Notes on Factors in Collective Intelligence

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.

_ _ _ _ _ __ _
Some Factors Which Support Collective Intelligence
DIVERSITY – To the extent everyone is the same, their intelligence can’t collectively add up to something more than any of them individually. Diversity enriches possibilities, through increased information, perspective, stimulation, and re-combination, among other factors. The infinite forms of human diversity — class, personality, opinions, experience, cognitive style, etc. — are a study unto themselves; and all are relevant as potential contributors to CI. We need to concern ourselves with how we handle existing (presenting) diversity, and also with the inclusion of adequate diversity (e.g., the presence of certain stakeholders) for the purposes of a specific collectively intelligent activity. This valuing of diversity means that efforts at collective intelligence tend to have a bias towards inclusivity and all voices being heard (modified by “discernment” below). Included in this “diversity” factor are other forms of dissonance such as dissent, challenge, and change — as well as outsiders, fringe elements, “the Other,” “the Shadow,” and other normally rejected parts of the whole picture.
SYNERGY – Synergy is generative, productive relationship that produces a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It usually features cooperation but under the right circumstances can involve competition or even pitched battle. Synergy is the key factor the determines whether diversity leads to greater collective intelligence or collective stupidity.
COMMONALITY – Shared humanity, language, values, goals, purpose, ground rules, etc., provide common ground on which to stand while creatively using our diversity. If we hold too much in common (e.g. unexamined assumptions), or if we value commonality to the exclusion of diversity (i.e., conformity), collective stupidity (groupthink) will likely result. Shared purpose, vision and inquiry are among the most powerful tools for self-organization and, if other CI factors are in place, for collective intelligence.
AUTHENTICITY – To the extent people and things are what they appear, they can interact toward desirable outcomes. If part of the collective is deceiving another part, it is difficult for the whole to comprehend reality and find desirable outcomes. Furthermore, to the extent people are grounded in their deep authentic selves (rather than ego), they will also be grounded in universal realities and motivations which serve collective intelligence. Such grounding can be stimulated on an ad hoc basis by process and facilitation, or nurtured as a personal and group capacity by psychospiritual practices.
FREEDOM – To the extent parts of the collective are both connected and autonomous (independent), they will be able to manifest their diversity, authenticity and creativity as part of CI. One of the most valuable forms of freedom for CI is free flow of information.
FREE FLOW OF INFORMATION – Intelligence is closely tied to the processing of information. In collectives, information must be able to move from one part of the whole to other parts in order for this processing to happen well. This implies a level of openness which, in turn, is related to authenticity. Among the most powerful forms of information flow for CI is sharing the wisdom that emerges from the collective with the whole collective (a form of “feedback,” see below; see also “appreciation of complexity”).
MEMORY – Storage of information, knowledge, and experience accessible to all parts of the collective. While consciousness is possible without memory, functional intelligence is not. Social memory is stored and accessed through records (including databases and libraries), stories (including myths), media, educational activities, etc.
TRUST – Threats from other people undermine one’s authenticity, freedom, initiative, relationship and openness. For optimum collective intelligence, we should face significant challenges together in a context of minimal threat from each other. This sense of safety can be generated initially by culture, by agreements and by facilitation, and it grows through sharing and living safely through vulnerability.
DISCERNMENT – High intelligence requires high ability to discern differences, similarities and relevance, and to weigh potential outcomes in light of values and goals. Diversity (and other factors), used well, can enhance collective discernment by reducing blind spots. (Qualifier: To maximize the benefits of diversity, we can use “relevance-plus” which means including the full appropriate range of relevant information, inquiries, options, participants, etc., plus — ideally — some that are random or of borderline relevance.)
CHAOS/ORDER – Too much chaos destroys through dispersal. Too much order destroys though inflexibility. Life gravitates to the realm between order and chaos. Collective intelligence requires a healthy balance of order and chaos (structure and freedom, predictability and creativity, knowledge and uncertainty, convergence and divergence, etc.) or dynamics through which each can evolve into the other.
APPRECIATION OF COMPLEXITY – Diversity of data and information invites us to confront a more complex picture of reality. Seeing this as a resource — instead of resisting it through comfortable oversimplifications — is a resource for collective intelligence. This includes an ability to hold multiple-viewpoints, both/and logic, a tolerance for ambiguity and paradox, and insight into the fractal nature of reality in which patterns (including opposites) can contain each other at different levels of observation. It also involves contextual sensitivities such as cultural contexts, systems thinking and what we might call “depth of field” — deep time, deep place, deep causality, deep humanity, deep ecology, deep psychology, etc. — which strive to expand comprehension outwards towards the ideal “whole picture.” Visual representations that bring some coherence to complex situations, possibilities or arguments can provide a common ground for collective encounters with complexity.
FEEDBACK – Learning from experience involves outputs feeding back as inputs, especially feeding back the results of action as information for reflection or correction. All intelligence needs this dynamic, but it is particularly vital — and possible — with collective intelligence, thanks to the presence of multiple viewpoints and collective means for gathering feedback.
POSSIBILITY-TESTING – Any means that can be used to help people consider diverse options and scenarios in light of their values and goals can enhance collective intelligence. This includes not restricting deliberations to one or two proposals and pro/con thinking, but openly exploring choices and their consequences.
PEOPLE FEELING FULLY HEARD – More than anything else, this opens people up and reduces dysfunctional assertiveness and defensiveness. It is essential for dialogue, and some facilitation methods focus on it.
POWER EQUITY – If any parts or members of the collective have the power to dominate the system, the chances are high that diversity, information, freedom, feedback and many other factors needed for collective intelligence will be degraded. Social power comes in many forms which cannot be mechanically balanced, but the non-domination test can warn us when we have wandered too far from equity. In democratic political systems, this factor can be addressed by making any necessary concentration of power answerable to those over whom it is exercised.

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4 Responses to Notes on Factors in Collective Intelligence

  1. Scott Hess says:

    Great thanks to Tom Atlee for his clear and graceful thinking, and for alerting me to this deep subject and excellent website. I think there is a rapidly rising awareness , that Collective Intelligence is our only hope in dealing with the extreme challanges we face as a species. It is becoming so obvious that learning the practical skills for tapping into and empowering CI are of utmost importance at this Moment.
    Scott Hess
    Petaluma, CA


  2. Joan Conway says:

    Yes, indeed, when/if we can relate and perform with collective intelligence, I believe that we might be better able to cope with the chaos and complexity of 21st century living. What and where are these practical skills?
    I can relate very warmly to Tom Atlee factors for supporting collective intelligence, but in the main they remain rhetoric if we do not have the means for making them the ‘every day’ lived experience. Any suggestions/guidelines?


  3. Tom Atlee says:

    These are underlying principles, Joan. Democratic theory — particularly deliberative democratic theory — is among the approaches that bridge these principles into practice.
    If you are interested in hundreds of practices that support and realize such principles to a greater or lesser degree, visit the section on ParticipatoryPractices. Read about dynamic facilitation, wisdom councils, citizen deliberative councils, nonviolent communication, knowledge mapping and dozens of others.
    It is a big realm of theory and practice which is slowly discovering itself as a single field. The “collective intelligence” framing is one effort to make sense of the whole thing.


  4. Pingback: Collective Intelligence | minhdao81

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