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.
Some Forms of Collective Intelligence
REFLECTIVE (dialogic) CI – People think together, using dialogue and deliberation. They find and share information, critique logic and assumptions, explore implications, create solutions and mental models together. Their diversity, used well, helps them overcome blind spots, ignorance, and stuckness. They see a bigger, more complete picture with more complexity and nuance, and develop better outcomes than they could alone. Most of this can be readily explained in terms of cognitive synergies among the participants.
STRUCTURAL (systemic) CI – Social systems are built that support intelligent behaviors on the part of the system as a whole and/or all its members. For example, the Bill of Rights supports creativity, free flow of information, and maintenance of diversity — all of which support collective intelligence. Quality of Life indicators guide national economic activity more intelligently than the wholly monetized Gross Domestic Product statistic. Chairs placed in circles support equity and sharing in ways impeded by chairs placed in rows.
EVOLUTIONARY (learning-based) CI – Organisms, species, ecosystems, and cultures are made of patterns of relationship that have “worked” over long periods. These co-evolved, built-in success-patterns contain embedded wisdom often used automatically, but which are also available for analysis and deeper learning. We can look at them as manifestations of learning — or perhaps of “evolving coherence.” Evolving coherence is perhaps most consciously pursued in the careful, grounded, ongoing collective inquiries of science, but we can also find it in any shared learning effort, an endeavor institutionalized in academia. Evolving coherence is also characteristic of morphogenic fields — the living habit-fields of life which arise from our collective experience and shape our consciousness and behaviors. Any patterns evolved (understandings learned) become part of the informational CI, below.
INFORMATIONAL (communication-based) CI – The flow of information through communication channels and the widespread gathering and persistent availability of information in databases (including libraries, newspapers, etc., as well as the Web — and morphogenic fields) means that knowledge that is created or recorded in one place and time is available to others in other places and times. Universal access to information informs the activities of diverse, dispersed people beyond their individual data-gathering capacities. In society, this form of collective intelligence has been aided in the last century by telecommunications and computer technologies, as it was centuries ago by the invention of printing. To a large degree, the informational sea we live in empowers the routine collective intelligence of our society or subculture. In fact, the complexity of modern society makes most information-gathering intrinsically collective (through scientists, statistical enterprises, journalism, etc.); any given individual simply cannot find it all out. Furthermore, our culture’s informational, narrative and morphogenic fields shape our awareness and behavior without our even knowing it. The dark side of the informational mode is the sea of unproven assertions and unexamined assumptions we experience as fact that, being unexamined, may be false or go out of date and — resisting change (evolutionary CI) — become the source of collective stupidity.
NOETIC (spiritual or consciousness-based) CI – Certain realms of human experience and cosmic reality are accessible primarily through altered/higher states of consciousness or esoteric practices. Psychic phenomena, the Akashic Record, the collective unconscious, group consciousness, the Maharishi effect, the Universal Mind, the Authentic Self, etc., all involve noetic realities with collective dimensions which offer insight, guidance, energy or power to those who can tap them. All these phenomena are grounded in “consciousness,” so we need to remember that “intelligence” is the capacity to learn new things and solve challenging problems. So the term “collective intelligence” may be most appropriately applied to the noetic mode when these higher/deeper realms are accessed by a group together such that the group’s subsequent understanding and activity are demonstrably intelligent. The noetic realm tends to be anchored in subjective experience, although there is growing objective evidence for various noetic phenomena. The noetic experience of CI is one of “accessing” or “attuning to” a pre-existing higher intelligence or awareness, rather than of co-creating a new emergent capacity through group synergy (as is the case in the reflective mode).
