common future [and to] make our collective intelligence visible to ourselves and each other on a larger and larger scale.
:- The Cafe Collaborative,

Overview and vision of collective intelligence

Many problems arise from 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.

Individual intelligence is not enough 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.

To date, much has been learned about how to develop collective intelligence within organizations - usually to help corporations become more competitive in the global market. Good work has also been done to increase collective intelligence in civil society at the community level, especially to deal with local environmental conflicts.

Yet comparatively little effort has been applied toward building collective intelligence in the public sector, for governance and social system design. In order to ensure our success as a species, we will need to apply what we have learned about collective intelligence to improve our capacity to create sustainable social, political, and economic systems that work well for everyone involved.

This much is clear: 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 and initiatives. Understanding collective intelligence can help us fulfill the original dream of democracy: the participatory determination of our collective fate.

Collective intelligence at different levels of society

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 Leadership ]

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 does.

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 innovations. .


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. Mc Knight's Building Communities from the Inside Out or . .

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 forty 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 Macleans Panel is one type of 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.


George Por runs a blog on Collective Intelligence at

Three entries by Tom Atlee on the basics of Collective Intelligence are posted there:

Notes on forms of collective intelligence

Levels/Realms of Human Collective Intelligence

Notes on Factors in Collective Intelligence



nurturance of both diversity and common ground/unity thoughtful inclusion of diversity of all kinds creative integration of diversity; designing for synergy high quality conversation; a culture of dialogue information/knowlege systems, including accessible, evolving collective memory systems feedback systems of all kinds respect for multi-modal intelligence (e.g. reason + heart + intuition + narrative + etc.) systems thinking attention to context support for interconnectedness, networking, community shared reality and stories accessible communication systems free expression intelligent integrations of and synergies between linearity and nonlinearity, order and chaos, individual group systems that support self-organization a culture of collaboration and participation power balances; peerness / equity; no controlling parasitism by a few parts of the whole systems and cultures of shared benefit expanded, exploratory sense of relevance good, generative questions and shared inquiries openness, honesty safety that doesn't suppress free expression or growthful challenge seeking consensus without compromise

Ci Questions

New Manhattan Project


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see where we are also listing similar practices

  --Michel Bauwens (Not signed in).....Sun Jan 31 00:53:33 -0800 2010

The Bohm Dialogue, especially Collective Reflection has significance for me in terms of artistic critique and dialogue.

If one wanted to connect this to Jungian thought I'd relate to that.

  --Srule Brachman (Not signed in).....Mon May 21 17:09:16 +0000 2012





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