As we explore ways to generate more effective groups, organizations,
institutions, and other human systems, it may help to begin by
taking a closer look at collective intelligence.
In my own experience, when I investigate the problems that
we face in the world today, I seldom find individual evil. I
usually 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. How can this be?
As you may have gathered already, I believe that individual
intelligence is not enough. 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.
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
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
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
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
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
In the pursuit of collective intelligence, organizations often
invest in many kinds of "team-building" approaches in
order to generate greater collaboration within groups. In Chapter
7, we will be describing a number of 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 (solonline.org), 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 chaor-dic 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 (chaordic.org)
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. 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 a longer story that we
will be exploring in Chapter 12. I believe that it offers some
ideas about avenues to explore if we wish to invite a deeper national
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. In Chapters 13 and 14 we will be taking an in-depth
look at citizen deliberative councils as a promising approach
for generating collective intelligence on a societal level. Many
types of these citizen councils have been used in at least sixteen
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 intelligence similar?
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
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
This idea combines only a few of the hundreds of approaches
that are currently available. I hope to show in this book that
there are 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
In the next chapter, we will look at a number of social innovations that allow
us to generate deeper democracy and greater collective intelligence
in our personal relationships, small groups, and larger groups.
This, in turn, can lay the groundwork for creating deeper democracy
in our social system.
Chapter 12 The
Chapter 13 Citizens
deliberate about public issues
Chapter 14 Citizen