FLOW (mutual attunement-based) CI – When the boundaries between individuals vanish, become permeable, or fade into relationship or shared enterprise, a collective can think, feel, respond and act as one entity. This “group magic” is exemplified by — and experienced in — intense dialogue groups, high-functioning human teams and non-human collectives like flocks of birds. Basic forms of flow or flocking behavior are achieved by individuals following simple rules about their relationship to those around them, setting aside independence in the realms covered by the rules. This (flow, flocking behavior) happens even when the individuals are computer-generated agents like “boids” or “cellular automata.” More complex, creative forms of flow occur when conscious, distinct individuals are so attuned to each other that they can innovate and express their uniqueness in thoroughly appropriate/embedded ways, as with jazz improvisation. Flow may also be associated with mobs, groupthink and other dysfunctional collectives in which individuality, itself, is stifled or dissolved. But for our purposes the term collective intelligence is reserved for collective cognitive capacity and behavior that is highly functional. Flow is often a dimension of that. Extreme forms of flow manifest as mind-meld and collective consciousness (the global version of which de Chardin called The Omega Point) that may or may not be collectively intelligent. But core individuality is a resource for collective intelligence, providing diversity and creative energy. So flow can be understood as dissolving the boundaries, barriers and embattledness of individualism (ego) in order to better tap the powerful essence of individuality (true uniqueness and individual capacity) in the context of collective activity.
STATISTICAL (crowd-oriented) CI – In the presence of a goal, intention, inquiry or direction — and no skewing factors (e.g., deceit) — a high enough number of individuals will generate a remarkable level of collective problem-solving or predictive power, even in the absence of communication among them. This has been demonstrated in many cases of mass guessing, where the average guessed solution has proven superior to over 90% of the individual guesses. This can also be seen in ants whose almost random foraging is capable of rapidly finding food that can then be collectively accessed in very focused ways. Computer-generated entities also demonstrate this statistical intelligence: When the first-run-through maze-paths of about two dozen intelligent agents are superimposed over each other, the plot of the majority decision at each turn of the maze will often be a direct path through the maze — one that was not followed by any single agent. This form of collective intelligence — combined (often implicitly) with structural and other forms — is what some term “market intelligence,” Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
RELEVATIONAL (emergence-based) CI – “Relevation” is a term coined by quantum physicist and dialogue innovator David Bohm. It names the dynamic through which phenomena emerge (elevate) from potentiality (Bohm’s “implicate order”) into actuality (Bohm’s “explicate order”) by reason of their relevance to existing reality. Our inquiries and intentions can attract insights and solutions, often seemingly “out of nowhere.” As a form of collective intelligence this may be most vividly displayed by one person saying something and another person mis-hearing it in a way that provides them with some answer or insight. The answer, which was never spoken, relevated out of the space between them, drawn into existence by the second person’s desire to know that answer.
These eight forms of collective intelligence (and probably other forms as well) can manifest fairly independently, but in most cases several overlap and combine in a variety of ways. For example, high quality democratic deliberations (reflective CI) can be designed into a political and governmental systems (structural CI) — and those institutionalized deliberations can then do the subsequent design work (full merger of reflective and structural CI). Insight in deliberative groups (reflective CI) can come from higher sources of wisdom (noetic CI) or from communication or the Internet (informational CI) — and often through relevational CI, in either case. And, as mentioned, flow and statistical CI are governed by intentions and rules that can be shaped by the design elements of structural CI (such as Gross Domestic Product). The phenomenon called “hive mind” is mostly a combination of flow and statistical CI. Dialogue (reflective CI) is a great way to create new knowledge or examine assumptions (informational and evolutionary CI). Organizational vision efforts use informational and structural CI (the vision or mission of the organization) and often dialogue about the vision (reflective CI) to help the organization’s subsequent reflective, statistical and flow forms of CI manifest more naturally and coherently. And so on.
Different CI innovations will tend to focus on one or a few of these forms of CI — and there is need to continually explore how they all fit together. Those interested in social change will tend to focus on the first four which are most amenable to conscious shaping, while those interested in beingness will tend to focus on the last four as they are heavily experiential and nonlinear. Again, part of our challenge is to bring all these together in more productive ways.